Harried Pigtown soothed by mural Art: Grateful residents say a three-story, peaceful river scene gives them a respite from the daily grind. The painting is part of a city mural program.

November 15, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Alan Rutter, a bicycle messenger, was spinning by on his wheels the first time he saw the mural. Tyrone Williams, a Southwestern High sophomore, passes it once a day. And it's the only thing that can get Marion, a heroin addict, to slow her brisk walk along Washington Boulevard.

"I spend my day trying to make it, just trying to make it," she says. "This gives me peace. Otherwise, I don't have no peace."

In a tough neighborhood known for its in-your-face attitude and brazen street crime, the new mural at the end of the 800 block of Washington Blvd. is starkly soothing. Scheduled for official unveiling today, it has already earned the loyalty of residents, from double-shift guys at the air freshener plant to $20-a-trick prostitutes on the boulevard's back alleys.

The three-story mural, on a stucco wall at the end of a line of rowhouses, succeeds with a combination of Baltimore grit and other-world fantasy.

It uses two redbrick arches to frame a river scene. The river water seems to flow gently northeast, on a path to an over-the-horizon intersection with Washington Boulevard somewhere near Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"People say, 'Why not do a painting that reflects some of the problems of the city?' " says the mural's artist, Mary Carfagno Ferguson. "But I think sometimes it's nice to have a break. It gives people a respite."

Carfagno Ferguson's mural is one of three paintings completed this year under the Baltimore Mural Program, which began in 1974. The program is organized by the mayor's office and the Department of Housing and Community Development, and receives financial support from three paint companies. The cost of putting up the Pigtown mural was a $1,500 scaffolding and a $3,000 honorarium for Carfagno Ferguson, the city says.

After a neighborhood resident approached the city, Carfagno Ferguson and other artists submitted drawings, and community residents selected their favorite. In choosing Carfagno Ferguson, they picked an experienced artist with two public murals to her credit. An 18-year resident of Baltimore, she moved here to study at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Divorced and with three elementary school-age children, Carfagno Ferguson began the mural with a commercial painter's chore: applying masonry sealer to the wall. When she started the actual painting -- working mostly between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., when her children are in school -- she quickly discovered that Pigtown "has closet artists all over the place."

The senior citizens who play bingo in the basement of the city's neighborhood service center at 904 Washington Blvd. offered opinions. Three boys came by and helped paint the bottom of the mural; their names -- Brock, Tyrone and Rasheed -- are signed on the mural next to Carfagno Ferguson's.

"My three girls came down," Carfagno Ferguson says. "They made their Halloween costumes here over one weekend."

One person suggested she add a single apple to a river-side tree.(She did.) Another was distressed that an earlier version of the mural included a bridge. (The span is absent from the finished version.) And Carfagno Ferguson says, "Someone in the early stages thought the mural was a map of Cuba."

Sort of a Communist Pigtown.

"I was very skeptical about community art," Carfagno Ferguson says. "The city needs so much more than a painting. But this community adopted this, and the mural became theirs."

"Because of all the input, it turned out to be much more fantasy than I thought it would," she says.

The mural has struck a chord in part because it has come during hard times for the neighborhood. The police have stepped up drug and prostitution raids, and the community's always-contentious neighborhood groups are battling again.

One businessman resigned last month from the board of the village center, which is the arm of the local empowerment zone, and wrote a letter saying that community leaders "will never reach the level of professionalism or civility necessary to serve any of the area's human or community development needs."

Some residents have thrown up their hands, and said there's no TTC changing the neighborhood. But maybe the mural, a few residents muse, can help cool heads.

"It's very soothing, very peaceful," says Doc Godwin, the village center head. "It's added a lot of wonder, a lot of wonderful comments about the neighborhood."

It's 2 in the afternoon, and the Sunlight hits the stucco just right. Sadie Stone, 19 and unemployed, is hanging around on the corner and sees the mural. And suddenly she stops thinking about her mother's constant admonitions that she get a job.

"It looks like you could walk right through it, and walk on the grass, right along the water," she says. "I'd like to sit inside that picture and just chill."

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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