She Stoops to Conquer
Hanging Out with the "Painting Lady" of Canton
For the past 18 years, Peacock has been a fixture on the 600 block of South Patterson Park Avenue in Canton, where she's created a makeshift painter's studio out of her front steps, a chair, an empty Tidy Cat kitty litter bucket, and her painting kit. Though you sometimes see her walking up Eastern Avenue to Benson's Market for a pack of smokes or a can of soup, this is where Peacock--a sturdy, red-haired Baltimore native--spends much of her time.
There's a sign in her window directing potential clients to knock on the door if she's not sitting outside, taking in some street-side ambience while plotting out her next artistic endeavor. Come summer, there's not much need for that sign, since Peacock takes advantage of every nice day she can. She has to--painting is her only mode d'emploi, and you gotta work hard to make a living selling paintings on the sidewalk for $20 and $30 a pop. Fortunately for Peacock, a self-taught artist who's been drawing and painting since she was a kid, she's got the personality of a natural-born saleswoman. She's friendly, disarming, and, most importantly, always on the lookout for the next sales opportunity.
"I do animals and street scenes, very reasonable" she says, going into her sales pitch. "They can be done on canvas or wood. I can do portraits of people if they give me a picture. I do require a deposit of half of the whole thing. And I do not rip people off. That's the most important thing for people to understand."
Surrounding Peacock on her crowded stoop are samples of her work--a couple of folksy street scenes, a portrait of a tiger, sketches of people she knows. Unless she can get a commissioned sale out of a random passerby, which is not as uncommon an occurrence as you might think (the author of this piece is now the proud owner of a Fells Point waterfront scene; the photographer managed to trade a copy of the photo and $5 for his own Peacock original), she says she just paints whatever is on her mind that day. Her signature pieces are the street scenes she sells for $20 to $30 a piece, but her favorite subjects to paint are "the great cats of Asia--the black leopard, the regular spotted leopard, the Bengal tiger, the African lion.
"I have a large picture of a Bengal tiger, if you want to see it," she says and disappears into her house. She returns moments later, proudly displaying an 11-by-17-inch piece of wood bearing the likeness of a snarling orange-and-black-striped tiger. "I did this from memory. I took it from . . . The Jungle Book," Peacock says. "Ever since I was about 3 years old, I've loved the Bengal tiger. I'd get pictures or comic books with pictures of them. To me, they're one of the most beautiful animals in the world. Their eyes are magnificent, a gold-amber color."
With that, she takes a moment to offer a few facts about her favorite beast: "They've been known to kill humans," she says with enthusiasm. "Especially the great Man-eater of India. He killed like 300-something people."
If Peacock had her way, she'd do more paintings of wild cats and animals. Unfortunately, they're not the fastest movers in her collection. "The animal pictures are the hardest thing to sell," she shrugs. "People don't have the décor, and if they're not a sportsman, they're just not into it. I guess they're just not animal-crazy like I am."
The hand-painted sign outside Peacock's house at 631 S. Patterson Park Ave. advertises her portraits and animal paintings, but her best sellers are the unpretentious, bright street scenes that sell for as little as $20. She's painted every house on her block, though she says she hates to paint the house across the street from her: "That thing must have a million bricks in it." She's done the harbor, Fells Point, the waterfront, and the city skyline at twilight.
Some people "commission" Peacock to do a particular scene for them, though she's careful about keeping her subject matter clean. She once had a man ask her to paint him nude, but she refused. Although she thinks nudity can be artistic, she says it should not be gratuitous. People have also requested that she do "Satanic" pictures for them, but she says, "I don't do that, that's not my kind of thing."
If a customer isn't sure what they want, she'll create a customized version of one of her other paintings. She says she's sold different street scenes "to just about every house on this block," in addition to a bar on Thames Street (she can't remember the name) and Cardwell's Tavern on Essex Street, right around the corner from her house. She's sold paintings to out-of-towners as well, and she can boast that she's on display at homes in Boston and California, and in a gallery somewhere in Chicago, though she's not sure what it's called or where it's located.
"I've sold about 150 of these waterfront scenes," she says, pointing to a nearly complete painting of a glittering boat tethered to a Fells Point dock. The water is blue--much bluer and more pristine than in real life--and the rowhouses in the background are tidy and bright and colorful. "This one is the hot one going right now. People like this one a lot. And the houses right across the street, too, that's a very popular street scene."
Peacock's presentation of city life is somewhat idealized--every rowhouse is clean, there are no boarded-up buildings or trash on the streets, and there is no evidence of urban decay (interestingly, there are no people in her street scenes, either). Because she likes to portray "things of beauty," many of her pieces have an air of a Baltimore past, a quieter, more picturesque city. Part of the reason for that is probably because she paints from memory and filters out the unattractive parts. "I've got it all up here," she says, tapping on her forehead. "It's all locked in my memory--the boats sitting there, the color of the water, the different colors of the rest."
Depending on her mood, or the whims of the customer, she may alter the scene somewhat: "The coloring may be heavy or it may be muted, depending," she says, as she takes a request for a waterfront scene. "This one here has a tan boat, but I can make one with a black boat, if you'd like. Which one do you want?"
Peacock doesn't have any grand philosophies about art in general, or her work in particular. She just paints what she likes, and hopes to make enough money to keep herself--and her art--alive. "For the future of my painting, I'd hope to get some more orders," she frets. "And I'd like to make enough money to get a new painting kit . . . and an easel. . . . And I do wish I had enough money to buy some books [to teach myself more about art]."
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812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201