Artist is drawn to city's bold colors, odd shapes Philadelphian finds visual feast in Baltimore


August 21, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

In Philadelphia, Crystal Moll was dead.

And then she moved to Baltimore and came to life.

In Philadelphia, the buildings were big and brown. In three years of living there, the 29-year-old artist barely finished three paintings.

In Baltimore, she said, "The row houses are small and pink and orange and white and lime green and blue." And since moving here in 1987, Ms. Moll has turned out more than 60 paintings of the urban landscape.

The odd shapes and bright colors of Baltimore helped get Crystal Moll outside, and outside is where she has thrived. Her oil paintings sell for $600 to $1,400 and are shown regularly around town, currently in the lobby of the World Trade Center through the end of the month.

"I just started sitting in the street and seeing all these colors," she said. "And all these scenes set themselves up to be great paintings. Once I started working with natural light, I couldn't go tTC back inside. Any time light hits something, it changes the color. When you look at something and the light hits it, the colors change and the shadows became colors. That's the basis for all of my work.

"It just doesn't sing without the sun," she said.

The scenery that sings to Ms. Moll tends to baffle longtime residents who wonder why anyone would sit for weeks and draw a string of crooked row houses or a line of wash hanging in a narrow alley.

If you go out into the street and paint, she said, people will stick their noses into your business. "They come up to me and say, 'Are you an artist?' And then they point to [a neighbor's row house] and say, 'Why are you painting that?' "

Ms. Moll stretches her canvases to fit the peculiar rectangles that make up so much of the area's architecture. The paint that fills the canvas glorifies narrow alleys crowded with tangled telephone wires, a broken-down waterfront general store sitting green and beaten in the midst of renovated homes in Fells Point, and tarred city rooftops and tiny garret windows sloping down toward coal elevators on the docks.

Going through her portfolio, Ms. Moll sums up the spirit of her work when she identifies one canvas as "just some back alley down in South Baltimore somewhere."

It's as if the great Edward Hopper, who died in 1967 and is one of Ms. Moll's heroes, had dedicated his life to the common architecture of backyard Baltimore instead of mid-century New York.

"I could be out in the country painting landscapes, but that would bore me to death," she said. "I don't want to sit outside and paint trees, and I never put people in my paintings. Other than Hopper, there are few people who can put a person in [an architectural] painting so they look like they're part of their surroundings. You have to spend a lot more time drawing people, and I don't want to do that. I want to paint. I want to paint the surfaces of buildings in the city."

She favors the working-class sections of South Baltimore and lower Broadway on the East Side. In these neighborhoods she has become one of the busiest house painters.

There she deals with pain-in-the-neck kids who buzz around her easel asking a million questions, winos who breathe in her face and tell her what a great artist she is, suspicious old folks who walk back and forth behind her without saying a word, people who photograph her with video cameras, and young mothers who spend half the day screaming at their kids.

But this summer she has gone uptown for a break, for a season amid the stately town homes of Bolton Hill. Residents there don't wonder why she is turning their homes into art but solicit her to do more of it.

Working on a curving row of beveled houses in the 1600 block of Park Avenue, a straw hat on her blond hair, blue eyes squinting to line up the scale of a window, she said, "This block has been unbelievable for business. One woman saw me painting down the street and said, 'My husband loves our house, would you please paint it for us?' And the guy on the corner wants a painting of his house."

The neighborhood is beautiful, and the unexpected commissions have kept her busy in Bolton Hill longer than she expected. But Ms. Moll misses the narrow streets and little row homes of South Baltimore and expects to be back soon in neighborhoods riddled with the Formstone she hates so much and scenes she can't get out of her mind.

"Every once in a while, I need to go and sit in different places and try different things. It's not so bad being away from the back alleys," she said, brushing in the pale green for the walls of an antique store at Bolton and Mosher streets. "But I don't think I could ever leave South Baltimore."

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