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Radio Remington

A community-art project helps kids tell the story of their neighborhood

Photos by Jefferson Jackson Steele
Kira Isbert (left) interviews Alyssa Blankenship about her fears, as radio project intern Katherine Gorman facilitates.

By Chris Landers | Posted 11/11/2009

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Bruun founded the group in april 2005, and he says it has grown faster than he thought it would. Right now, Art on Purpose has shows up at the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, and art workshops going on at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The organization also runs an art leadership program with three Baltimore charter schools. The radio project, which is just starting its second year, is the newest program--sending kids out into the community, armed with tape recorders, to find neighborhood stories and document them.

"It's a focal point for a sense of neighborhood identity," Bruun says as he sits in a conference room in Art on Purpose's Woodberry offices. "It's community pride around their own stories, and the stories given shape and form. Especially in a city like Baltimore--a city of neighborhoods. You want to get those stories. We see that need, we see that potential."

Bruun is 46, with silver hair. He looks more the administrator than the artist, and the jargon of the non-profit grant-writing world slips into his speech easily. He came to Baltimore 22 years ago via a circuitous path that started in Denmark, where he was born, and led to grad school at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He's a painter, and was working as an exhibitions educator at the private Park School, setting up workshops and mounting exhibitions five years ago when he decided to start his own group.

"In a nutshell," he says, "you have the general public/community interests, and then you have the sort of rarefied air of art. I had grown increasingly aware of the existing gap between the rich ideas and the way of exploring those ideas through art, and the direct connection to the community and the issues that were being addressed by the art."

He started out with a fairly simple program: the group would lead a community workshop, then create an exhibition, and host an event to bring people out to see the art. The current exhibit at the Walters follows that model--starting with the museum's current exhibition of ancient Greek art, Art on Purpose developed a theme based on Helen of Troy, "the face that launched 1,000 ships."

"We were looking for the beauty of good works," he says, "people who through that kind of dedication and charisma are seen as heroes in the community."

Public schools nominated local heroes, and then created works of art to celebrate teachers, volunteers, and parents. The works are currently on display on the fourth floor of the Walters, ranging from Grecian-style urns to quilts to paintings. A school/community event drew 500 people. More importantly, Bruun says, it drew 500 people who "do not typically, of their own choice, go to the Walters on a beautiful Sunday." Next up, the Walters will exhibit Art on Purpose-facilitated works by immigrants and the homeless, telling their own versions of the wanderings of Odysseus. In another program, on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art, recovering addicts explore the themes of madness and addiction in the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

It's the job of Art on Purpose's small staff (one full-time employee, three part-timers, an intern from MICA, and a few teachers contracted throughout the year) to wrangle the various community projects and run the organization's art-leadership program, in which they work with middle- and high-school students after school in art workshops. The high-school students, in addition to making their own artwork, are trained to teach the middle-schoolers.

"So, the first half of the year is building their chops," Bruun says. "The second half is going into the workshops as mentors and teachers." The real goal, though, is getting the high school students ready to interview for jobs. Last year, Bruun says, out of 60 students, 12 subsequently found work, mostly teaching art or working at summer camps.

In that program, Bruun says, "We are building leadership qualities. In Remington, we're building civic engagement through their participation in audio, media, writing, drawing. They have a sense of ownership, a sense of responsibility."

One of the dangers for Bruun is allowing the programs to grow beyond what Art on Purpose's staff can handle. Working directly with neighborhood associations, there's a danger of getting too involved. One of the projects they undertook in 2006, called Real City/Dream City, asked residents what they wanted for their communities. Morrell Park wanted to build a pool. "There was such enthusiasm for it, that they almost wanted us to grab a shovel and start digging a hole," Bruun says, but Art on Purpose had to back away. "That's not our job."

Bruun himself will be leaving Art on Purpose next year. For the past six months, he says, he and the rest of the group have been wrestling with his coming departure: "What we've been forced to do is remove the process of running Art on Purpose from my head and putting it on paper."

Bruun is staying in Baltimore, but plans to return to his own art. "I feel very disconnected from the creative side of myself," he says. "I'm going to, for as long as I can afford, hole up in my studio to see what bubbles up."

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