On the street where you live Painting the town: Stewart White's murals help set the scene for Baltimore.

April 19, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Stewart White looks so comfortable sitting at a picnic table in front of his mural of suburbia that he almost blends into it. He seems to belong.

Well, yes and no. White has not only lived in suburbs like that, he has helped his father build suburbs like that. But settled in one place, hardly. In his peripatetic 42 years, he has lived in six foreign countries, and in the United States has found himself in Kentucky, Florida, New York, California and

Baltimore, where since last fall he has been working on the seven murals that enliven the main exhibit of the new Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center of the Baltimore City Life Museums. It's safe to say nobody in Baltimore has done more painting in the last few months than Stewart White. His murals total about 3,000 square feet, which if put together would equal a painting 30 feet high and 100 feet long.

But they're not put together. They're spread all over the second floor of the "I Am the City" exhibit, each in a different section. Moving among them, we find ourselves on a bustling street near the harbor in 1830, in a modest rowhouse neighborhood of about 1900, looking down Pennsylvania Avenue on a lively night in the 1940s, strolling the Howard Street shopping district around 1960, and relaxing in postwar suburbia with its split-level houses and backyard barbecues.

These murals don't just act as backdrops for the sections; they give them identity and anchor them in time and place. "They add the visual and emotional context to the evoked place that we are attempting to create," says John W. Durel, City Life Museums executive director and head of the team that developed the Blaustein Center exhibits. "What Stewart is able to do is pull you in. You feel like you're standing right there on the edge. You can really feel the environment."

Part of the reason for their success is the artist's ability to create images that are realistic but not too realistic. "It was necessary to have these stand up under closer inspection than theatrical backdrops," he says. "They had to look finished and unified." But on the other hand, he adds, "I have never been a photo-realist."

That works to the advantage of these paintings. If a picture is painted with every hair and leaf and blade of grass distinct, it can distance itself from us rather than draw us in, because that's not the way we normally see things.

Mr. White's middle ground lent itself especially well to the mural that shows three parks -- Mount Vernon Place, Druid Hill Park and Patterson Park -- blending into one another along one 40-foot section of curved wall. Where there are three different scenes shown continuously, with the scale changing from one to another, the lack of photographic specificity allows them to blend smoothly.

When Mr. White began the design process for his murals last September, the museum staff and the exhibit's designer, David Seibert of Museum Design Associates of Cambridge, Mass., knew what scenes they wanted and provided the artist with photographs and other historical materials from which to work.

"My job was to work out the color relationships and the compositional things," Mr. White says, "and develop a style to work in that I could realistically accomplish in the time.

"The important thing was not to let yourself get overwhelmed by the size, and intimidated. Not to feel they are too sacred, but get them done."

The artist first developed small paintings of the scenes, then added details on the full-size murals as they took shape.

Working out of a studio near the Maryland Institute, College of Art, he hired interns to help with the painting. Three paintings were done on canvases at the studio, the four others directly on the walls at the museum. The medium is acrylic paint, which offers advantages and disadvantages compared with oils.

"Acrylic dries faster and flatter," Mr. White says. "With oils you get four to five hours of working with it wet. But you have gassy problems with oils, and when you're working in a museum, with artifacts, that's not so good. Oils might take a year to release their gases, and that may or may not have an adverse effect on the artifacts."

This is not Mr. White's first museum job -- in fact it was his previous work on an exhibit for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington that attracted the attention of Mr. Seibert -- but he can't be said to have planned a career in museum murals, or even in murals.

A native of Kentucky, he grew up near military installations in this country and abroad where his father worked as a contractor. By the time he was in high school, he had lived in Kentucky, Spain, Germany, England, Florida, Turkey, France and Tunisia. Back in Kentucky, he was motivated in art by a high school teacher whose name he remembers with respect, Mary Walker Barnard. "She demanded a lot, and a lot of people didn't like her," he remembers. "She made you look, and pay attention to what you saw. She was inspirational."

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