July 12, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro

Blessed are the "Makers," for they listen to themselves. Tuned to their own imagination and talent, these self-taught artists synthesize all they see and hear and feel into wondrous works of art.

"Masters, Mentors, and Makers," a show curated by Leslie King-Hammond for this year's Artscape festival, pays tribute to Maryland's artistic heritage: There are the Masters, professional artists who have devoted their lives to artistic endeavors. There are the Mentors, who have worked to train other artists. And there are the Makers, "those exceptional individuals who sometimes even question themselves as artists in the traditional, classical sense but nevertheless are totally immersed in the making of objects," Ms. King-Hammond, a professor at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, writes in the show's introduction.

On these pages are four Baltimore Makers and their work. All came to their art after employment in other fields. All are kept young by their art. All four are assisted in their creations by the counterpoint of music, poetry or conversation. And all work by a creative instinct that is difficult to articulate in simple words.


"I paint out of my head," William R. Martin says, pointing to said body part. "I don't try to do anything in particular. All of my designs come out of that little pea brain."

Not so little. Mr. Martin, who has wandered the world as a hobo and a merchant marine, translates all that he knows into intricate matrices of vibrating abstract shapes, as well as leaves, trees and spider webs.

Each painting is a kind of abstract chart that reorders the world according to Mr. Martin's fluid imagination. Study his repetitive imagery long enough, and it becomes a hypnotic mandala that whisks one away from the present into a contemplative trance.

For all of its cosmic consequences, Mr. Martin's work is still grounded in place, person, fact and literature. "I take a math equation or a saying or a Bible verse . . . and try to put it on a visual plane," Mr. Martin says.

One of his works is a tribute to Maurey Graham, "the king of the hobos, who played the bones, loved children and would come to fairs." Another painting, "Crawford County Quilt," was inspired by the Ohio county where Mr. Martin was born.

A sturdy tree standing among saplings was painted long ago in honor of his wife, Cassie. His "culture" series is based on "the first time I saw medical culture on a slide."

Each painting bears Mr. Martin's insignia, a black cat, once a universal symbol used by hobos to designate friendly and generous households.

When Mr. Martin, 70, began to paint in 1973, "I didn't even know how to stretch a canvas," he says. Working as a security guard at the Baltimore Museum of Art for 11 years, he met many artists who encouraged him to continue painting in his own unique way.

Mr. Martin is also a poet whose metered rhymes cover the same thematic turf as his art, but have a more traditional feel to them. His verse and his artwork nourish each other, Mr. Martin says. In a brief description of his work he notes, "I write verse and paint not as a pasttime, but because of an urge and need to express something that seems very important to me."


When screen painter Dee Herget is asked by the uninitiated what she does, she is greatly amused by their reaction. "I paint window screens? What? What? It comes off like I'm a cylinder engraver," she says.

At one recent public demonstration of screen painting, a folk tradition indigenous to Baltimore, Ms. Herget was able to complete several bucolic screen scenes, hold a conversation and answer questions from curious bystanders, all at once. Clearly, being on public display boosts her energy.

Baltimore has recently lost a number of notable screen painters to death. But artists like Ms. Herget, and beginners who attend workshops sponsored by the Painted Screen Society, keep the art alive. In fact, as Ms. Herget says, screen painting is, "Thriving! Listen, in this town, there will always be a screen painter here. This belongs to Baltimore. I never thought people appreciated it, but I was wrong."

Ms. Herget, a former switchboard operator, has painted screens since 1977, when she contacted the late artist Ben Richardson, who told her what kinds of paints and brushes to use. From there, "I learned it all myself," she says.

There is no way to calculate how many screens Ms. Herget has decorated. "I haven't the slightest idea," she says.

Certain pastoral themes, including the staple red-roofed bungalow, recur on the painted screens on view throughout East Baltimore and in isolated spots around the metropolitan area. Even so, each artist "has their own style of cottage and their own style of trees," Ms. Herget says. "If you have any integrity at all, you don't copy."

Her own repertoire has expanded to include nearly any request, and ranges from a still life featuring a beer can and black-eyed Susan to a Vail, Colo., ski resort scene.

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