Mosaics mirror building's kinetic qualities

Southern High students and others are covering walls in the spirit of the Visionary Art Museum.


January 13, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Since ancient times, artists have decorated buildings with mosaics -- pictures or designs made from small, colorful pieces of stone, glass or tile set in mortar.

That international tradition lives on in an ambitious community art project that is transforming the appearance of the American Visionary Art Museum, overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

For four months, museum staffers have been working with students from Southern High School and other volunteers to create panels that will eventually cover the three-story building's exterior, creating the largest outdoor mosaic of its kind in Maryland.

The artists are using found or donated materials that many would consider trash: old perfume and medicine bottles, broken dishes and pottery, watches, seashells, marbles, mirrors and -- a touch of whimsy -- miniature figures of U.S. presidents.

The project is making one of Baltimore's most unusual buildings even richer and more distinctive, while enabling participants to learn a time-honored craft.

In many ways, it is the perfect expression for a museum that showcases creations of self-taught individuals who work outside the mainstream -- and typically have a gift for turning the detritus of society into art.

Community Walls project

Nearly 10 years have passed since Congress designated Baltimore's then-fledging attraction as America's "national museum, repository and education center" for visionary or outsider art -- works produced by people who have no formal art training but are driven by internal impulses to create.

Prominent among the creators of visionary art are the mentally ill, the disabled and the elderly. They often work with everyday materials such as matchsticks, toothpicks or eggshells. The visual product tends to be an intensely personal statement possessing a powerful, often spiritual quality. It exemplifies the human capacity to overcome difficulty through creative response.

The idea of covering the museum's concrete walls with mosaic tiles was part of the original architectural design by Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro, who created the museum in and around the old Trolley Works building at 800 Key Highway and the Four Roses whiskey warehouse next door.

Working closely with museum founder and president Rebecca Hoffberger, the designers suggested that the curving walls on the newly constructed portions of the museum could form an ideal canvas for a nonfigurative mosaic created by a master ceramicist working with at-risk youth as part of the museum's community outreach.

Hoffberger realized that the museum could build public support by asking the community to donate bits of family china, tile, glass and other materials to create the museum's flesh -- a new twist on the term "blue plate special."

The Community Walls project is part of a tradition in which artists have created mosaics to enhance art environments around the world, from the Watts Towers in Los Angeles to Antonio Gaudi's sculptural buildings in Barcelona.

Hoffberger particularly liked the idea of incorporating shards of cobalt blue glass, known as "Baltimore glass" because of its association with one-time Maryland companies such as Noxema and Bromo Seltzer, to give the project a local accent.

The Baltimore project was also inspired by the success of the Cathedral Stoneworks Project at St. John the Divine in New York City. Under that program, young people from Harlem were apprenticed to English stonemasons to learn the art of carving gargoyles. Graduates have gone on to help restore or re-create Gothic style buildings throughout the United States and Canada.

Like the apprentices in Harlem, Hoffberger reasoned, Baltimore students could use the mosaic-making skills they acquire to create vases, murals, birdbaths and other home and garden accessories that could be sold in the museum's gift shop, online or wholesale.

But execution of the mosaic was delayed until sufficient funds became available. The museum opened in November of 1995 with unadorned concrete walls juxtaposed against the restored brick walls of the Trolley Works building and whiskey warehouse, which has become the museum's sculpture barn.

Last July, with the help of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the museum received a $249,698 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to launch the first phase of the mosaic project. Under the direction of Jack Livingston, the museum's project coordinator and master ceramicist, and Beth Secor, director of student programming and outreach, installation began on the wall just south of the main entrance and the ramp that leads to the first level of exhibits. The entire project is expected to take at least five years to complete and cost $1.5 million.

Blue and mirrored glass

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