Voices along a river

Memories: Photographs and oral histories tell the stories of people in Oella, Ellicott City, Elkridge and Relay.

January 25, 2001|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Already some of the voices have slipped away.

An exhibit at Howard County Center for the Arts documents the stories of residents in the communities along the Patapsco. Some of the people featured in the "Portraits of the Patapsco" exhibit have passed away since the project began in 1997.

"I'm glad we had the opportunity to capture their voices," said Ali Kahn, a folklorist and free-lance writer who interviewed the subjects of the portraits. "Most of the people were pretty forthcoming."

The show, which is part of Howard County's Sesquicentennial Celebration, is drawn from a larger project. Armed with a grant from the Maryland Historical Trust, Kahn and Cockeysville photographer Peggy Fox set out to capture the stories of residents in Oella, Ellicott City, Elkridge and Relay.

Elaine Eff, director of the cultural conservation program for the trust, said the idea was sparked by a photo hanging in the offices of Oella Co.

"It was a picture of some of the older residents, and my boss saw it and came back and said we needed to do something like that," Eff recalled. "My job was to design a project for the community that would capture both their images and their stories."

Eff said time was of the essence to "tell the stories that had never been told."

"They needed to be told before they disappeared," Eff said. "We were really on the cusp before these people passed on into history."

Fox said she was moved by the stories she heard and the people she met.

"That's Jack Merson," Fox said, smiling at a photograph of 77-year-old John "Jack" Merson, now deceased, clutching a Louisville Slugger. "He played baseball, and he's holding the bat named after him, the `Johnny Merson' Louisville Slugger."

Fox runs her hands across other photos that evoke chuckles and warm memories.

One is of an elderly woman, photographed on the porch of her childhood home, who could recall when running water was first available in Oella - including bugs that backed up in faucets after a big rain. Another shows an artist-construction worker who has painted photos of all of the presidents and remembers a farmer named Ring who named his children Ruby, Emerald, Pearl and Garnet.

Fox said she learned a great deal about communities she knew very little about before beginning the project.

"The stories are just fabulous," Fox said. "My job was to go in and photograph them and to set them in some sort of an environment that would tell the tale of their past. We tried to get some history into each photograph."

Although Fox and Kahn worked independently - with Kahn conducting interviews and Fox taking the photos at different times - both said their work is cohesive.

"I think that's what made it so pleasurable," said Fox, who wrote text that accompanies each portrait in the show. "Both of us working independently, and yet we've been able to produce such a compatible body of work."

The two are pulling their work together for a possible book. Kahn, who wrote the book "Listen While I Tell You: A Story of Jews in St. John's Newfoundland," said she is "blown away" by the images Fox captured and the exhibit at the arts center.

"I think [Fox] really captures the people," said Kahn, who lives in Takoma Park. "I was really impressed with the way the show works."

"Portraits of the Patapsco" will run through Feb. 23 at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road. "A Winter's Feast" will be held at 2 p.m. Feb. 3 at the center. The event is sponsored by the Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway Inc. and will offer music, songs and stories to coincide with the exhibit.

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