An artist inspired by boats

Sculptor: With a personal and family background in the Navy, Alzaruba uses representations of watercraft as symbols to address broader themes of life.

March 06, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

After moving around the world with his father's Navy career and spending 10 years in the Navy himself, Baltimore artist Alzaruba's use of boat shapes in his work may seem obvious.

But the sculptor strives to move beyond the obvious, using representations of boats to symbolize broader themes such as the human body and the spiritual journey through life.

Alzaruba has recently received attention for his large, outdoor installations of wooden boats using living trees as sails. One example, 72 feet long and weighing 14 tons, is on display at Quiet Waters Park near Annapolis.

His show, The Unknown Sea, at the Artists' Gallery in Columbia and running through March 28, features much smaller boat-shaped pieces, each propped up on paddles and adorned with items that include trees, a human figure and a small white rabbit wearing glasses.

One sculpture, with oars facing different directions and a gold lion's head on a pedestal, is a self-portrait, the artist said. Another boat shape - with a casting of human teeth clamped onto a bit that decorates the front and a tree in the stern - represents duality with something benign or nurturing tethered to a crisis or a dilemma, Alzaruba said.

An opening reception from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow will feature a performance piece by the artist, in which he will dance to the rhythm of African drums in a costume of blue plastic bags.

"I'm trying to investigate a state of being," said Alzaruba, 50, who lives in the Hamilton neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore. "When people know exactly where they're going, they're often in deep trouble because they are not growing.

"Ultimately, the issues I want people to think about are the spiritual ones," he said. "Everyone thinks if you can't put your finger on it ... it is not as valuable or real - consequently they are really shutting down the validity and importance of the humanities."

"The pieces of wood are exquisite," said Denee Barr, a member of the Artists' Gallery co- operative who invited Alzaruba to be a guest artist. "I think people will appreciate seeing something different than they usually see."

Smaller works

Alzaruba's smaller works on exhibit in Columbia are built from wood he collected in Patterson Park after a storm blew down branches and tree trunks. One "gorgeous old tree" had shapes in the hollowed trunk that would make wonderful little boats, he said. When he was invited to have an exhibit at the Artists' Gallery, those pieces of wood "happened to be sitting there, almost like it was predestined."

Some sculptures include copper pieces he salvaged from the hull of the Constellation when the ship was reconstructed in the late 1990s.

"It is wonderful to take [the copper] back into some kind of related context," he said.

Alzaruba was born Allen Harmon in Annapolis. He spent the first 11 years of his life in the Pacific Islands and spent his high school years around the Panama Canal. He later added his mother's family name, Zaruba, and recently chose to use the single name Alzaruba as a way to "explore the nuances of identity."

His 10 years in the Navy included four as art director and public affairs manger for the Flight Demonstration Squadron, known as the Blue Angels. He was under consideration to join a program to send an artist on a space shuttle mission, but a noncancerous tumor in his ear prevented him from continuing.

The end of his dream of space travel was a blow to him. He left the Navy in 1984 and, he said, "my heart just dried up."

It is then that he turned to art full time.

Alzaruba went back to school to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and spent his junior year in Paris, where "everything kind of came together," he said. "I really got into the truth about what I was trying to say about the human condition." He started to move away from realistic painting and into more conceptual art and sculpture.

He earned a master's degree from Maryland Institute College of Art in 1990 and, after a year in Manhattan, settled in Baltimore.

College teacher

In addition to creating art, Alzaruba teaches art at Towson University and Anne Arundel Community College, and is a finalist for a Fulbright Scholarship to study in South Korea. He is interested in print and bookmaking, poetry, photography and painting, and has exhibited around the world.

The Artists' Gallery, established as a cooperative of artists in 1995, invites a distinguished guest each year in addition to holding monthly shows of members' works.

"It is something special I thought would be of interest to our community and our gallery as well," Barr said of Alzaruba's exhibit.

"He does some work that is very, very different than ours," she said. "We tend to be more traditionally oriented. ... His works really will stand out."

"We live in a society that is predicated on being safe and successful, and consequently a lot of people shut down spiritually," Alzaruba said. "What I'm trying to do is make work that says the journey beyond the edges of what we feel comfortable with ... is really where the most exciting territory is."

"The Unknown Sea," works by Alzaruba, will be at the Artists' Gallery in the American Cities Building, 10227 Wincopin Circle, Columbia, through March 28. The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday and by appointment. Information: 410-740-8249.

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