Sculptor's subway stopper Art: Paul Glasgow's approachable public work almost never made it underground. After eight long years, it has passed every conceivable hurdle. It should also stand the test of time.

April 09, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

It was a long time coming, but it was worth it. Sculptor Paul Glasgow's "Steles: Shot Tower," the latest piece of art to take its place in Baltimore's Metro subway stations, was eight years from inception to completion thanks to budget delays and the sheer difficulty of making the work.

But it's one of the most successful of the 16 works of art that decorate Baltimore's 14 Metro stations. It consists of seven sculptures of pink granite banded with bronze and accented with strips of red slate.

Abstract but suggesting human figures, the seven stand like formal but friendly sentinels, mediating between the station's architecture and the people who use it. Three form a reception line behind the turnstiles; the other four -- two at each end -- show the way to stairs and elevator descending to track level.

As the artist notes, these steles reflect human qualities beyond the visible. "There's strength in them, but also vulnerability. There's violence implied in the way the stone blocks were split to make the two halves of each piece, but they also have a certain calmness, too."

There are other associations as well. The steles' cone-like shapes echo that of the Shot Tower this station is neighbor to. And entirely on purpose, the station's bronze-banded granite walls with red-tinted mortar echo the materials of Glasgow's sculpture.

To complete the work, the artist endured difficulties not of his own making that sorely tested his patience, flexibility and inner strength. He passed the test.

In 1989, Glasgow was chosen to contribute one of four works that now decorate the two stations of the Metro's northeast extension from downtown: at the Shot Tower near the eastern end of the Inner Harbor and at Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore.

Then as now, Glasgow specialized in abstract sculptures which he called stele, based on his study of art of the pre-Columbian Mayan and Olmec cultures. The work appealed to the committee formed by the Mass Transit Administration to select the artists. "Paul was at a point in his career where he seemed poised to take that next step, and his stone pieces were much admired," says Cindy Kelly, a public art consultant and member of the committee. "We liked his forms and his use of material."

But the committee also had to find artists who could work well with others. "He had had a number of commissions, and it was clear that he was successful at that kind of interaction," Kelly remembers. "There is a great difference between being a studio artist and being a public artist."

Art of flexibility

Working with others was particularly important in this case. "We modified the art program from earlier phases of the Metro," says Denis Cournoyer, the MTA's chief engineer for the entire subway extension. "This art was to be designed into the station finish. It wasn't like going out and buying something and putting it on the wall."

Glasgow worked closely with architects to achieve a design in which sculpture and background would complement one another.

"We felt that we needed to fill the space with human-scale elements, and Paul came up with an excellent concept," says Kenneth Griffin, chief architect of the subway extension for the firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall. "Paul came up with some sketches using the pink stone, the bronze and the red slate, and what I did as an architect, metaphorically speaking, I unzipped the back of his sculpture, opened it up and stuck it on the wall."

Griffin remembers the working relationship with pleasure. "Sometimes there's chemistry and sometimes there isn't. Paul is a very experienced individual who also teaches and has a deep appreciation for architecture."

Glasgow, 45, teaches at both Towson State University and Catonsville Community College. He has to juggle those jobs with as much studio time as possible and with a family that includes his wife, Ellen Pinto, also an artist, and children Emily, 12, and Andrew, 8. A dedicated artist's life is demanding, and Glasgow didn't know he was an artist until late. He was a college senior studying humanities and anthropology at Kent State University in Ohio.

"I had a girlfriend who was an artist, so I started puttering around doing things, and it took over my life." He came to Baltimore in 1979 to enter the Maryland Institute, College of Art's graduate program at the Rinehart School of Sculpture. It was at the institute that he met his wife, and after graduation in 1981 he settled in Baltimore.

When he was selected for the subway project from hundreds of applicants, he knew it would be a challenge but also a rare opportunity. "One of the nice things about a fairly large commission is you can do things you can't do with your own resources," he says.

But he couldn't anticipate the hurdles to come. In 1990, his whole project was put on hold for four years due to cost overruns in subway construction.

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