Artists' haven is lost in ashes of foundry

September 19, 1995|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's art community rallied quickly yesterday to help re-establish 16 sculptors, woodworkers, potters and painters after their studios burned to ashes in an eight-alarm fire at the Clipper Industrial Park in Woodberry.

Led by officials of the Maryland Institute College of Art and Maryland Art Place, an advocacy group for Maryland artists, a relief fund has been established and a call issued for cash donations, metal-working and carpentry tools as well as vacant studio space.

"Artists have nothing to sell but themselves. From a career standpoint, this is devastating," said Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art. About 10 of his faculty members, staff and alumni lost everything in the fire.

"The fire gutted a very important part of this town," he said. "Places like this build the character of what makes a great city today. This didn't exist when I got here 18 years ago." He estimated that there were another "40 or 50 successful and mature artists" living or working in the Hampden-Woodberry part of Baltimore.

"We've already had offers of in-kind donations come in. Some lawyers will help us try to settle what insurance claims there might be," said Tex Andrews, program director for Maryland Art Place.

The Hampden Village Merchants Association has taken an inventory of vacant space to offer to the displaced artists, and city officials were discussing the possible use of vacant commercial real estate, Douglas Frost, a Maryland Institute official, said at a meeting held last night to discuss helping the artists.

Throughout Sunday and Monday, many of these artists stood outside the mound of fire-fractured brick, charred slate roofing and steel columns twisted like melted candles. They tried to collect their thoughts and figure out what to do next.

Potter Norma Wallis couldn't even find a speck left of her career as an artist.

"It was so hot in there it was like it had vaporized," she said. "I climbed up the hill and looked down where I had worked. It was surreal. There's not even any rubble left of my things -- the molds, the kiln, the forms," said the artist, who recently completed a large tile centerpiece for the Mount Washington light rail station.

"I don't intend to stop for one minute. I say rebuild on the spot," HTC she said.

Clipper Industrial Park is owned by William D. Poloway, whose father purchased the site in 1972 for his cabinet-making business.

"I am still totally disoriented by the fire," Mr. Poloway said. "I was sitting home in my boxer shorts Saturday night watching the ball game when I heard what had happened." He said the buildings were insured, but as of yesterday he had no specific rebuilding plans.

"It's too early," he said.

The Maryland Institute issued a list of ten artists affected by the fire who were either faculty, staff or alumni: Allyn Massey; Joe Roberson; Fred Ellwanger; Jo Small; Chris Gavin; Lois Hennessey; Jerry Romanow; Jann Rosen-Queralt; Sandra Moore; and Carolyn Maynard.

"I've lost my entire life since 1989," said Scott Wallace, a furniture maker who had spent most of the summer carving an elaborate saints' relic case for a Russian Orthodox church in Washington. He also lost antique woodworking tools and slabs of 100-year-old walnut.

He also searched -- in vain -- for his cat, a calico named Odem.

"The firemen told me she didn't have a chance," he said.

The sprawling 19th-century Woodberry complex -- it had been an iron foundry -- had served as a studio village to the 16 artists, a commercial cabinet-making shop and the Clipper City Rock Gym. Other artists maintain undamaged studios on the property.

The fire claimed the 140-year-old stone building, which had been subdivided into studios where artists made custom furniture, glazed ceramic tiles or welded sheets of metal into sculpture.

"This was a cathedral to the industrial age," said sculptor Allyn Massey. "The old building was one of the reasons I came here. I could look into the past and see the men working with their hands. I work with my hands. I liked that connection."

The fire consumed Ms. Massey's studio. Yesterday, she stood beside the ruins and hugged fellow sculptor Vicki McCarthy.

"My brain is mush today," Ms. McCarthy said. She had left the building for a few minutes Saturday night, only to return and find it filled with an eerie orange glow.

The fire claimed sculpture, her tools and welding equipment.

Alice Ann Finnerty, president of the Hampden Village Merchants' Association, and Rick Arnold, president of the Hampden Community Council, also vowed to help the artists find other spaces in the community.

The Clipper Park Artists' Relief Fund is being handled through Maryland Art Place, 218 W. Saratoga St., Baltimore, 21201.

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