An Artist Changes His Focus

ANTERO PIETILA

September 26, 1992|By ANTERO PIETILA

Parkton -- -- At the age of 48, after more than two decades living and working in Baltimore's inner city, artist James W. Voshell is starting over again.

''I have relocated my entire studio and moved out of the city of Baltimore,'' he says in letters his patrons and friends are receiving these days. ''I am now living on a farm in Parkton, Maryland, with a special lady, Lynne, and her daughter Julie. I will no longer be painting the inner-city subject matter.

''I now plan to explore and focus on our natural environment and man's relationship with such. These contemporary explorations -- whether images of landscapes, close-up textures, plant and animal life, interesting objects, places or portraits -- will be completed in my bold style of photo-realism.''

Parkton, near the Pennsylvania border, is just 33 miles away from Mr. Voshell's former West Baltimore neighborhood. But in its quiet atmosphere, this one-time farming community seems lifetimes away.

Mr. Voshell, a husky man with white beard and long yellow-brown locks, visibly loves his new existence. ''He ran pTC around naked for the first two weeks here,'' says Lynne Jones, his ''special lady.''

For 22 years, the artist occupied a three-story warehouse in the ++ 1700 block Frederick Avenue with his cat, Francoise (named after one of Picasso's mistresses). The neighborhood was rough and the exterior of the Voshell home and studio looked no different from most boarded-up houses on the street.

This world was reflected in the work of Mr. Voshell, a 1965 graduate of the Maryland Institute. He became an important chronicler of changing Baltimore. Except for a few obligatory Inner Harbor scenes, Mr. Voshell painted streetscapes, arabbers and other street vendors, children, winos, strippers from The Block, palm readers, buildings in various stages of disrepair or demolition, heaps of trash.

He even painted a dead rat on a five-foot canvas. ''It was really a big rat,'' the artist recalls, ''and my friends said, 'You'll never sell it.' But in the very first show it was bought by a Johns Hopkins biologist who had spent 20 years in India, studying rats. I delivered it to his apartment in Horizon House -- this really high-class place -- and he hung it up right over his couch. For two years after that, he invited me to all kinds of dinner parties at his house. I met lots of interesting people there, scientists who thought it was a wonderful rat.''

His commissioned works often depicted a different way of life. He portrayed a top researcher from the Aberdeen Proving Ground clutching a piece of rocket-guidance equipment. He painted two yuppies and their Porsches.

''I had to go riding with both of them, to feel the car,'' the artist recalls. ''One guy, a month after I finished the painting, got a different-colored Porsche. He called me to ask, 'Is there any way you can change the color of my car in the painting?' ''

Mr. Voshell estimates he has done 400 oil paintings, watercolors and drawings. And of course, five large mural projects in various parts of Baltimore. Painted in photo-realistic style, they were labor-intensive, painstaking projects. And not very profitable.

He spent three months painting a wall of Baltimore scenes on Frederick Avenue, near the Westside shopping center, for $2,500. That led to a bigger commission -- a 13-month job of painting locks, keys and security devices on a building nearly the length of a football field at Reisterstown Road and Northern Parkway.

He started in a November and finished the following December. Stones were thrown at him. High on the ladder, he feared for his life.

All this is changing. ''I felt as an artist that the inner city provided a real concentration of social concerns. I always wanted to point out to the society: Look at these people, look how we as a society operate! Now I kind of feel like maybe instead of pointing out the problems, I'll point out the perfection so that people can see through their own eyes the society screwing up.''

Mr. Voshell has converted an old barn into a studio. Looking out an open door, wearing his trademark khaki shirt and blue jeans, he sees vast soybean fields and rolling countryside. ''The landscape and light are constantly changing,'' he says somewhat in amazement. He grew up on a farm in St. Michaels; he feels he has come home.

His battleship-gray 1951 Chevy panel truck, which he bought 22 years ago when he moved to Baltimore's inner city, stands outside. He figures he has gotten some 300,000 miles of that $200 purchase.

With all these recent lifestyle changes, is the truck next to go?

''Absolutely not,'' Mr. Voshell replied. ''If anything, I'll have it bronzed and will be buried in it.''

G; Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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