Art of the everyday at the Marlborough

Exhibit: The current residents of the apartments - once home to the Cone sisters - learn about, and create, art.

April 18, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The plump sassy cardinal that is Beulah Smith's first work of art went on view yesterday at the Marlborough Apartments, where until the 1940s Etta and Claribel Cone displayed one of the world's great collections of modern paintings.

Smith's stitchery - a cardinal chirping embroidery notes - may never go to the Baltimore Museum of Art like the Cone Collection, which reopens this weekend in newly renovated galleries. But it's certainly a charming bird.

"That's my favorite bird, the cardinal, especially the red ones. And the red one is the male. I like red," says Smith, who is 84 and has lived 18 years at the Marlborough - not quite half as long as Etta Cone, who died in 1949. Claribel died 20 years earlier.

Beulah Smith stitched her cardinal as part of the Marlborough Art Project, which brought together Maryland Institute, College of Art students and Marlborough residents to explore the building's history, its residents' past and present, notably the Cones, and their connection to the larger community.

The Marlborough, on Eutaw Place, has undergone several transformations since the Cones' time, some of them quite unhappy for the building. The handsome Beaux Arts exterior remains elegant. But the interior was gutted in the 1970s, and the lobby, ballroom, dining room, lovely woodwork and architectural details were obliterated and the Marlborough emerged as low-income housing. Once again, at the end of the 1990s, a church-based group redesigned the interior as housing for the elderly. The apartments now seem warm and comfortable and utilitarian.

George Ciscle, a founder of the Contemporary Museum and curator in residence at MICA, directed the project.

"I designed a course through the Maryland Institute," Ciscle says. "This course was for a group of students to work with me and the architect and an artist in residence named Maria Teresa Fernandez to come up with an actual plan and to decide how could we connect with these residents."

The students did research at the Pratt Library, Maryland Historical Society and other places, conducted oral histories, visited apartments and found that many of the residents collected things like porcelains and etchings. Some also did their own artwork.

So the students designed an arts workshop for residents to produce works to express their own history. About 20 residents participated. There was a reception last night to open the exhibit of their work in the Marlborough community room - nice, though perhaps not quite as gala as the museum party under way at the BMA last night.

And if Smith's cardinal never gets hung at the BMA, she did create a work of art there, a handsome fabric collage with three flowers at the bottom and a blue-figured panel, not unlike the patterned backgrounds in a Matisse still-life. She and about a dozen other residents visited the museum for the first time with the project.

They went through the Cone Collection and then made their own collages in the afternoon.

"They gave us the paper and stuff to work with and long tables," Smith says. "And we just worked on it ourselves."

But she didn't really care for the art in the Cone Collection.

Her tastes run more to realism than abstraction. She has nice reproductions on her apartment wall of a couple of seascapes, a bucolic country scene faintly Kinkaidesque and a view of Mount Fujiyama.

Smith was probably the most experienced seamstress in the Marlborough Project. She worked about 18 years in the clothing industry as a sewing machine operator, and she's been a dressmaker.

Perhaps the most inventive needlework is in the work of Willie Suggs, whose stitchery seems as inspired as a trumpet improvisation in a jazz solo. He did in fact call one stitch-work riff "Jazz."

"Yeah, I liked it," he says. "It keeps your mind clear."

At the BMA, Suggs, 79, made a very handsome, well-composed collage of cloth squares with a tree of hearts just off-center. "Yeah, I worked a little bit out there," he says.

And he did like the Cone Collection works: "I enjoyed it. Some people didn't. But I did. I sat there, and I really enjoyed it."

But the wall hangings in his room are less abstract. They include a drawing of Jesus, a molded conquistador, his certificate of baptism, which occurred a couple months ago, and his honorable discharge from the Navy.

He had never heard of the Cone sisters before the project. He was unaware he lived on their floor. And he wasn't too impressed, either.

But Suggs has always been impressed with the Marlborough.

"I lived on Madison Avenue, and I used to work at the Druid Hill garage, and I delivered cars here," Suggs says. "At the side door, downstairs. That's when big shots living here then, lawyers, doctors living here then."

But in segregated Baltimore, during the Cone era, the only African Americans living at the Marlborough were servants.

"Anybody told me I would be living here, I wouldn't believe it," Willie Suggs says. "No. I just wouldn't. It's one of those things. When I moved here, I said, `Well, I ain't going to move no more. I'm through moving.' "

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