Muralist pictures himself famous

Hopes, donations keep Mike Kirby coming to harbor

August 03, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

You almost walk on by - what's another street artist anyway? The Inner Harbor in summer crawls with them. A man sings Righteous Brothers tunes to a throng of six people near the water taxi stand. In the shade, a portraitist is customer-less. Others nearby sing angrily to themselves, which is another story.

But something catches your eye: two pouches of ruffled red carpet - lush pits for dollar donations. The money sacks help pin down a mural, prostrate by the big, black anchor fronting the USS Constellation ticket office. A purple cloth is draped beneath an artist's scrapbook. Catchy purple and red. Someone knows his colors.

"Can I help you?" says a young guy with one of those barbed-wire tattoos on his right bicep (also: sandals, shades, sleeveless T-shirt, mini-Stetson, authentic tan). Michael William Kirby is present.

He's been many places, but the American artist has come home.

On the brick pavement, Kirby has positioned two handmade signs - one in English, the other in his second language, Spanish. I am an Artist, believe it or not from Baltimore, both signs begin. He writes of his four-year journey to Paris, Rome, Florence, Mexico City and New York, and how donations have afforded him this artist's life. He's painted modern, sometimes political murals. The foreign press has written stories about him.

"I was considered a great painter - but was always considered an outsider," says Kirby, 26. So, the outsider came home to Baltimore, where he was raised near Memorial Stadium. His studio is in his grandmother's basement.

Since his homecoming, his work has turned decidedly local. His current mural at the Inner Harbor is a pastel scene of Baltimore's famous fire of 1904. The canvas - anchored by a white stallion fleeing a flaming Baltimore - sold for $600 to a client in Federal Hill.

"But I can't walk into City Hall and paint a mural. They'd laugh at me," Kirby says. And have you seen those murals in the Maryland section at the Enoch Pratt Free Library? "Disgusting!" He'd love to paint murals for the library, too. In short, Kirby wants to be famous in his home country. Fame opens doors.

Well, who doesn't want to be famous? The heck with leading a life of quiet desperation, right? An NFL linebacker gets $19 million just for agreeing to make $50 million. For Kirby, selling his fire mural for $600 was a nice bonus; he would have charged $5,000 for an oil painting of the same scene. Kirby prefers to work in oil.

On the plus side, he has no boss. He has no 9-to-5 job. He's young and talented. He's pocketed enough donations to have traveled from Canada to Peru. But he wants more. He wants fame. He wants to help Baltimore "become the most beautiful city," he says. "My goal as a painter is to help the place I'm at. I paint for the people."

But does he feel appreciated here?

"By my family."

Perched on the upper right corner of Kirby's fire mural is a Paul Mitchell hairspray can. (It's the best spray for keeping pastels from smudging, Kirby says.) Something else catches the eye. Kirby has drawn red bricks on his canvas to seamlessly match the red bricks in the pavement. Apparently, the city or somebody wouldn't let him paint directly on the ground, so the artist worked around any red tape. He says his homemade pastels are made from a concoction of pigment, plaster, oil and water.

A few feet from Kirby's mural, a city worker happens to be laying new bricks. On his knees in the severe heat, the man uses a rubber mallet to tap his bricks in place. He uses his trowel to smooth the mortar - made from a simple concoction of cement, sand and water. The bricks are staggered so vertical lines are never aligned. There's a craft - some say an art - to brick-laying.

Does a brick-layer feel appreciated?

At least by his family, one can hope.

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