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Mobtown Beat

Paul Darmafall


By Mike Giuliano | Posted 11/5/2003

If this city often seems like a collage composed of eccentric characters, Paul Darmafall, aka the Baltimore Glassman, qualifies as one of the most distinctive elements in the piece. A textbook example of an outsider artist, the self-taught Darmafall, who died Oct. 26 at age 78, had a life composed of distinct fragments: He worked in the coal mines of his native West Virginia, served in the Navy and participated in the Normandy and Iwo Jima invasions during World War II, was employed as a Bethlehem Steel machinist in Sparrows Point, worked as a bricklayer, and lived with his wife and children in East Baltimore's Armistead Gardens.

Many Baltimoreans of his generation may appear to have similar biographies, but what set Darmafall apart was both his history of mental illness going back to his early adulthood and his penchant for creating unique works of art with bits and pieces of debris he would pick up off the streets. By the time he was middle aged, Darmafall would leave his Armistead Gardens home for daily bicycle rides during which he scoured the streets of East Baltimore for the scraps of wood, shards of glass, and other found objects that he made into paint-, sparkle-, and text-enhanced collages.

Darmafall was a secretive man who at first kept his artwork from his family. He set up an outdoor studio in the woods near Pulaski Highway and Erdman Avenue where he would hang his elaborate collages on trees. During the 1970s, he made collages there whose figurative subjects included the Statue of Liberty, Christ on the cross, Al Capone, and Little Orphan Annie. He accompanied the images with sometimes mysterious word snippets like i stand to be corrected and the fresh air cure (the latter refers to Darmafall's love of fresh air and hatred of air conditioning). Long before they appeared on gallery walls, Darmafall hung these and other works in the woods around his studio or gave them away to friends and admirers including antiques dealer Marilyn Gabor.

Film and TV prop master Jeffrey Pratt Gordon helped Darmafall handle his sales, especially after he became more well-known to the world in the past decade. As artists and collectors around Baltimore, and eventually the world, came to know Darmafall, he earned the nickname the Baltimore Glassman. His art-world exposure locally included an exhibit at the Gomez Gallery in 1997 and a solo exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in 1999. His work also appeared in galleries and museums in New Orleans, Richmond, Va., and even Berlin. Darmafall's late-in-life recognition pleased those who knew him personally as a colorful individual and a man known for odd pronouncements and moody periods.

"He was definitely a Baltimore character," says Gordon, who is currently the assistant prop master for John Waters' new movie A Dirty Shame and owns 200 to 300 of the Glassman's pieces. "He'd say nonsensical stuff, but I make an effort to understand what I don't understand. I think [my wife] Shelbi and I really got to the core of who he was, and we made him feel comfortable."

Beginning in the late 1990s, Gordon allowed Darmafall to use his Washington Hill studio (which Darmafall took to calling "the Shop"), where he spent several days a week making his art.

"It was really exciting for me to sit and watch him work and realize how passionate he was about his beliefs," Gordon says (besides his hatred of air conditioning, Darmafall was afraid of electricity). "Although he was fairly cryptic at times and went off on schizophrenic tangents, it all made sense in the end."

In addition to making art, Darmafall liked to play the harmonica, plant potatoes in Shelbi Gordon's flower garden, or let Shelbi, a hair stylist, cut his hair next to a barbershop sign he made for her.

"He was a really sweet and driven man," Shelbi Gordon recalls. "He liked tramping around the garden planting potatoes in my flowers. He didn't believe flowers were good for much. He was more like Johnny Appleseed planting apples and potatoes."

Though he spent many hours in her company, she recalls with a laugh, "He never understood who I was. He thought I was Jeff's daughter. He'd call me 'that girl.' You just let it slide. He was on his own path of thinking, and it took time to get to know him. He could be moody, but he was pretty easygoing once he trusted you."

Even those who never knew Darmafall personally, such as Creative Alliance program director Megan Hamilton, recognize the value of his idiosyncratic artwork. Hamilton is the co-owner of "Cal Ripken Angel," a collage on plywood that incorporates magazine-photo imagery and glittery wings.

"One of the things I like about him is his use of glass," Hamilton says. "There is a dichotomy, because glass is colorful and pretty, but it's also sharp and dangerous. The same thing [occurs] in his language, in the words on his pieces that can be kind of wacky and even biting.

"He was one of Baltimore's greatest characters. Baltimore has a high tolerance for characters. The Glassman falls in that tradition of really extreme, almost reactionary characters. He was a cranky guy and the language of his art was cranky, but he was so prolific in working with found materials. That's why artists knew about him first and spread the word."

Darmafall's reputation and quirkiness will be carried into the future thanks to an approximately 60-minute-long documentary film that Woodberry-based filmmaker Todd Evans started working on when he was a University of Maryland, Baltimore County film student in 1992. Evans says he's been working on the film sporadically since then, and now it is finally nearly finished. He spent a lot of time hanging out with Darmafall and helped him overcome his wariness of electronics and of being photographed.

"At first, he didn't really like the electronics [involved in filmmaking], so he said, 'Start at your own risk,'" Evans says. "He felt electronics weren't a good thing. He didn't really appreciate [the filming] that much, but his personality was very magnetic. And as he warmed up to the idea, he started to loosen up a little. He'd talk to me and got used to the camera.

"He had a certain presence and just drew people in. He was driven to do [art], and yet he had a very playful personality also. A lot of humor was injected into the artwork. I could see people pulled into his personality as he talked about his messages and also told stories."

Many of those Glassman stories, as well as interviews with Glassman admirers, will appear in the film, the tentative title of which is borrowed from Darmafall himself: Fresh Air Cure.

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