Artist creates his world at right angle

January 02, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

Walk down Hollins Street west of the city market and you'll find a world on its side.

You'll find a gate, mailbox, tree, lawn mower, wheelbarrow, house, hedgerow and two nuclear power reactors protruding sideways from a brick wall in an alley.

In the lower corner of the wall, closest to the street, there's a warning: "DANGER FALLING OBJECTS."

Nothing falls, although at first glance you're inclined to duck. The creator of this artwork had something like that in mind when he bolted the first objects to the wall three years ago.

Kai Brouard is the artist. He is a 35-year-old sculptor -- tall, with unkempt curly hair and swollen, watery eyes. He looks as if he just got up from a nap.

He works for Valley Craftsmen in Baltimore and creates decorative iron grilles for windows in his studio at home. In 1986, he bought this building in the 1200 block of Hollins St., immediately west of the market, with the idea of converting the ground floor into a studio and living upstairs.

But Brouard, a 1978 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, soon learned one of the pungent realities of living on a city street where lots of people walk. Men kept urinating in the alley next to his house. The smell got so bad, he says, that he had to shut his windows in the summer.

"That was the incentive to do something out there," he says.

He figured that if he drew attention to the alley, people might be less inclined to use it as a public outhouse.

"For starters, the idea was danger of falling objects," he says. "Don't walk down there, something's going to fall on you."

The first thing he put up was a plastic foam boulder suspended in air by fishing line. Then he put up an aluminum meteorite. Then came the centerpiece of the display: a man -- actually half a man, his legs flailing -- falling out the back of a truck.

The man was wearing a chemical warfare suit. Really, he was.

Brouard got another idea later. He had to, actually. The boulder blew down, and for a few seconds it was a falling object. And he had to take down the man, or half a man, because the roof started leaking where the figure was attached.

"I'm not really sure how I decided to do the yardscape," he says. "I guess there was a lot of space up there to fill. And it could use a coat of paint. So I painted it green like a yard."

He stenciled an address on the mailbox: 1991 Nuclear Lane. Nuclear Lane? Nuclear reactors?

"It's just something to think about," he says, "that it's sort of in your back yard."

So this is kind of a statement against nuclear power?

"It's a statement that it's there, so think about it," he says. "I don't have to be pro or con to tell people to think about it.

"But, no, I don't think nuclear power is a very good idea. You can quote me on that."

Brouard entered his yardscape in an art contest -- southwest Baltimore's SoWeBo Festival, held each year in late May. The 5,000 to 10,000 people who attend receive ballots, and they democratically select the winners.

In 1990, Brouard won.

Ted Getzel is the founder of the festival. He owns the Cultured Pearl Cafe in the 1110 block of Hollins St.

"It definitely stops people when they see it for the first time," Getzel says of Brouard's work. "It's gotten to the point that when you get visitors from out of town you take them to see it. It's a landmark."

Brouard has ideas for this year, or next year, or the year after that. Maybe he'll downgrade his alley wall a little bit -- attach a 55-gallon drum in the back yard and put a dead car up on blocks.

Or maybe he'll go the spiritual route -- a church with a pretty steeple and a sign announcing Sunday's sermon. "It would have to be Nuclear Church or something," he says.

So that's the story of the sideways world in the alley on Hollins Street.

But, hey, by the way, did it do what it was supposed to do? Did it discourage men from urinating in the alley?

No, Brouard says with a laugh. Men still go there -- young ones and old ones, at night and even during the day.

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