Paint by gallon makes splash on city walls Novice muralist enjoys giant canvas

June 21, 1993|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Staff Writer

Artist Helen Glazer's new canvas is quite a challenge. It's three stories high, 60 feet across and took 7 gallons of paint to cover.

And she has to climb scaffolding to paint the top, where she can look down on the traffic heading through West Baltimore.

This is Ms. Glazer's first adventure in mural painting. And her canvas is the cinder-block side wall of the rowhouse at 1224 W. Lombard St.

Her painting of the night sky with her own interpretation of the constellations will be one of dozens of murals on buildings and bridges in the city.

After 15 years of painting smaller art works, Ms. Glazer says she finds her new task exhilarating.

"It's fun. I love opening up this gallon bucket of red paint instead of squeezing a little paint from a tube. There's all that color," she says.

Her first day on the job, Ms. Glazer got some sound advice from a passer-by as she was painting on the blue background with a roller -- using the paint rather sparingly, as she would on a smaller canvas.

"I'd never painted anything like this before, and this guy from the neighborhood comes by. He said, 'Get some paint on that roller.' He turned out to be a professional [house] painter," she said laughing.

Ms. Glazer's painting captures the night sky complete with the star formations for the Great Bear and the Little Bear constellations and lifelike depictions of the animals.

Such a large canvas enables her to paint a robust bear much larger than life, with paws 3 to 4 feet wide.

Her work in progress has elicited compliments from passing neighbors in the Hollins Market community. But she rebuffed one suggestion from a youngster who wanted her to add ninja turtles to her painting.

She's also been touched by people's kindness. One day, said Ms. Glazer, community activist Gary Letteron asked her how the mural was progressing. She told him she was having trouble reaching one figure she was painting from the scaffolding.

"He left and came back with a tape measure, then went back inside his house and came out again with a bench he had just nailed together," Ms. Glazer said.

The bench, placed on the scaffolding, gave her just enough height to reach the figure.

Painting from more than 20 feet above the ground took some getting used to.

"I have a little bit of daredevil in me," said the 37-year-old artist from Northwest Baltimore. "It made me a little nervous at first, but I've gotten used to it. Once I'm up there it doesn't bother me."

Her 5-year-old son was particularly intrigued by the scaffolding. She let him climb part way up but refused his request to climb to the third-story top level.

A few blocks from where Helen Glazer paints her night sky, another Baltimore artist -- Jenny Merker -- paints a colorful nature mural on the side of 115 S. Carey St.

Her petunias are gargantuan, her butterflies mammoth.

"One little girl said it looked like summer and asked if this was going to be their playground," said Ms. Merker of the trash-strewn grassy plot next to the wall she paints.

This is the 28-year-old artist's first giant canvas, but she says she found it relatively easy to enlarge the scale of her nature painting -- using 1 foot for each centimeter on her original smaller painting.

The city is paying Ms. Glazer and Ms. Merker $3,000 apiece for their murals. Baltimore has been commissioning murals on and off since 1974.

"Public art at that time was powerful. That whole era of the '70s was a tremendously exciting time to be involved because you really thought you could make a difference," said Diana Jacquot, who directed the first mural program for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Since then, the city has commissioned 70 to 80 murals, although many have worn off the walls, said Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator for the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture.

Today the mural program is a joint venture of the city's arts agency and and the housing department's Baltimore Boulevards program. Neighborhood panels choose the paintings from proposals submitted by local artists, said Mr. Kachadourian.

The murals are painted on privately owned buildings with permission from the owners, Mr. Kachadourian said.

The art ranges from the realistic to the whimsical.

There's Jim Voshell's painting on Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore of men playing checkers. And there's John Ellsberry's three huge alligators gracing the 28th Street bridge that goes over the Jones Falls Expressway at Sisson Street.

"Why alligators?," the artist was once asked.

"He said they're coming from the zoo," said Mr. Kachadourian.

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