As Baltimore County steps up development of park as arts center, neighbors are keeping a wary eye on their secret sanctuary


October 29, 1995|By Philip Hosmer

Usually, Holt Memorial Park in Overlea is so quiet that you can hear the birds chitchatting in the trees and the bullfrogs plopping off the lily pads into the pond. If you listen closely, you can even make out the sound of squirrels scampering through the bushes.

But on this sunny afternoon, there was a new sound in the park. It was the buzzing sound of people engaged in a spirited discussion. What was it that had them so excited?

A box.

A single black box, open on top with a brass doorknob inside. Juanita Hartline, who has lived near the park for 35 years, had never seen anything like this box, which was part of an outdoor art display called Art in the Park.

"I was standing there trying to figure out what this was supposed to mean," says Ms. Hartline. "I discussed that box with about 20 people. Most of them were total strangers. I don't know if it's art or not, but it made me think and it really got a conversation going. I thought it [the box] was trying to say that in today's society, we have to lock ourselves in our homes."

Determined to solve the mystery, she found the artist who created the black box and asked him what it was supposed to be.

"He told me, 'It's there to figure out. It's whatever you think it is,' " Ms. Hartline says with a sigh.

Although frustrated in her attempt to glean the black box's exact meaning, she learned firsthand the subjectivity of modern-art appreciation. Just as the black box and modern art in general are open to the viewer's interpretation, Holt Memorial Park itself is an abstract work, enigmatic and lacking clear definition.

The park, like the black box, is whatever you think it is.

The 10-acre oasis is so well-hidden at the back of McCormick Avenue, a dead-end street, that some nearby residents don't even know it exists. It is shaded by tall pine trees and dappled throughout with the bright colors of marigolds, geraniums, rhododendrons and azaleas. A grassy knoll overlooks a pond. Sitting on a bench under a canopy of grape vines, it's hard to believe you're only a few blocks from the noise and traffic of Belair Road.

The grand white house at one end of the property was formerly the home of Thomas and Hattie McCormick; their daughter Lillian Holt later lived in one of the four log cabins on the property.

Lillian died in 1975 at age 84. Four years earlier she had deeded the entire property to Baltimore County. One of the conditions of Lillian's will was that the property be preserved for relaxation, meditation, art and nature studies.

There's broad room for interpretation within Lillian's request. The park is many things to many people. It's a place for the local gardening club to turn a shovel. It's a quiet spot for a stroll in the woods. It's a pristine venue for outdoor concerts. It's home to the McCormick-Holt Center for the Arts, a gallery and studio for working artists. It's a secret sanctuary that neighbors who know of it enjoy as they would their own back yard.

What the park will become is less clear. Because it's an unfinished work, there are many spaces left on the canvas. And there are differing opinions about how they should be filled.

Lillian's gift to Baltimore County, while generous, has left county officials in a quandary. How will the park be developed, maintained and used? Just how much activity should be encouraged there? What audience is the park serving? And in a tight fiscal climate, how much money should be spent on the park?

Modern art meets the working class

Residents who live near the park have differing opinions on how it should be used. Some, who have lived in the working-class neighborhood for decades, like the park all to themselves. But others prefer to have a large number of people using the park because it discourages teen-agers and vandals from hanging out there. And not everyone is pleased with the modern direction that the art gallery has taken under the new artist-in-residence, Joel Fiser, whom the county hired in March to oversee the McCormick-Holt Center for the Arts.

Mr. Fiser, 35, lives alone in one of the cabins on the property, where he works on his assemblages -- three-dimensional collages made of rubber, metal and various other objects such as nails, plumbing hardware and tire valves. The black box that spurred the lively debate at Art in the Park Day was his creation.

Mr. Fiser sees tremendous potential for the park to become a thriving arts community and to draw a wide audience.

An exhibition of artwork by county adult-education students in the arts center this summer was attended by a variety of people, ranging from thirtysomethings wearing sandals and T-shirts to retirees in button-downed shirts and khaki pants.

"I feel like a missionary," Mr. Fiser explains. "My mission is to make contemporary art palatable to everyone. It's a slow educational process, but I think it's worth it. It's worth it when people come up to me to ask how I did something, or what something means."

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