The faces of two young women, looking as if they are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, are now a striking fixture on an industrial street corner in South Baltimore. Their expressions conjure up images of the city in another era, when ships carrying immigrants arrived in a new world.
Immigration is the motif in Gateway to SoBo, the first of several giant painted murals commissioned this year by city officials hoping to adorn neighborhoods with outdoor artworks. The aim is to bring together art students and community residents in creating murals that will capture a piece of the city's character.
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"They try to mirror the ideas of the people that had been there in the past and the pleasures of the neighborhood," said Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator for the city's Office of Promotion & the Arts. "They also mirror living and working in a specific place with a long lineage."
Fifteen students from the Maryland Institute College of Art met during the winter with South Baltimore residents to glean insights into the working-class waterfront community, an understanding the students put to use in crafting Gateway to SoBo. The 125-foot-by-25-foot mural is painted on the Maryland Glass and Mirror Co. building in the 1800 block of S. Hanover St.
Each student sketched a different design based on his or her interpretations of the community's past as an immigrant destination.
The next mural planned this summer is set in Southwest Baltimore, or Sowebo, on Hollins Street. All of the mural projects are being overseen by the city's Office of Promotion & the Arts; so far, about five other murals are in the planning stages for the fall, in various locations around the city.
Gateway to SoBo began six months ago when Beth Secor, who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, brought her class to meet the South Baltimore Improvement Committee, whose members were eager to enhance the neighborhood. It became a labor of love for Secor, who put a lot of her time and herself into the effort -- at one point, she was even bitten in the face by a neighborhood pit bull as she supervised the work.
Amy Grace, the committee president, said, "Projects are fabulous for bringing people together. You can sit around and complain about trash forever or go do something."
That exchange became the project's starting point as students sought ways to illustrate the words they heard about the working-class community from the people who call it home. SoBo, as it's known, is a far cry from the bistros, galleries and shops of neighboring Federal Hill, but it has a long memory.
"Generation after generation after generation, what we got from people was nostalgia," Secor said. "The Chesapeake Bay was important to the community, and Baltimore was an important port of entry" for immigrants early in the 20th century, second only to New York.
The Gateway to SoBo design was based on a sketch drawn by MICA student Jennifer Rattigan, 21, of Honeybrook, Pa., who used land and water images, a playful girl with butterfly wings, men lining up on the docks, a family sharing a meal of potatoes and human figures that are white and black.
South Baltimore residents chose her sketch over those of her classmates as the one that best reflected the essence of the community.
Once the sketch was chosen, she and her fellow students painted the mural.
The figure of one young woman in the mural was inspired by an old photograph of her Russian-Jewish grandmother, Rattigan said.
"So many people came through here -- Russians, Irish, Germans -- and my background is Russian-Jewish and Irish Catholic," Rattigan said. "I was drawn to the expression" on her grandmother's face in the photograph.
The community had requested an American flag be included in the mural, and Rattigan expanded on that idea to include a map of the world. In the mural's first illustration, a woman is shown stitching a global map.
Jim Norton, 60, a lifetime resident who led South Baltimore's mural project, said neighbors had never seen anything like the large rendering of ways to cross over water, whether for a ride in a canoe, a day on the bay or an ocean crossing.
"I was shell-shocked by this interpretation," Norton said. "I was coming over the bridge from Wal-Mart, and it just floored me."
Norton said he considers the mural a spectacular community service, but noted that the mixing of black and white figures caused a ripple of negative comments.
"This mural has not been accepted by everyone," Norton said, noting that a few people in the community expressed displeasure that African-American figures were integrated into the mural.
"What can I say, but it's an interpretation of the immigrant experience," he said. "It gets people excited and energized about our organization."
For now, Rattigan's images stop traffic whizzing over the Hanover Street bridge. Boys on bicycles and passers-by pause to gaze at the forms and colors painted on the cinderblock wall of the glass factory.
David Dalbke, co-owner of the Maryland Glass & Mirror Co., volunteered the wall of the 1896 structure for the project. "I like the idea of dressing up the building," he said.
Ken Krafchek, the MICA faculty member who directs the community arts partnerships, said the collaborative mural process is good for young artists, because it forces them to look outward.
"Dialogue energizes a process," Krafchek said, "and here, brought a remembrance of good things that happened."