Artists embrace Baltimore's grit

Haven: Affordable, eclectic and slightly `shabby,' the city is attracting creative types from across the county.

January 26, 2003|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Cornel Rubino's latest paintings hang on the walls of a gallery in New Orleans' Warehouse District. His commercial illustrations reinterpret 30,000-year-old cave drawings on bottles of Cote du Rhone.

For 20 years, he called Atlanta home. Now he is your neighbor.

Rubino, 50, and his textile colorist wife, Linda Gravina Ridings, 49, moved to Baltimore's Charles Village in August, taking on their first mortgage and quickly ferreting out authentic Italian grocers.

"It's a mix of the funk and the beauty that really draws us here," Rubino said, gazing out a window of his gracious Maryland Avenue rowhouse. "It's that snap. This city feels like a harbor for artists looking for a place to live where they can afford to do what they do."

Drawn by the port city's quirky reputation, layers of history, and affordable living and studio space, photographers, sculptors, painters and playwrights are migrating here in ever increasing numbers to discover a creative haven along the Chesapeake Bay.

Hard figures are elusive, but sources from real estate agents to art consultants say Baltimore is pulling in self-taught and trained artists alike from cities such as Minneapolis, Newark, N.J., Providence, R.I., Seattle, and Washington.

What many artist types find appealing in Baltimore might appall civic boosters.

New York art critic Jenifer Borum calls it "the grime." Enamelist Helen Elliott calls it "the grit." Rubino calls it Baltimore's "shabby edges."

Stage manager Janice Campbell, 38, a Midwestern transplant who discovered a housing gem near Patterson Park, said "this city attracts nontraditional minds, and it balances the weird without being rigid."

This is, after all, the petri dish author Anne Tyler and filmmaker John Waters already call home.

A year ago, Megan Hamilton, program director for the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown, began casually tracking the trend. She found cheap real estate to be a magnet.

"Bottom line, what they come to find is that you can move here and find a loft and it's not going to cost you an arm and a leg," Hamilton said. "For working artists in their 40s and 50s, that's a huge draw."

Consider these examples:

Three years ago, a Baltimore native freshly returned from Chicago settled into a 10,000-square-foot studio in a former necktie factory on West Baltimore Street. He pays $300 more for the hangar-sized space than he did for a Chicago loft one-sixth the size.

Two years ago, a sculptor and a landscape figure painter bought a pair of rowhouses in Pigtown for $19,000, tearing down the common walls and decorating the space with their own works.

Last spring, a theater couple closed on a $60,000 former TV repair shop across the street from the soon-to-open Patterson Studios, home of the Creative Alliance. The couple moved into the second story, built a cedar deck, and hope to open a cabaret in the former showroom this spring.

Last summer, a Newark painter and sculptor bought the Holy Grail of art studios: a 5,000-square-foot, stoned-faced behemoth in the new Station North arts district for $123,500.

Baltimore may be just the latest industrial port town in the shadow of a more glamorous city to find itself suddenly alluring. Tacoma, Wash., once the punchline of jokes in Seattle, is experiencing a similar incursion of artists into its long-abandoned turn-of-the-century warehouses and Art Deco buildings.

Among the dollars-and-cents reasons the new arrivals give for moving here are incentive programs the city offers to potential homebuyers, down payment grants, historic preservation tax credits, interest-free state money for settlement costs, and grants for closing costs on homes purchased in the city's three empowerment zones.

Searching for bargains, artists have moved into Hampden, Highlandtown, Hamilton, Pigtown, Butchers Hill, and along Lake Montebello, Maryland Avenue and Keswick Road. Edgy and established neighborhoods alike are fair game, said Randi Vega, the city's director of cultural affairs.

"Artists are moving all over Baltimore, and that in turn is giving the whole city a reputation as being artist-friendly," Vega said.

Borum, the Upper West Side art critic, takes the train from New York's Penn Station to Baltimore's Penn Station twice a month to hang out at Spoons, a Federal Hill coffeehouse with an arts-loving clientele.

"People in New York are freaking out. They're like, `Why do you like Baltimore so much?'" said the 38-year-old Columbia University doctoral candidate. "I love the restaurants, I love the food, the people are great."

Folk artist Tom Patterson, curator of the continuing exhibit High on Life: Transcending Addition at the American Visionary Art Museum on Key Highway, tried to pin down the city's subtle allure on the road from Baltimore to his home in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"Visually, it's just an appealing place with great venues for art," Patterson said. "It's a lively scene."

"Seductive," Borum added.

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