Paul Darmofall, 78, artist known as the Glassman

October 29, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Paul Darmofall, a folk artist whose glittering glass shard collages are esteemed by collectors worldwide and earned him the nickname of the Baltimore Glassman, died of a heart attack Sunday at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Perry Point. The Armistead Gardens resident was 78.

"Whether it is glasphalt, the glittering bangles of Blaze Starr or the artwork of Paul Darmofall, they're all very Baltimore and known all over the world. And we ought to be proud of them," said Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and executive director of the American Visionary Art Museum.

Mr. Darmofall, a self-trained artist, was born in Wheeling, W.Va., and raised in Moundsville, W.Va., the son of Polish immigrant parents. He left school after the eighth grade and followed his father into the coal mines.

During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and served as a gunner aboard LST 241 at the Normandy and Iwo Jima invasions. After the war, he moved to Baltimore and married Bonnie M. Long in 1947. The couple later settled in Armistead Gardens.

He worked as a machinist at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant and later as a bricklayer. He also had enlisted in the Maryland National Guard, and while returning in 1953 from its summer camp was involved in an automobile accident that injured his head.

Mr. Darmofall, who was studying to be an engineer, began suffering from chronic mental illness after the accident. While diagnosed as having an unusually high intelligence, he also was afflicted with schizophrenia.

He vanished from his home and family for long periods and suffered memory loss. He had trouble coping with reality and was frequently hospitalized.

Family members were unaware for some years that he was creating artwork or where he went at daybreak, and think that Mr. Darmofall began creating what he called his "signs" during the mid-1970s.

He worked in an open-air studio in the woods near Erdman Avenue and Pulaski Highway in East Baltimore.

On his daily bicycle rides - he did not drive - Mr. Darmofall would collect broken colored glass, glitter, scraps of wood and tin, the components that he would fashion into works of art.

"In many ways, Darmofall typifies the kind of artist whose work is called `outsider' or `self-taught' or `visionary.' These artists usually are isolated from mainstream society because of mental illness, poverty, lack of education, physical handicap or eccentricity," said a story in The Sun in 1999, when Mr. Darmofall's work was featured in a solo exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum.

"They use materials most of us would throw away. They may view art as a way of proselytizing. Their work will never have the elegance of a John Singer Sargent. At its best, it possesses an untutored purity of emotion that infuses it with great power and beauty."

"This is how Paul connected and thought about things. He worked with what he had at hand," said Roger Manley, former curator of the North Carolina State University Gallery of Art and Design who had organized exhibitions at the AVAM.

"While his cryptic artistic comments may have seemed nutty or off the wall, if you followed them, they really were quite cogent," said Mr. Manley, who now lives in Paris. "And you could cut yourself when you touched them. They were tangible objects, not just thoughts. They were literally sharp words and images."

Mr. Darmofall's themes ranged from the industrial to patriotic. He believed in liberty, self-sufficiency and fresh air, and waged artistic and personal battles against air conditioning, taxes and electricity.

A quiet and unassuming man, Mr. Darmofall would often hang his artwork on walls and trees, and if an admirer spotted one, it became an instant gift. Money or selling his work was never a consideration.

Today, his work is collected and sold in art galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Berlin and Vienna, Austria.

"He was an amazing man and a great spirit. He was also very prolific," said Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, a Baltimore artist and collector who had a Fells Point studio where Mr. Darmofall later worked. "One of my favorite stories was when he was working outdoors near the railroad. He'd sometimes hang a `sign' on a boxcar in order to carry his message across the land."

Broad-shouldered, standing well over 6 feet and with a ruddy complexion, Mr. Darmofall traveled by bicycle, on which he sometimes attached his artwork. Also a history buff, he decided one day to visit the Gettysburg battlefield on a "fact-finding" mission and completed the 120-mile, round-trip journey in a day.

Because of declining health, Mr. Darmofall stopped working in 2001.

His years of mental illness had proved financially and emotionally difficult for his family. His wife worked for many years at Maryland Cup Corp. in Owing Mills to support their children.

"It was unfortunate that he became mentally ill," said a daughter, Milinda D. Jensen of Arlington, Va. "My sister and I wondered the other day what life would have been like had Daddy not been sick. We all learned to love him in our own way."

Services will be private.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Darmofall is survived by another daughter, Jody L. Ressin of Rising Sun; a son, Paul T. Darmafall of Baltimore; and four grandchildren.

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