My neighbors' gift to the Walters an art treasure for all of Baltimore

October 20, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

GOOD LUCK to today's Baltimore Marathon runners - may they take as much pleasure as I do on my little walks around our fair city.

As an old college professor of mine once suggested - walk, observe, discuss later. I took his advice, and this week's journey proved one of the more amazing:

For many years now I've begun my early Saturday morning jaunts by first taking out the week's trash, then walking west toward Charles Street. For what seems like all my adult life, I've passed a green corner rowhouse at the intersection of 26th Street, just at the end of what we locals call Pastel Row.

The moss green rowhouse has long been the John Ford Associates design studio, a business John and his gracious wife, Berthe, run. Like so many buildings and institutions in city neighborhoods, it has just sat there over the years, a good neighbor, one that never asks for recognition nor makes demands. Occasionally, the Fords see me on the street - they in the cars, I on foot. They toot. I wave back.

So when I visited the newly made-over Walters Art Museum, which opens today, I jumped on the pristinely polished flooring when I saw their names - John and Berthe Ford - as the donors of Desire & Devotion: Art from India, Nepal and Tibet, their stunningly beautiful art collection that has been given to the Walters, and, by extension, to all Baltimoreans.

Who would have thought, on those Saturdays when I rambled around the little alleys of Charles Village on my way to the market, that the stacks of packing materials I'd often observed behind the Fords' studio might have held some treasure they'd picked up in Asia? Maybe these boxes and crates only held wallpaper or carpeting for one of their clients, but I'll prefer to believe they held a precious 18th-century Tibetan ritual box of silver, gold and turquoise.

When I visited the Walters this week, Gary Vikan, its director, must have seen my mouth dangling open. He came up and explained my neighbors' gift is the largest single art donation his institution has received since 1931, when Henry Walters died.

Who would have guessed that one of the great hidden treasures of Baltimore would be in my back yard - at the Fords' studio - or at their nearby home, just up the street from where I do my Saturday walking and marketing?

Let me also recommend a long, thoughtful walk through the new Walters Art Museum, where the Fords' treasures are so elegantly housed. Thanks to better lighting installed in its galleries and display areas, my aging eyes have less trouble seeing the subtleties and delights therein.

Many of the objects there have a religious context. I often think that artists are far better at creating a sermon - and sending a spiritual message - in paint, stone, metal, embroidery or tile than speakers and orators.

I am also delighted that people who run the Walters have returned to the interesting device of creating mini-rooms - or artistic environments - so visitors, most of all the children, can get a sense of a dark Gothic space or a mysterious Egyptian chamber. If this is a slightly theatrical touch invading the pristine world of art history, good. I'll take a pair of orchestra seats along with my walking shoes.

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