Scotty Stevenson peers into the framed work of art as if he sees something arresting and elusive just beyond the edge of reality.
"This woman does such interesting work," he exclaims. "Andrea Huppert. I do like her work an awful lot."
Stevenson is an artist on a kind of cultural treasure hunt. Today he's previewing "Big Show 98: Journeys," the fourth Fells Point Creative Alliance Members' Exhibition, 100 works installed in 10 Fells Point venues. His own work is in the show, but right now he's in the second-floor gallery at Adrian's Book Cafe, one of the stops on the "Journeys" stops. He's looking at Huppert's mixed-media piece called "Bird- watcher."
"Actually, there's a desiccated bird in there," he says. "She does these really nice handmade textured papers. And there's a beautiful watercolor drawing back there, a beautiful face."
"How do you put a dead, emaciated bird in a piece of work and still have it be really pretty?" Stevenson marvels. "She can do work like that."
The Big Show opened last week and will run through Oct. 25. Megan Hamilton, a founder of the Creative Alliance, calls it the most egalitarian art show in town. Any Alliance member can show work, and anybody can be a member -- for $25.
And this year for the first time, the Society for the Preservation of Fells Point and Federal Hill is underwriting the show, and offering more than $1,000 in prizes.
Stevenson finds an old favorite on Adrian's wall.
"Ah, Fred Collins," he says. "With 'Ho Chi Minh.' It's interesting, his work here. He's doing this with computer art. I don't know anything about computers. He does a lot of political, anarchy-type work. I haven't seen his work in a long time."
He looks into Ho Chi Minh's great round, sad eyes. Tiny pupils stare out of a face that looks as if it's been generated from an aurora borealis.
"I was thinking the eyes might be a flag," Stevenson says. "But I can't see a flag."
He remembers Collins as a musician who knows a lot about film and videos, who appropriated '60s, '70s and '80s political figures, tying them together with a kind of surreal color.
Ho Chi Minh's eyes seem haunted, surrounded by neon colors. But Stevenson doesn't see any political commentary.
"I don't think it says anything about what Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh left behind."
Stevenson, 43, is an accidental Baltimorean. His stepfather was an itinerant drilling supervisor in Southeast Asia. After Stevenson graduated from high school in Singapore, he wrote to several American art schools. The Maryland Institute, College of Art was the only one that replied by air mail, and he ended up in Baltimore.
"I didn't really know where Baltimore was," he says. But he sunk roots almost immediately. He lives in Sowebo, the Southwest Baltimore cultural district. But he credits his own artistic renewal to the Fells Point alliance.
He had spent a long dry spell without painting, when he mostly cooked at Martick's Cafe Francaise and later at Louie's Bookstore Cafe, both traditional workplaces for struggling artists.
"That's what I call a pretty close call," he says. "The likelihood of me going back to art was pretty slim."
But the feeling of community and feedback he got from fellow artists at the Creative Alliance's artists forums encouraged him to pick up his brush again.
"I look at the forums almost as a physical checkup," he says. "You bring your work in for a diagnosis. You bring in work that's crippled or in bad stages or something that's been over-medicated."
He's tough on himself but a generous critic of other people's work. Peering at Stuart Keefer's gouache of whales in some intense blue deep, he says, "I'm envious of people that have that really nice touch. They get the feel."
Keefer's a senior aquarist who designed the living reef at the National Aquarium. He developed his touch painting marine life for about 20 years, like the "Mother and Calf" whales at Adrian's.
Stevenson's own work is at the Studio 302 gallery, a space for big pictures at 302 S. Central Ave., a space in an old industrial building that stretches the boundaries of Fells Point, if not of art.
His "Barn Storming," a canvas about 6-by-8 feet, boldly painted with great swatches of saturated colors, is, he says, perhaps the last of a series that might be called abstract-expressionist.
He's been working in a new painted and repainted narrative form using Morse Code dots and dashes, dealing with the deaths of both his father and stepfather in the past year. Both were Texas oilmen, one an engineer salesman, the other a production supervisor.
A sort of mobile version of the forums that inspired Stevenson will take place on Thursday and Oct. 21, when the four critics who chose the Visual Arts Award winners -- Mary Jacques Benner, Loyola College gallery director; Susan Lowe, Maryland institute painter and teacher; J.W. Mahoney, free-lance critic and curator; and Jack Rasmussen, Maryland Art Place director -- travel the Big Show route.
The roving critiques will begin at Margaret's Cafe at 909 Fell St. -- headquarters of the alliance -- and the public is invited to trek along.
What: "Big Show 1998: Journeys"
When: Through Oct. 25
Where: Various galleries in Fells Point; brochures and maps available at Halcyon Gallery at Margaret's Cafe, 909 Fell St. Hours vary by location.
Call: Fells Point Creative Alliance, 410-276-1651
Pub Date: 10/05/98