Getting the city's nitty and gritty Filmmaker: Martha Colburn pieces together snippets inspired by the streets of Baltimore to create brief, but radiantly alive, crazy-quilts of movie shorts.

June 10, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

On the first day that Martha Colburn began filming her Super 8 "collage animation" movies in Baltimore -- an arduous process demanding two-dozen camera clicks for every second of film -- a man walked by and flashed her and a colleague.

"Now what flasher is lucky enough to find two girls in a vacant lot on a Sunday afternoon with a camera?" asks Colburn, 26. "I thought: 'Maybe Baltimore is the place for me.' "

Since that day four years ago, Colburn has made about 25 short films, inspired by the seedy stimulation she finds in a five-block radius around Lexington Market and filmed and put together in the old shirt factory loft where she lives near Baltimore and

Howard streets.

The result are self-described "hyper-absurdities," whimsical kaleidoscopes of sex, color, movement and aggression that dart across the screen like psychedelic sperm under a microscope. The films are made from a pastiche of hand-painted puppets, "found footage" from salvaged military films, home movies and magazine cut-outs of everything from cavemen to Bill Clinton.

The films are garnering Colburn attention in avant-garde circles around the world. Four of them -- including a pro-smoking piece called "Asthma" -- were shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art in late May as part of a two-year exhibition called "Big As Life: An American History of 8 mm Film."

"Martha's films are handmade in the very best sense -- they're handicrafted," says Jytte Jensen, the show's curator. "She brought a lot of the [painted] cut-outs she makes for her films and told how they move and how much she actually does with the camera. A lot of people want to keep those secrets, especially since it can look deceptively easy, but she's very giving. Like her work, there's a certain generosity and exuberance with Martha."

With a fresh satchel of opportunities from her New York success -- like an all-expenses-paid invitation to Germany this month for the Hamburg Short Film Festival and a distribution deal -- Colburn is back at work in her beloved Baltimore.

Back where the front window of her unheated, 4,500-square-foot loft stares in the face of the Bromo Seltzer clock and makes her feel she's "living in a medieval land."

Where she can stroll through Lexington Market for the cheap thrill of ogling birthday cakes adorned with sugar icing breasts and the words "Take it Off."

And where $500 a month for a "dirty room big enough to build your universe around you" allows an emerging artist like Colburn pay her bills painting houses in the time left over from her obsession.

"It's my kind of perversion, not your conventional kind of 'N perversion. It's the hairstyles and people who don't hold back all the filthy words they want to put in one sentence," she says of her environ's ability to delight her.

"I use lots of animated animals biting things and people with animal heads having sex," she says of the two-to-six minute shorts. "Ideas that come from low budgets and having to work with what's around you. My personality keeps coming out in my work: dark humor mixed with a bit of punk mixed with dirt and sex and smoking -- all the things people enjoy but are taboo. Things that delight my sense of humor."

So rich in grime and taboo is the faded glory of the city's old shopping district that Colburn's parents have only visited her once since she moved "on intuition" from the outskirts of Gettysburg, Pa., eight years ago to attend the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

"I came to art school to escape the backwoods weirdness of isolated crazy people," she says of her rural childhood. "Of course, I was more isolated back home than everybody else because I didn't fit in. I've always lived in my ideas more than the world around me."

The world around Colburn changed when she landed in Baltimore to pursue painting and realized she didn't fit in any better with the academic art world than the pick-up truck milieu of rural Pennsylvania.

"There was so much culture shock about what art was that I didn't talk to anyone. I didn't even know what the word 'aesthetic' meant. It turned me off so much I almost stopped doing art," says Colburn, who hung in long enough to graduate. "I moved downtown to get away from all of that and started doing my own completely mischievous films."

After moving to Baltimore Street about seven years ago, she began playing with old films she picked-up at government surplus warehouses: slicing them up, coloring or bleaching the frames by hand, splicing the footage back together and setting it to music.

She marvels: "Even in this age of computer animation I'm still in awe that I can create a moving image."

Super-8 filmmakers -- enamored of the cheap portability of the equipment compared to traditional filmmaking and what Colburn calls the "luscious oomph" of color it achieves compared to video -- mine flea markets and junk stores for obsolete equipment that is almost impossible to repair for lack of spare parts.

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