The creativity in us Visionary art: New Inner Harbor museum showcases ordinary people's handiwork.

November 24, 1995

BALTIMORE'S INNER Harbor has a new people magnet. The American Visionary Art Museum opening to the public today is an artistic tour de force; its $7 million facility in an old whiskey distillery at the foot of Federal Hill an architectural success.

"I want to attract a whole new audience for art," says museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger. She assembled some 400 pieces crafted by people in all walks of life who are at the "cutting edge of self-taught creativity."

Art historians and other arbiters will have to decide how all this meshes with conventional classifications of art. The thing important to us is that the American Visionary Art Museum manages to be profound without being pedantic, whimsical without being ridiculous. Whether made by a gas station attendant, nuclear physicist, doctor, street sweeper, domestic, real estate developer or a homeless person, its objects celebrate LTC the amazing ability of Americans to see uniqueness among the commonplace and give a concrete form to their vision.

They are people like Michael Dennis, who left a career in neurobiology at Stanford for year-round outdoor sculpturing; Baltimorean Gerald Hawkes who was disabled in a mugging but has become an acknowledged creator of matchstick sculptures, and Mary Whitfield, a self-taught painter who is drawing on the wealth of stories told her as a child by her grandmother in Alabama.

These and dozens of others "outside" artists are featured in the inaugural exhibition, "The Tree of Life." After a 10-month run, it will be followed next October by "Wind in My Hair," an eclectic show of flight and motion that will include not only three-dimensional models of Leonardo Da Vinci's early flying machines, but old airplanes and a collection of Harley Davidson motorcycles as well -- painted in psychedelic colors. For the future, Mrs. Hoffberger is toying with a dozen themes, including "The End is Near," an exhibit of apocalyptic paintings.

"This is a museum dedicated to a whole realm of fresh thought," explains guest curator Roger Manley.

The privately built American Visionary Art Museum opens clear of debt, ready to explore new frontiers in creativity. Baltimore is lucky to be the permanent home of this unusual institution that promises to be a big hit.

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