Harford becomes a haven for creative artists to work

County's art scene expanding beyond crafts, duck decoys

August 06, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Utter the words Harford County and art, and most people think no further than craft shows and duck decoys.

But in recent years, the suburban county has lured painters, sculptors and musicians showcasing their talents from Bel Air to Havre de Grace. Dozens of people flock to a Bel Air coffee shop on weekends for poetry readings and live music. A bookstore in Havre de Grace often holds jam sessions, and a merchant has given up space in her framing shop for an art show.

Despite complaints that rapid growth is turning Harford County into a suburban nightmare, many artists say it is still tranquil enough to spark creativity in everyone from hobbyists to professionals.

"I think a lot of artists, because of their sensitivity to nature, move out of the cities to areas that are a bit more rustic," said artist Melissa Shatto. "There's an unusually large amount of artists for the amount of exposure that they get out here."

Musician Sheri Lyn Robbins has been a singer, songwriter and performer for more than 20 years and recently moved to Havre de Grace -- which dubbed itself the "the decoy capital of the world" for its famed wooden ducks.

Part of the Havre de Grace lure, Robbins said, was the small-town feel and the picturesque view of the Susquehanna River.

"What I have found here was a little more open spirit to music," Robbins said. "It's more hectic and edgy in Fells Point, but here the energy is more open, and the people seem to be too."

Robbins said she has been embraced by such Havre de Grace venues as Java by the Bay coffee shop and Washington Street Books and Antiques.

`Like a little family'

"The artist community here sticks together and gives each other support," Robbins said. "It's kind of like a little family."

Teresa Yost Bennett's Havre de Grace custom-framing shop, The Picture Show, was the site for the recent Havre de Grace Arts Commission's Ninth National Juried Art Exhibit, which attracted pieces from as far as British Columbia.

From floor to ceiling, surreal oils hang beside more traditional watercolors. Bennett, a sculptor, said more than 100 people came to the exhibit opening last month.

"This town lends itself real well to art receptions because you have the downtown area, and people feel like they can park the car and get out and walk around," Bennett said. "What we really need is a community center to hold events like this and showcase the talent."

Artists more organized

Dave Wolff, owner of The Fine Grind, a coffee shop on Main Street in Bel Air, said artists, musicians and poets in the county have become more organized in recent years. Wolff, whose shop has live music nights, poetry readings and art work on display each month, said he is getting more calls from artists and performers and more customers.

Looking for venue

"They are looking for a venue to play," said Wolff, whose shop recently displayed paintings by Shatto and Judith Simons. "A year ago, we had myself, an artist and a musician sitting here looking at each other. Now we have 20 to 30 people here on a Saturday night."

Not everyone has been so successful. Michael Yeager and his partner Sharon Gallagher recently closed The Last Tango, their gallery and antique shop in Havre de Grace. Yeager said they had trouble attracting customers.

"Since the beginning of the year, it's been kind of dead," Yeager said. "Havre de Grace is a tourist place, and we figured it would pick up, but it didn't."

Culture in the community

Shatto said she and fellow artists have been working to let the community know that they don't have to leave to find culture.

"There are so many people in the community who have the money to buy art, but they go get the City Paper and go into Baltimore to buy," Shatto said. "People know about the decoy museum and the craft shows but we want them to know about the artists, too."

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