The Picture of Community

Artist Mary Carfagno Ferguson refuses to paint Pigtown with a broad brush. As she has beautiful walls, neighbors' doors and arms have opened.

July 06, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Until Pigtown's community artist arrived last fall, William Chambers says he was the only one on the block who swept away the litter left by kids, petty drug dealers and their clients.

Then came Mary Carfagno Ferguson, wielding buckets, brushes and the notion that public murals, children's art on boarded-up windows and vigilant graffiti control can be a catalyst for a neighborhood's revitalized identity and pride.

Now, Chambers, the unofficial mayor of Carrolltown, a seven-block, predominantly African-American swath of greater Pigtown in southwest Baltimore, has company during his daily sweep.

Carfagno Ferguson's presence has resulted in a "big improvement to the area. It's actually caused some people to come out and do a little cleaning up," says Chambers, a 71-year-old retired postal inspector nicknamed "Mr. Bus," in honor of an uncle. "I've seen five or six women and a couple of men come out now with the brooms every morning."

Carfagno Ferguson, in her paint-splotched jeans and polo shirt, has become a familiar figure throughout Pigtown, in its schools, on scaffolds raised plumb with red-brick rowhouses, striding down Washington Boulevard.

When she arrived, courtesy of an 18-month, $48,750 "community fellowship" from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a branch of billionaire George Soros' philanthropy, Carfagno Ferguson, 51, brought "no preconceived ideas" about her role in the community. She let her paints and open manner do the talking and, as she did, children and adults were lured into Carfagno Ferguson's orbit, where many either grabbed a paintbrush or started gabbing about themselves and their community.

With the start of every mural, the process begins anew. At "every mural site, people don't know you. They think you're a little odd," says Carfagno Ferguson, a divorced mother of three girls. "As a painting evolves, they begin to see who you are through the mural. And they start talking to you more."

Carfagno Ferguson's first mural completed through the grant is a tribute to a neighborhood horseshoe pit at the corner of Bayard and Ward streets. There, for years, men called Bowtie, Herold, and Dog (so named because of his unsurpassed barking ability) passed the hours pitching horseshoes and trading gossip.

The mural was Carfagno Ferguson's calling card, and whenever she arrived to paint, a crowd gathered. "When the faces of the men went in, there were hoots and hollers," Carfagno Ferguson says. " `There's Bowtie, bumps and all,' they'd say. It's almost like magic."

When a mural is finished, it's hard to let go, Carfagno Ferguson says. It's as if "you're a regular in a pub."

As co-founder of the Woman's Mural Project, Carfagno Ferguson has helped clients at My Sister's Place, Baltimore's sole day shelter for women, create two murals, on Mulberry and Cathedral streets. On her own, Carfagno Ferguson has painted numerous other murals around town including a pastoral river scene on the 800 block of Washington Boulevard, completed under the Baltimore Mural Program.

A common ground

Over the years, Carfagno Ferguson, once skeptical of "community art projects," has become a convert to the idea that such projects establish a common ground where strangers can get to know one another and regenerate community.

Unlike social workers, politicians, city employees and others whose "official" status may place them under suspicion, Carfagno Ferguson slips beneath the local radar. Her role is different from "all the things available for an underprivileged neighborhood, because it remains very personal," she says. "It allows for a whole lot more trust. I'm not there because I have to be. I don't have an agenda."

What skills have allowed Carfagno Ferguson to become part of each neighborhood she works in? "I'm not even sure," she says. "I talk a lot. I'm friendly. I actually am interested in people."

Carfagno Ferguson, who returns frequently to Ward and Bayard, became fast friends with Chambers, who often paints over graffiti with her. "She just has a knack of getting along with everybody, all types of people," he says. "She helps to straighten me when I become dispirited about ... some of the attitudes and people in the neighborhood who don't seem to have any aim in life. She can sort of put it in perspective, like what they've got against them and what they're facing."

Carfagno Ferguson returns Chambers' compliment. "I feel so privileged to be able to have a relationship with him," she says. You can reach out to people, but there has to be a receptor, she says. Chambers "opened the door to many other people in the community as well. He invited the older people over to his place one night, and they all sat around and talked ... he knows everyone and all the subtleties and relationships."

Varying viewpoints

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