Artistic opposites find common ground Exhibit: A couple takes different routes to the same themes in their artwork.

October 26, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Cynthia Baush creates art on a monumental scale: larger-than-life drawings of goddess figures in bold earth colors. Each is so big that it dominates a wall in a gallery, yet she creates them in a rented studio space that's 10 by 13 feet -- "a closet," as she describes it.

Rennie Bla-lock, her husband, uses the barn on their Frederick County property as his studio, creating meticulously detailed works inspired by African ceremonial art and made of tiny found objects such as shells, bones, pebbles, tufts of hair, twigs and fabric scraps.

She draws fast and big yet sticks to a firm -- she says rigid -- schedule of studio time. Between finding the materials and waiting for a natural arrangement to emerge, he may take as long as a year to complete one of his intricate maps or careful hierarchies of detritus.

Their strikingly different work is on display through Nov. 14 at Western Maryland College.

But for all the surface differences, their art is rooted in the same ground: the connection between life and death.

With Bla-lock's assemblages, the connection is tangible. He spends a good part of every day combing their property, an adjacent state preserve called the South Mountain Natural Environment Area and the banks of the nearby Potomac and Shenandoah rivers for the objects that become the stuff of his art. All are, in some sense, the matter left behind after the spirit departs, and they are intricate and beautiful.

A segment of fish spine, for instance, cleaned, dried and bleached by the sun, is as delicate as filigree. The petals of a milkweed pod, once it has delivered its burden of feathery seeds into the world, dry out in a graceful curve that the sculptor Henry Moore might envy.

Baush captures her ample earth-women in big, sweeping strokes of organic pastel crayons that she gets from France. The strokes are thick, in a rich range of oranges and yellows, But she leaves plenty of air, so the black background shows through.

The overall effect is buoyant: a picture not of heavy flesh but of a woven, glimmering skin or shell, shed by the goddess in a periodic, snakelike act of renewal. The soft black ground is an open area, a volume, in which these mythic women and their allies -- birds, serpents, a dog -- free-float in time and space, cushioned by the fronds of huge ferns or the broad blades of desert succulents.

Many of Baush's images come from dreams -- she keeps a journal of her night thoughts and participates in a monthly dream group -- and she also is indebted to Egyptian and East African figure drawings. Her creations, like Bla-lock's, explore the state of being at which solid reality ends and memory, imagination and ritual begin.

The artists have traveled a complicated path to find their art. Bla-lock, 44, grew up in Charlotte, N.C., at a time when it was a sleepy Southern town, much more rural than today, when it has grown into a banking and business center. His interest in seeds and bones and natural debris is a boyhood pastime grown into an artist's method. He attended Elon College, N.C., majoring in history, before deciding to pursue art studies, first in Boston, then in Washington.

Baush, 37, is from Washington, and they met while working in a restaurant to support their enrollment at the Corcoran Gallery's school. Seven years ago, they moved to a 30-acre farm, once a Civil War hospital, outside Knoxville, across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry, W. Va.

Even in the country, art is not enough to live on. Both still work part time in restaurants. Bla-lock has tried a variety of jobs, from selling antiques to hand-painted furniture, but acknowledges he has had very little luck with business. Baush, who has a master's degree in art from the University of Maryland, teaches at Montgomery College and Frederick Community College.

Baush adheres to a strict schedule, working in her rented downtown Frederick studio between three and four hours a day, three days a week.

"I think I don't like working at home," she says. "I like the segregation" of home and studio.

Blalock roams the property and canoes the rivers, accompanied by their dogs, Tasha, a Siberian husky and wolf cross, and Willie, a golden retriever, whose silky fur provides art material. (Tasha, not to be outdone, appears draped around the neck and shoulders of a goddess in one of Baush's largest drawings.) Their land provides all kinds of raw material. Its inhabitants include deer, fox, raccoon, possum, pheasant, wild turkey and hawks.

In addition to the dogs, the artists share their home with two African land turtles, now about the size of dinner plates, who may grow as large as tires in their 100-year life spans. The turtles, formerly residents in a zoo, were obtained from a rescue service when the zoo fell on hard times and was forced to farm out its collection. They are desert creatures, so they live in a warm room at the top of the barn.

"On a hot day, I bring 'em out and let 'em run around," Bla-lock says.

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