Faithfully keeping track of black culture

SUNDAY SNAPSHOTS

Eva Slezak: For...

February 25, 1996|By Patricia Meisol

Faithfully keeping track of black culture; Eva Slezak: For 19 0) years, Pratt librarian has expanded the library's collection of works by black authors and playwrights while building her own wealth of knowledge of the city's African-American community.

Other people say it can't be found. Eva Slezak says let's try. And that's how it's been for the 19 years that Ms. Slezak has been collecting books, stories and facts about African-Americans.

The librarian in charge of the African-American collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Ms. Slezak, 49, has a reputation in the city's churches, neighborhoods, schools and universities as a genealogist of black family life as well as for being a connoisseur of black artists, poets and dramatists.

She built the library's national collection by word-of-mouth, by happenstance and by dedication. Because few big publishers are interested in plays and poems by black authors, she $H collected them from the authors themselves. Or she heard of works from friends, small presses, or in the self-publishing underground. Sometimes she'd be riding the bus to work and see people handing out leaflets trying to sell books of poetry.

Students, teachers, and people who want to settle family history questions seek her out daily. People also take their books and stories to her. She knows who's related to whom or about black enclaves inside what everybody thinks are solidly white neighborhoods.

"People know where I live. Sometimes I come home and I find these plastic bags [full of family memorabilia] hanging on my doorknob," she says.

Initially, Ms. Slezak helped organize materials already in the library -- books spread throughout the Pratt -- and set up files to collect articles, biographies, obituaries, and records of career advancements about black residents. The book collection now totals more than 7,000 volumes. It began with 500 titles, mostly from the 1800s and 1900s, with an occasional older item such as Benjamin Banneker's almanac. The literature collection is built on a set of first editions, some of them signed, by now-famous authors such as poet Langston Hughes.

"I've always enjoyed history. That's what makes it so fascinating," she says.

When she is not researching African-American culture, Ms. Slezak, who was born in Prague, the capital of what is now the Czech Republic, edits a nationally circulated newsletter on cultural and historical events for people interested in her own Czech-Slovak community.

@ As a carver of carousel horses, Florence McDermott spends her days crafting manes and tails, flaring nostrils and reviving the simple exhilarations of childhood.

Her East Baltimore stable now includes Neptune, Donovan, Kate and Shannon -- horses that range in size from 24- to 63 inches and in price from $2,000 to $10,000.

Made of the traditional basswood -- except for Donovan, who is poplar -- each horse stands on a base and has a traditional carousel pole.

They are a fancy-prancy group with well-muscled forelegs. They also sport major trappings: Neptune, for instance, is decorated with a carved mermaid, sea horse and dolphins. Each horse wears custom-made iron shoes. And they all face right: In Europe, carnival horses proceed clockwise. American horses go the other way.

"These horses are 'outside row standers,' " Mrs. McDermott explains. "They were the ones which had the most detailed carvings. The 'romance' side of the horse, which had all the special carving, was the side that faced the public. The carvers ++ called the other side, which had less detail, 'the money side' because it's where they made their money."

A watercolor artist who has won national awards for her realistic work, Mrs. McDermott began carving horses two years ago after she became captivated by the antique carousel in Glen Echo Park in Montgomery County.

Because she could find no local carvers, the 46-year-old artist bought herself a how-to book, a band saw, a jointer, some planers and went to work. The first horse, she reckons, took some 400 hours. As her horses grew in size, McDermott's Majestic Steeds moved from her rowhouse in Upper Fells Point to its spacious home in Canton's Harbor Enterprise Center.

And her watercolors?

"I haven't thought about painting," she admits. "This is a passion."

Laura Lippman

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