Recent outdoor murals and sculpture enliven city neighborhoods


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

You may not have thought so a couple of weeks ago, when the self-promotional artist Wyland stopped here on his East Coast tour, but there is other outdoor art in Baltimore besides the kitsch called a Whaling Wall that he left behind on the Lee Electric Co. building at Hamburg and Russell streets.

There are more than 250 outdoor sculptures, for instance, from the statue of Washington atop his monument in Mount Vernon Place to Alexander Calder's brilliant red "100 Yard Dash" in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Levi Sculpture Garden. And more outdoor art appears all the time.

Just inside the entrance to the Baltimore Zoo, three otters cavort on some concrete "rocks" above a pool. They're not real otters, they're bronze, and they and their perch constitutes a sculpture called "Otter Rocks." It's by Bart Walter of Westminster, commissioned for the zoo and installed in the new entrance plaza in May. Zoo director Brian Rutledge says, "The piece has a great deal of character. It describes the otter well."

And indeed it does. Each of the otter trio has something different to say about these delightful animals. The one at the bottom of the rocks embodies the sleekness, the slipperiness, the liquid character of this aquatic mammal. The one standing on top of the rocks looks out at the spectator with a blend of insouciance, curiosity and independence. And the one that wraps itself around this standing otter expresses the pure physical pleasure of being alive.

Mr. Walter, whose animals can be seen from Pennsylvania to Arizona, says he isn't trying for literal depiction in his work. "I want to capture something deeper than surface anatomy, feathers or fur. I'm trying to bring out the soul of the animal. Sometimes I also like to try to capture the essence of a moment."

And his otters do -- they look like a frozen instant of motion and the distilled essence of otterness at the same time, and they make a welcome addition to Baltimore outdoor art.

"Otter Rocks" is one of at least four works of outdoor art added to the local scene just this year. Two of the others are only a block away from each other in southwest Baltimore, murals by Helen Glazer and Jenny Merker executed early this summer for Baltimore's Mural Program.

21 murals since 1987

Now run by the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, the Mural Program traces its origins back some two decades, but in its present form it dates to 1987. Since then, 21 murals have been commissioned in the city. They are picked in a process involving art professionals, neighborhood residents and

owners of the buildings on which they're painted.

Glazer's is on the side of a house at 1224 W. Lombard St., and Merker's is just around the corner at 115 S. Carey St.

Glazer's "Two Bears and Variations" stems from a series of paintings about the tendency of people of various cultures to name and make up stories about star constellations.

The mural is a three-part painting based on Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great Bear and Little Bear of Greek mythology, also known as the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper.

The largest part of the mural depicts the two bears, with the stars, Glazer says, in their correct positions.

The second section depicts the two dippers, in green and white, superimposed on silhouettes of the bears so people can see the relationships between them.

The third section shows three small jumping gazelles, also superimposed on the Great Bear's silhouette.

The story of the three gazelles leaping to escape the nearby constellation of Leo comes from Arabic lore, Glazer says.

The mural is a distinct success -- colorful but not (excuse the pun) overbearing, and with instantly recognizable images.

Glazer, who worked on it over a period of six weeks, appreciated the instant feedback as she was working.

"Sometimes people pulled over and got out of their cars and asked me what I was doing," she says.

"I got to recognize some of the people going back and forth in the neighborhood, and in general they really appreciated it as a neighborhood improvement. They considered it their mural -- it was a point of pride for them -- and I was really happy to hear that."

A kaleidoscope of colors

Merker's mural is an untitled kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, in which flowers and butterflies cavort among patterns of chevrons, circles, squares and other forms. The artist says her inspiration came partly from Georgia O'Keeffe and partly from Gustav Klimt, and she and her boyfriend, Rusty Simpson (who also signed it), worked a total of 500 hours on it.

She, too, was pleased with the response.

"We constantly had people asking us about it, from the minute we started. We had a great response from the kids in the neighborhood, who kept us entertained the whole time."

If Merker's mural is less coherent and resolved than Glazer's, it definitely adds a splash of liveliness to the neighborhood.

Fountain in Pikesville

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