High Society on Saratoga Street

January 09, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

The artist looked at the petite, fair-haired Suzi Keats Sinex and saw Winston Churchill, at least around the mouth. Could be, says Ms. Sinex, board president of Maryland Art Place, stepping back from the freshly painted canvas, contemplating her new image: tough broad with deep brow furrows and fierce determination.

"I'm more like this than, I think, that perfect . . ." and with this she clasps her hands together demurely, pantomiming her own sociological profile: Guilford, Roland Park Country School, Wheaton College, erstwhile picture of corporate wife perfection.

"That pretty hothouse flower, that's somebody else's expectations" says Ms. Sinex, a divorced mother of two who turns 39 this month. Beneath her Town & Country exterior surges passion for fine art, she says, and the will to see it flourish in downtown Baltimore at a time when public arts funding is expected to be cut.

Lately she lives with one foot in the world of local high society and the other in the rougher universe populated by artists who work long hours in cold studios and are not so interested in making pretty pictures. If they're lucky, these artists get a show at MAP, one of only a handful of galleries in Baltimore devoted to unconventional art -- work not necessarily designed to complement the chintz curtains.

Much of what goes on at Maryland Art Place might seem out of character for Ms. Sinex, who doesn't dye her hair primary colors, affect black attire or pierce any body part other than her earlobes. The downtown gallery, specializing in work by regional artists, has recently shown sculptures made of chain-link fence, a video of a woman whittling a carrot down to a stub, and an exhibit called "Catholic Girls," in which several artists were asked to interpret their religious upbringing. MAP is also the home of the 14Karat Cabaret, a club in the basement featuring weekend shows of performance art and music that is frequently disturbing, sometimes sexually explicit.

The chief emissary and key fund-raiser for this edgy material amid Baltimore's foundations, corporations and gentry is Suzi Sinex, who frequently wears a black velvet hair band and a

modest string of pearls. Picture Kathie Lee Gifford promoting a concert by Nine Inch Nails.

Not that Ms. Sinex is a complete stranger to the arts. Her father, Edgar Keats, is a retired Navy admiral and defense industry consultant. But her mother, Sellen James Keats, has been an artist since Ms. Sinex was a girl and has an exhibit of paintings and drawings running until Sunday in the lobby of the Mechanic Theatre. Ms. Sinex, who is partial to 20th-century and Italian Renaissance art, majored in art history at Wheaton.

few weeks ago she decided to dip her toes deeper into the waters of local bohemia by offering to pose nude for Raoul Middleman,the artist who did her portrait. She'd never posed before, but "just thought it would be a very good experience for me."

Mr. Middleman talked her out of it.

"It's cold in my place," says Mr. Middleman, who painted the 4-by-3-foot portrait in his studio on Calvert Street. "It's hard to hold the pose when it's chilly."

She sat for the portrait for four hours, with a few breaks. The gregarious Mr. Middleman, who has a show of billboard-sized paintings at MAP through Jan. 28, worked quietly as opera played on the stereo. He saw before him a willful woman and thought of a photograph of a scowling Churchill captured right after the photographer plucked the cigar from the prime minister's lips.

"I told her she had a mouth like Winston Churchill," says Mr. Middleman. "She threw herself into the experience. I told her anytime you want to model . . ."

But not nude, he says. "I didn't think it was the right thing to do, a woman in her position."

No problem, she says, "I would have been fine with it." Given the reticence and politesse in which she was raised, she says she's already had more public exposure than she ever would have imagined.

"I was raised by a mother who believed a woman should be in the paper twice in her life," says Ms. Sinex. The public nature of her position with MAP, which she started last February, "is new to me."

Ms. Sinex starts her workday with a cross-cultural expedition. She drives 10 minutes from her seven-bedroom Victorian in Roland Park to the gallery at 218 W. Saratoga St., down the block from the pink neon "READER ADVISOR" sign, the dusty storefront of a defunct jewelry shop, the sandwich joint jammed into a space scarcely wider than a phone booth. She steps across a sidewalk blotted with pigeon droppings, through the glass door, to begin another day shaking the local trees for cash donations.

Ms. Sinex, who has served on the MAP board since 1991, puts in about 30 hours as president. The position is unpaid, and she does not hold another job; yet she manages to keep two children in private school.

"I'm fortunate enough," she says, "to have other resources through investments and family. So I'm able to do this."

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