Unsuspecting customers who order drinks at Gertrude's in the Baltimore Museum of Art tomorrow through Sunday may receive an original artwork disguised as a coaster.
The art comes courtesy of The Coaster Project, Destination: The World, a plan hatched by the TransCultural Exchange to place free art into the hands of the public. The collaborative effort began in 1986, when artists from Chicago and Vienna arranged an art exchange in each city.
Since then, the arts group, now based in Boston, has presented international exhibitions and art forums as a way of transcending cultural and ethnic boundaries.
"The great thing I didn't expect at all, when I got all the coasters, [was that] you couldn't tell what country they're from," says Mary Sherman, director of the TransCultural Exchange. "It's amazing to see how visual language transcends borders."
In 2000, two previous Coaster Projects were organized in London and New York City. The current project is a global effort: 99 artists from 32 countries have each created 100 original, 4-inch-by-4-inch coasters. That adds up to nearly 10,000 original works.
Participating artists used different materials and methods to create their coasters. There are works featuring striking portraits, gewgaws encased in plastic, Japanese calligraphy and dainty crochet work. Cut-out shapes, simple drawings and photographs grace others. Some coasters were created one by one, others mass produced.
Completed coasters were shipped to a "central depot" in Boston, digitally scanned and arranged into 99 sets. From there, the coaster sets were sent to participating artists who arranged for their display and distribution at bars, museums, bookstores, cinemas and other locations. (The TransCultural Exchange also kept a set for its archive.)
From early March through May 19, coaster sets are on view in Tokyo, New Zealand, Slovenia, Antarctica, South Africa, India and Palestine, among other far-flung places.
The goal of the Coaster Project is to foster the idea that "not only can positive things happen when people work together, but that art can act as a reflection of the common denominator that unites us all - the basic human desire to express ourselves through images," according to a project overview.
The project has made the world a little smaller, as artists contact one another about future collaborations, Sherman says.
Baltimore painter Ruth Pettus created a series of abstract coasters for the project. Working on four-ply mat board, she coated each square with Gesso or Latex paint, then rubbed in more paint or ink to create earthy, organic canvases on a miniature scale. "The first 40 were kind of fun to do," Pettus says. After that, "it really became hard work."
At Gertrude's, the coasters will be randomly distributed with drink orders - while supplies last.
To learn more about The Coaster Project, go to: www.transculturalexchange. com/coasterproject