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Action and Traction
In Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood, you can practically see the area transform before your eyes. Head east on North Avenue, where workmen swarm over once-vacant buildings, busily renovating storefronts or down-at-heels façades.
Sculptures by neighborhood artist Roy Crosse dot the sidewalks as you pass Baltimore Print Studio, which offers screenprinting and letterpress classes. Red Emma’s, a bookstore/café collective, recently relocated to the street, bringing along its funky scrap-metal bar by ex-steelworker Dave Scheper. A new jewelry maker/exhibition space, spearheaded by Shana Kroiz, is slated to open next year.
On the opposite corner, Pearson’s Florist, a neighborhood fixture with a raucous parrot squawking among the coolers of bouquets, sits across from the Chicken Box, a recently converted art space that hosts a monthly art market. (It costs $25 for local artists to set up shop.) Around the corner is the Station North Arts Café, where longtime residents rub elbows with students from the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art. Regulars and newcomers alike are greeted enthusiastically by co-owner Kevin Brown, who runs the café with his partner William Maughlin.
Brown opened a craft gallery in the area 10 years ago, a little too far ahead of the curve. Then, the area had “action,” he says. “Now it has traction.”
Paula Whaley, who has been working quietly in her studio a few blocks north for 11 years making haunting, evocative dolls, says much the same thing: “Every day I wake up and there’s something new. I can’t believe what’s been happening.”
In a city whose best-known cultural ambassador might well be John Waters and his cross-dressing muse, the late Divine, a place whose popular image has been shaped by the unflinching portraits in The Wire and Homicide, outsiders might be forgiven for a skewed view of Charm City as equal parts kitsch, deep dysfunction, and urban blight.
But that’s just part of the picture. Baltimore’s deep blue-collar roots make for a refreshingly down-to-earth and downright friendly vibe, even as new industries replace the old factories. “Hon,” the all-purpose, ever-present form of address, may be habit, but it’s sincere. It’s a city with a strong, centuries-old African American community, and numerous neighborhoods, many settled by successive waves of immigrants, each with its own distinct identity.
“Baltimore has always been mixed between money and no money. We’re not slick like Georgetown, San Francisco, Philly,” says Joyce J. Scott, renowned beader, glass artist, Renaissance woman, and proud Baltimore native. “But there’s something about a city in flux. People just have to find a way to live through it, and there’s people everywhere here making stuff.”
To wit: The city is home to a standout art school (MICA), a new fab lab at Towson University, two top-notch art museums and one fabulous newcomer, and, as Station North exemplifies, a thriving art and craft scene. Among the neighborhood’s other artistic amenities are Area 405 art and performance space and the Station North Tool Library, started by husband-and-wife artist team John Shea and Piper Watson. They live down the street at the City Arts building – the first new construction in the neighborhood in decades – which also houses gallery space. Shea evangelizes for his new venture, which seeks to serve the longtime residents of the neighborhood as well as the burgeoning artist community.
Where Station North exudes a gritty urban edge, a few miles north, Hampden has an almost village-like feel. Jewelry artist Jen Wilfong, a member of the Charm City Craft Mafia, moved in seven years ago, and felt right at home: Her neighbor Joseph Gilbert, in his 70s, has for years made jewelry out of bottle caps he collects from local bars.
The neighborhood is anchored by “the Avenue,” as locals call West 36th Street, a half-dozen blocks lined with restaurants, antique/vintage stores, and boutiques, with the occasional pawn shop and old-school bar. Mud and Metal, 9th Life, and Doubledutch Boutique showcase design and craft with a sprinkling of local work, while Wild Yam Pottery and Gallery 788 focus on local and regional artists.
Schulman Project, one of the most recent additions, opened about six months ago. It’s filling a niche in the mix, with a two-part space. The retail front showcases contemporary studio craft, including work by ceramist Nick Ramey, jeweler Jill Popowich, and textile artist Jennifer McBrien. The rear is the gallery space, which mixes more conceptual 2D and 3D work, such as David East’s ceramic and digital combinations.
West of the Avenue lies a complex of warehouses, mills, and factory buildings, vestiges of the city’s industrial past. The buildings now mostly function as housing, light industrial space, and artist studios and showrooms, with the Clipper Mill complex the granddaddy of the new wave. Its Foundry Building tenants include studio jeweler Rebecca Myers, La Contessa pewter jewelry studio, Mandala Creations’ hand-forged metalwork, and furniture designer/maker Gutierrez Studios. Two longtime tenants are glassblower Anthony Corradetti, a Pilchuck and Penland alum, with a 3,300-square-foot studio and showroom, and kinetic sculptor Paul Daniel. Daniel moved into the space decades ago, back when his neighbors were still making heavy machinery. He uses the space for his bread-and-butter fabrication work, including exhibition mounts for the National Gallery, along with his own work. Many of his pieces are scattered around the city, including a collaborative piece on the Franklin Street parking garage in the city center, done with his wife Linda DePalma, a textile artist.
Daniel, like many artists, came to Baltimore as an art student, and stayed on, lured by affordable workspace and the city’s easy, quirky vibe. While he’s always been connected to his immediate artistic community, he says, the larger art scene, along with an overlapping music scene, “has really taken off in the past three or four years.”
Station North and Hampden are the most visible and cohesive craft spots, but are by no means the only centers of activity. To the north are two can’t-miss venues: The Store Ltd., a small shop showcasing design and craft, most notably by the owner, pioneering jeweler Betty Cooke, who is still going strong at 89; and Baltimore Clayworks. Founded in 1980, the nonprofit has been a cornerstone in the craft community, with residencies, classes, and exhibitions that draw ceramic artists from across the nation.
Downtown includes the Woman’s Industrial Exchange, Maryland Art Place, and Sub Basement Artist Studios. The Exchange began in the 1800s, where genteel women could earn money selling their handwork; it continues as a consignment venue for local craft artists. Maryland Art Place, tucked into tourist-heavy Harbor East, is another nonprofit space showcasing artists across all mediums. Recent exhibitions have featured work by mixed-media artist Jowita Wyszomirska, a resident artist at the School 33 Art Center in Federal Hill.
Sub Basement Artist Studios is the brainchild of artist/impresario Jeffrey Kent, who is also a mastermind behind Unexpected Art, a pop-up/roving gallery. A recent design-inflected exhibition, focusing on sustainability, effortlessly mixed fine arts with furniture by Sandtown Millworks and Matt Ludwig.
Further east, in Highlandtown, Baltimore Threadquarters is another recent addition. Co-owners Marlo Jacobson and jeweler Allison Fomich opened the textile shop about a year ago; it features monthly exhibitions of local artists such as Michael Sylvan Robinson in the storefront window. The shop also sponsors classes and workshops by local luminaries.
Jacobson, who lives nearby, figured there had to be a waiting clientele, with one of the largest university fiber programs on the East Coast at MICA. To gauge interest, she staged a yarn-bomb of the Frank Zappa statue in front of the library across the street. “It was so well received even the mayor thanked us, and it was picked up as a holiday card for the library,” she says.
Underpinning this ferment are the venerable Baltimore Museum of Art and equally august Walters Art Museum, with extensive textile and jewelry collections, respectively. BMA hosts an annual holiday shop with work by regional artisans, while the Walters has sponsored a small jewelry fair in recent years. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture also mounts important exhibitions such as 2011’s “Material Girls,” and offers craft workshops and a holiday craft market. For the indie-minded, Charm City Craft Mafia organizes juried shows Pile of Craft and Holiday Heap, and the Creative Alliance, a multi-arts educational center, has its own holiday mart.
The American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore’s institutional newcomer, also organizes a holiday market showcasing regional work. The museum itself is a wonderland of idiosyncratic sculptural environments, towering whirligigs, a huge pink poodle, and an overall testament to the infinite and indomitable human spirit. (And it includes a statue of Divine.)
Embracing its quirks with humor and affection typifies the city at its best, and is perhaps what inspires such strong loyalty from transplants and natives alike. Joyce Scott recently returned from the Venice Biennale, which exhibited one of her pieces. Though she had just spent a week hob-nobbing with international art world royalty, she seemed just as pleased by a recent honor from her hometown: “I was just voted best artist in Baltimore by Baltimore City Paper,” she announced. She sounded tickled pink.
Judy Arginteanu is American Craft’s copy editor.