Catfish hits the road with a message about folk art

April 23, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The back of the '59 Chevy truck has become a little house, with painted screen walls and metal roof. Inside, sitting on

blocks of ice on a sawdust-covered floor, a sculpture of a big, old catfish stares out the back. He has sections of rubber tubing from a car's engine for whiskers and a piece of a tire for a fin. Alison Saar, who thought him up, stands at the back of the truck and sings her version of an Arabber's call:

Clear, clear, clear blue water,

Bright, bright, bright blue sky,

Catfish, catfish dreamin',

Catfish dreamin',

Won't you come and buy?

Don't need no money,

Don't you know,

Cash is trash to a fish.

Ms. Saar's creation is "Catfish Dreamin'," the likes of which Baltimore has never seen before: a traveling combination of art and folk traditions that will visit communities in Maryland and nearby states over the next five months.

The latest project of the Contemporary, Baltimore's imaginative museum without walls, "Catfish Dreamin'" will make its debut with a free public reception at the museum's Howard Street headquarters tomorrow.

The project is a collaboration of Ms. Saar and George Ciscle, director of the Contemporary, a 4-year-old organization that has done shows on subjects ranging from AIDS to Soviet photography, in places as varied as a dance hall, a former car dealership and a museum.

"I have known Alison's work for years," said Mr. Ciscle, "and wanted her to do a project for two reasons: because of how she incorporates folk traditions into her work, and her growing interest in the arena of public art."

Ms. Saar, whose art is displayed in a one-woman show at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum, is known for drawing on myth and ritual from Africa and the Americas in works that also incorporate found art.

Beginning three years ago, Mr. Ciscle brought Ms. Saar here several times to study Baltimore. At first, the idea was to create a site-specific work in one place. But, Ms. Saar said, "I was taken with how there would be neighborhoods, every 10 or 12 blocks, that had the flavor of mini-cities within the city."

The idea of having the work travel to people instead of the other way around developed naturally.

So did the combination of traditions it would reflect. Ms. Saar was struck by two that were specifically Baltimorean: the Arabbers, produce vendors who travel from neighborhood to neighborhood with their colorful wagons, announcing their presence with a song-like call; and the screen painters, who decorate the screen doors on houses with scenes that can be seen from outside.

To these she added the catfish, which is found in waters all over the world and is the subject of myths and stories from Africa to Australia to the American South.

It also has a personal meaning for the artist: "To me it's a symbol of hope."

The result is "Catfish Dreamin'," which between now and early October will travel to schools, community centers, senior centers and other locations with a message about communication, community and art.

One Wednesday, for instance, it went to Deep Creek Middle School in Essex, where a several-day program was built around its appearance, teaching eighth graders about screen painting, Arabbers and the oral tradition of storytelling. That's where the catfish tales come in. One aim is to encourage those who experience "Catfish Dreamin' " to tell stories themselves, in order to encourage the continuation of an oral tradition that is dying. Another is to encourage an anti-elitist view of art, Ms. Saar says.

"We're using found materials and making the artistic process more accessible to get people to play around with things. We're trying to get them to do art [themselves] and see it not as something you have to go and see in a museum but something you can experience for yourself."

The project will travel from Washington, D.C., to Yonkers, N.Y., on its five-month odyssey, and even though other communities may not have Arabbers or screen painters, Ms. Saar says there are related customs.

"Italian communities have a tradition of putting shrines and lights and other things in their front windows, creating mini-installations," she said. "The idea is to find things in your own community that are traditions and see whether they're secure or dying out."

"Catfish Dreamin'"

What: A mobile art project involving folk traditions, popular art forms and storytelling that will travel to schools, community centers and other locations in Maryland and the mid-Atlantic region.

When: Opening reception tomorrow from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at 601 N. Howard St., with live jazz, children's art activities and storytelling. Free and open to all.

% Call: (410) 333-8601.

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