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Feature

The Big Picture

Sam Holden
Painter Tony Shore (second from right) abandoned the New York gallery scene last year to return to his old Southwest Baltimore neighborhood and start the nonprofit community program access Art Inc.
Sam Holden
Aaron owens does his part for an art project developed by West Baltimore's Edmondson Community Organization.
Sam Holden
Edmondson Villagers Timothy Jackson (left) and Andre Conway work on their contributions to the community's "Memorial Park" Collage.
Sam Holden
Mosaicist "Spoon" Smith, who grew up in the Broadway Homes projects, divides his artistic time between personal work and community projects with the Urban Arts Institute, which he co-created in 1999.
Sam Holden
Mariah Madison shows off a self portrait in a class at Franklin Square Elementary School led by artist Bryant "Spoon" Smith.
Sam Holden
Devin Cook works on a tree-shaped mosaic for Franklin Square Elementary Students' "Enchanted Forest" project.

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 8/15/2001

It was something like the fence-painting scene from Tom Sawyer, relocated to Southwest Baltimore and updated to the year 2000. Artist Tony Shore had recruited a handful of Morrell Park Middle School students to paint a bright mural of the Chesapeake Bay on the dreary exterior walls of the school's trailer-size temporary classrooms. Stroke by stroke, the corridors between the barracks-like structures turned a bold blue; fish, sharks, a sea turtle took shape. "We did 14 walls with the funding that the [city] mural program gives you to do one wall," Shore chuckles.

One day a husky adolescent sauntered over from the playground and began to give Shore a hard time. "As I recall, he made some remark about my personal appearance," the artist says, discreetly recounting his introduction to Brian Reedy. Soon the 28-year-old painter and the 13-year-old boy were trading good-natured insults, a common ritual among the local youth. Having grown up in the neighborhood--Morrell Park Middle is his alma mater--the more experienced Shore quickly vanquished his young challenger, to choruses of laughter from the wall-painting crew.

"He was just testing me because I was the only grownup around," Shore recalls. "He came back the next day and asked if he could help with the painting."

Reedy, now 14, had never taken an interest in art before working on the marine mural. Since then, he says, he's filled three sketchbooks and "hundreds of pieces of paper" with drawings: first comic-book characters, then, at Shore's suggestion, sketches from life. "He came in with a drawing of his hand," Shore says, "and it was actually pretty good."

It's a story Shore has repeated many times when explaining his Pigtown-based program Access Art Inc. His goal is simple enough: to give interested kids in tough urban neighborhoods something creative to do, and places to do it. Depending on his audience, Shore can wax eloquent on the implications of such an enterprise. For example, he says, teenagers learn skills and self-esteem, develop positive relationships with adults and with each other. If nothing else, "It's a distraction from all the negative things going on in the community," Shore says. "The best way to keep kids off drugs is to keep 'em busy." That's no small matter in Morrell Park--Shore's young charges can glibly rattle off the street names of substances for sale along Washington Boulevard.

Although Access Art was incorporated just last fall, Shore can point to a half-dozen projects, completed and in progress, that have occupied his core group of nine teenagers over the past 15 months. More importantly, the work has had an impact on the kids, some of whom were already getting in trouble for inappropriate self-expression. (One boy accompanied Shore to meet with a prospective funder on the same day he was suspended from school for fighting.)

"Now my family sees me doing something interesting and good," Reedy says.

While Shore's neighborhood roots and his relationship with the kids--part teacher, part big brother--give Access Art a unique style, the program is by no means alone in getting young Baltimoreans involved in public art. In fact, it's a relative newcomer to a citywide scene that is itself just a few years old. Since 1997 a constellation of comparable projects has arisen in such disparate neighborhoods as Reservoir Hill, Highlandtown, McElderry Park, and Franklin Square, sponsored and funded by an array of nonprofit groups, schools, and foundations. Whether the end products are paintings, mosaics, or free-standing sculptures, what these efforts have in common is their use of the creative process as a social tool, a means of empowering individuals and strengthening communities. To judge from the number and diversity of the projects underway and in the pipeline, they seem to represent an idea--or a set of ideas--whose time has come.

Public art certainly ain't what it used to be. Baltimore earned its first nickname, "The Monumental City," by erecting stone memorials to civic and military heroes. Throughout the 19th century, public art commemorated powerful dead white men almost exclusively--the exceptions being those works that honored ordinary dead white men, such as the soldiers who died at the Battle of North Point in 1814. Statues of women and African-Americans began to appear in the second half of the 20th century. In 1964, City Hall started setting aside 1 percent of the public-building budget for artwork, giving rise to a plethora of works that decorate schools and firehouses throughout the city, mostly abstractions that communicate little to, or about, their host communities.

Then, in the 1970s, Mayor William Donald Schaefer's administration began to encourage mural-painting as a way to brighten up an increasingly dingy city. Community groups were involved in approving mural designs--as they still are, under the mural program run by the Mayor's Advisory Council on Art and Culture (MACAC)--but beyond that, murals were strictly the artists' products. Many, but by no means all, of the MACAC murals relate to local history or identity.

One measure of the degree to which host communities value their public art is vandalism. Some works have been hit repeatedly--particularly those that on their face seem to communicate least directly with the community. "Vandalism is visible on many works," John Dorsey, former art critic for The Sun, wrote in his introduction to the 1987 book Public Monuments and Sculpture of Baltimore, "and the more abstract ones seem most often the targets." Dorsey notes that many pieces were installed out of reach, and even made of bulletproof materials, to thwart attacks from unappreciative youth. Some neighborhoods shun murals entirely, residents believing them to be signals of decline, a sign that the city considers the community to be in need of sprucing up.

The notion of directly involving community members in the creation of permanent public art didn't crystallize overnight. Painter-turned-radio personality Bob Hieronimus, who executed a number of murals in Baltimore from the '70s to the '90s, says getting neighborhood residents involved in such works "seems like a natural thing to do," if only because "the chances of [the art] surviving without graffiti are upped enormously." In 1975, he invited other artists and an extended family of Lexington Market-goers to assist on one of his murals there, but their role was limited to filling in his design. As a creative auteur, Hieronimus found deeper community involvement to be fraught with artistic compromise. The now-threatened "A Little Help From Our Friends" mural at 33rd Street and Greenmount Avenue in Waverly (The Nose, Aug. 8, www.citypaper.com/2001-08-01/nose2.html) entailed months of committee discussions before all parties agreed on the historic figures and other icons to be depicted. "It was not," Hieronimus says, "a smooth, comfortable fit." The actual painting was carried out by three artists working under Hieronimus' supervision.

Today's new wave of collaborative public art calls for artists who come to the task understanding that process is paramount, and that the final products will be group expressions, with meanings and aesthetics that aren't entirely predictable. On those terms, the trailblazers in Baltimore appear to have been Mary Carfagno Ferguson, 53, an accomplished studio painter and self- described "middle-class white lady," and Patti Prugh, an art therapist who works for Sheppard Pratt Health Systems. Prugh, 50, had taken art therapy to the street with a mural (since demolished) created in the early '90s in collaboration with homeless women on 14th Street N.W. in Washington. Ferguson, 53, completed her first public mural in 1994, in Butcher's Hill, under the auspices of MACAC.

"That was the first time I got to see what a powerful thing working in public can be," says Ferguson, who moved to New York last year after 22 years in Baltimore. "I loved the interaction with people. There were times when I had a line of cars, with people wanting to stop and say something to me."

In 1995 Prugh and Ferguson took on a joint project, working with homeless women at My Sister's Place, a church-run day shelter across Mulberry Street from the Enoch Pratt Central Library. This collaboration yielded two very different murals. The dreamlike images in "The Magic Theater," adjacent to My Sister's Place, were culled directly from hundreds of drawings by homeless women, representing or symbolizing their experiences. All told, more than 20 women worked one-on-one with Prugh, Ferguson, and a small team of professionals. "They were taught art techniques right there on the wall," Prugh says. A second mural, "My Sister's Garden" (1997) at Centre and Cathedral streets, features hundreds of flowers, hand-painted by "a hard-core crew of about 10 women who were there every morning and went through the whole process from beginning to end," Prugh says. The latter mural had to pass muster with the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Architectural Review Committee, which had earlier rejected "The Magic Theater" for the same site. The flowers, besides being more acceptable to the surrounding community, are intended as beautiful symbols for the women who painted them, she says.

For Ferguson, such interactive projects came as a revelation. "We live in a society that's very alienated," she says. "We function in these separate little worlds. There's something about art that allows you to cut through."

With support from MACAC and the Open Society Institute (OSI), an urban-affairs arm of the philanthropic Soros Foundation that has has an office in Baltimore, Ferguson went to work in the Pigtown area, making several murals single-handedly before encountering a group of skateboarding teenagers who were routinely butting heads with police. Following that "lucky stroke," she says, Ferguson became the skaters' ally and wound up helping them win funds to build a skateboard park on disused tennis courts at Carroll Park. She also invited them to begin work on a mural celebrating themselves--the "Skaters of Pigtown Recognition Wall" that wraps around the corner of Ostend and James streets. Ferguson and several of the skaters completed the James Street side, a life-size image of skaters performing on half-pipe ramps.

Another lucky stroke: Early in 2000, around the time Ferguson was preparing to relocate to New York, Tony Shore blew back into Baltimore with plans to start a youth art center at the vacant Morrell Park Pratt Library branch. The neighborhood library had played a key role in Shore's rise from graffiti punk to gallery regular. From the time he was 5, the Pratt staff had allowed him to draw at reading tables and, much later, to break dance with teenage buddies in a back room.

After middle school, Shore was accepted into the city's School for the Arts. Next came the Maryland Institute, College of Art, on full scholarship, followed by a master-of-fine-arts degree at Yale. While at MICA in 1993, Shore started to paint on black velvet, a technique usually associated with kitsch images of Elvis Presley and snarling leopards. Shore adopted it for neighborhood scenes and characters from Morrell Park and Pigtown, beginning with a broadly caricatured approach and then, while at Yale, shifting his style toward a pensive realism. Brashly self-confident, he went to New York with his trademark paintings rolled up in the trunk of his Ford Escort wagon. Then something unexpected happened.

"I was in New York, going to all the right gallery openings, shaking hands, but I started feeling like I was using my powers for not necessarily good--closer to evil," the artist recalls. "I felt like I was unbalanced."

Shore realized he was losing the "reciprocal relationship" he'd always had with his old stomping grounds. He found himself commuting from New York just to cruise his old neighborhoods, snapping pictures for source material. He saw that the old library, which had closed in 1997, was still vacant. He moved back to Baltimore to pursue a different kind of art career.

Shore wound up picking up where Ferguson left off. Working with some of the same skateboarders and some new recruits, he extended the "Recognition Wall" up Ostend Street. Ferguson had also laid the groundwork for the Chesapeake Bay mural at Morrell Park Middle, where Shore was to meet most of his current team. What he didn't know at the time was that artists all over town were cultivating similar turf, hooking up with neighborhood kids and community-based groups.

The artists now rubbing elbows with Baltimore's children and teens are as diverse as the projects they're working on. Some are native Baltimoreans, some came here by choice; some are rooted in specific neighborhoods, others work where opportunities arise; some have college degrees in art, others are largely self-taught. Still others are Maryland Institute students, pursuing community art as a way to connect with the neighborhoods that surround the venerable art school--a direction strongly endorsed by MICA faculty. Some of the artists have become so immersed in the demands of their community work that their individual careers have been placed on hold, indefinitely.

For Rebecca Yenawine, 29, the watershed event occurred in 1997, a stone's throw from her house in Reservoir Hill. A native of upstate New York, Yenawine had sunk her roots in Baltimore after briefly attending MICA, then pursuing an English major at Goucher College. The arts, she says, were in her blood, as was a love of children. Making friends with the neighborhood kids came naturally to her, and eventually she took an interest in three girls who were spray-painting tags around her block. After giving them art lessons, she got a property owner's permission for them to paint self-portraits on boarded-up windows. "They got to tag their name," Yenawine says, "but . . . in a way that people could appreciate."

One thing led to another, and soon Yenawine was scraping up donations for more art projects in Reservoir Hill. When a passing stranger remarked that she ought to set up a nonprofit organization, "We exchanged phone numbers and we talked that evening." The passerby, John Henderson, "had a lot of experience with nonprofits," Yenawine says; he helped her recruit a board of directors, and so began Kids on the Hill. Henderson still serves as board president; for Yenawine, it's a full-time job.

"I felt that facilitating young people was the most powerful message I'd ever been able to create by myself," she says. "What they had to say, partnering with me, was a very powerful message." Just 4 years old, Kids on the Hill ranks as one of Baltimore longest-standing community-arts collaboration, involving a growing number of creative professionals working in a wide range of media, from videotape to metal sculpture. Yenawine laughs at the suggestion that her brainchild has become a massive operation. "Massive in its vision," she says, "not in its resources or staff."

A striking example of Yenawine's collaborative vision is the unnamed "castle" that sits in a small park on Madison Avenue near Whitelock Street. Incorporating metal towers, a sculptured screen, and a mosaic throne, the castle was conceived as a public space created by, and belonging to, members of the community. Children's words and pictures are worked into each piece of the installation. The job of fabricating the site was shared by three artists and some local kids.

Recently, while mosaicist Cinder Hypki was visiting the castle site where she is still finishing the throne (a concoction of metal, cement, and ceramic tile), several neighborhood folks walking by recognized her and called out a few appreciative words. "Have you sat on the throne yet?" the artist yelled back. "You can!"

Hypki, 43, has spent the last two years as a sort of circuit rider, plugging into community art projects in half a dozen city neighborhoods. Like Mary Ferguson and Tony Shore, she has been supported by an OSI fellowship. A former environmental educator, she sees her specialty--leading groups of children through the creation of mosaics--as part of a continuum, serving a function similar to the community tree plantings she used to organize.

"It's about art as a vehicle to do many other things," Hypki says--including providing "opportunities for young people, and some older people, to get together and have a really great time." Last year Hypki guided a group of local teenagers through the creation a 9-foot-wide mural out of thousands of postage-stamp-sized ceramic and mirror chips on the rear wall of the Southeast Youth Academy in Highlandtown. "Every piece got glued on by hand by teenagers who have an attention span of about 2.6 seconds," she says. "So if they completed a 9-foot mural, you know they wanted to be there, and to be with each other."

At first blush, mosaic art would hardly seem to be the first choice for a children's medium--especially mosaics mounted on freestanding, irregular forms. Nevertheless, it's the art form favored by Hypki and another community artist, East Baltimore native Bryant "Spoon" Smith. The very complexity of the technique, as taught by Smith and Hypki, seems to be part of its appeal--these projects require patience and personal investment.

"It's about teaching kids that they can do it--even when it's hard, even when it gets hot," Hypki says. "And sometimes the kids who complain the loudest are the ones who, in the end, are the most proud and puffed up. This is the way you teach fortitude and stick-to-itiveness. . . . I don't know that kids have a lot of places to learn that these days."

Working with fourth- and fifth-graders at Franklin Square Elementary School in West Baltimore this summer, Hypki, Smith, and several assistants steered their charges through multiple phases of designing freestanding, tree-shaped mosaics with the theme "My Enchanted Tree Stands for Me." First the children drew trees incorporating words and images of personal significance--birds, flowers, their names and their mothers', and so on. The kids then used hammers to break ceramic tiles into irregular chunks and laid the fragments out on enlargements of their drawings; sticky plastic paper kept the designs in place. Meanwhile, adults cut out plywood shapes, 4 feet tall, to match each child's tree design. Working together, the children and grownups coated each wooden tree with thin-set mortar, then sandwiched the coated wood with the plastic-sheeted mosaic. After the cement set, the plastic was peeled away and the mosaic designs were grouted.

In all, 16 trees were produced this way, each accompanied by a hand-lettered "artist's statement" and a black-and-white photo of the artist. The plan is for the entire "Enchanted Forest" to go on display for a while at several sites around the city, including the Baltimore Museum of Art. Then the children get to take their trees home.

Like Tony Shore, 25-year-old Spoon Smith grew up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood--the recently demolished Broadway Homes housing project, near Johns Hopkins Hospital. Smith describes his childhood home as a genuine urban war zone--out of 60 youths he grew up with, 40 are now dead, mostly from gun violence. Three of Smith's old friends are memorialized in his "Thug Angels" mosaics, which were recently displayed at City Hall as part of Artscape's Build exhibit. These days, Smith divides his time between personal work and community projects under the aegis of the Urban Arts Institute (UAI), which he and several friends founded in 1999.

A big man with a benign expression, Smith says art "allowed me to release, to create, and go to another level . . . to see beyond the boundaries of my neighborhood." He discovered creativity in his teen years by hanging out at the Door, a community-outreach center on North Chester Street founded by former Baltimore Colts star Joe Ehrmann. The artists and writers he met at the Door weren't professionals, but Smith says they fostered his "thirst" for expression and his desire to improve his environment.

Smith's formal art education never went beyond high school, but he received intensive training in the organizational skills that enabled him to start UAI. While still a teenager, he landed a job with the West Baltimore-based Parks and People Foundation, working on tree-planting and community gardening projects. Recognizing his gifts, Jackie Carrera, Parks and People's executive director, began teaching Smith the ropes of running a nonprofit. Now UAI operates nine arts programs for children and adults-- "not only as a tool for self-expression," Smith says, "but also as a tool for community development and employment."

Is this outburst of new-school community art just a fad? Anyone who has done time in the nonprofit world knows that certain ideas catch on with donors and that organizations in need of funds will turn on a dime to make their funders happy. Fashions, however, don't happen by accident. At MICA, more than 100 students have participated in the Community Arts Partnerships that started three years ago as ways to connect the college with its neighboring communities. Now plans are underway to create a master's program in this new field.

"I'd noticed over the years that certain students, the braver ones, were looking for connections. . . . The normal way of making art wasn't satisfying them," says MICA instructor Ken Krafchek, who heads up the Community Arts Partnerships program. "In my own life as a freelance illustrator, I was looking for something with soul and meaning. It all became a timing thing--the history of art had marched down the road, and the students with these [social] sympathies were coming together."

Perhaps it has to do with the sheer frustration artists are feeling, not just with the isolation of conventional esthetic expression, but also with the worn-out rhetoric of overtly political art. The chasm between America's poor and privileged classes has never been wider--a fact that's abundantly evident in Baltimore City. What good does it do to work social messages into art if the art is hidden away in galleries?

For less political artists, community projects are a personal way to pass on the benefits they've enjoyed. Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, 47, enjoyed an eclectic career in theater, indoor mural painting, and government (as head of the Maryland Film Commission) before volunteering in West Baltimore under the auspices of the nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center (NDC). Last year, under his tutelage, kids devised a variety of bold patterns based on natural forms (trees, mountains, water, sun), then painted them, patchwork-style, all over a bunkerlike storage shed in West Baltimore's ABC Playground. Even though the project was part of NDC's Design for Safety initiative--a program intended to reclaim public spaces that have become drug markets--Schlossberg-Cohen says he still was "shocked" to learn that crime in the playground declined after the mural went up.

This summer, in collaboration with West Baltimore's Edmondson Community Organization, Schlossberg-Cohen is guiding a group of neighborhood youths and adults as they create a "memorial park" combining collage-covered walls, sculptures, and floor installations. The collages use ideas and images created by the children during a series of intensive discussions, field trips, and interviews with neighbors and family members. An unabashed fan of children's art, Schlossberg-Cohen emphasizes the personal and emotional benefits of the projects he's worked on. Kids respond to "being treated as collaborators, with respect," he says. "You can see their faces light up when you take some of their images and put them on the wall." The artist's own face lights up as he talks about the project.

It's too early to say what impact such projects will have on the lives of the young people involved. While the experiences of Spoon Smith and Tony Shore are clear evidence that art can change the lives of talented youths, what about the less talented? And how long will the adults maintain their energy and commitment for such altruistic work?

Shore himself voices a critique that has been leveled at do-gooders down the ages: "Many people come into a community that they consider disadvantaged, and they'll come in and slum for a while, trying to improve these kids' lives. And then after a year or two, they disappear from the kids' lives, leaving them high and dry." Shore plans to put the next 10 years of his life into Access Art; he expects it will take at least half of that time to get the program fully on its feet. He has already learned that he has to make room for the less-artistic teenagers who want to get involved. A couple of the Access Art kids, he says, have already displayed a knack for public relations. One of them, 13-year-old Mike Harmon, was the only teenager to speak up at a public meeting about the fate of the Morrell Park library. Shore thinks Harmon's heartfelt plea helped Access Art win the rights to develop the still-vacant storefront. (He expects to move the organization into the old library this fall.)

In the long haul, those projects that are physically rooted in their communities--whether in an old library, a school, or a neighborhood center--might stand the best chance of surviving. There is bound to be some attrition, some winnowing-out, given the number of artists involved in community projects. But there is also bound to be some collaboration that could lay the groundwork for more ambitious efforts. Now, Shore says, competition for grants keeps community arts programs from communicating as much as they should. But funders are beginning to force the issue. "Foundations are encouraging us to form more partnerships," Rebecca Yenawine says, "and that's a good thing."

"If we work together," MICA's Krafchek says, "we're far more powerful that we are individually."

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