Making bold murals pop out even more

December 15, 2003|By Adrienne Saunders | Adrienne Saunders,SUN STAFF

At the busy corner of Harford Road and North Avenue, across the street from the Eastern District Courthouse, two bold murals by the late Baltimore artist Tom Miller pop out from an otherwise unremarkable city backdrop.

Until recently, the murals themselves were almost as drab as their surroundings. Fading and deterioration over more than a decade had robbed them of their original vibrancy.

But thanks to a neighboring property owner and a pair of artists who had worked on the murals with Miller, they are once again imbued with the late artist's signature primary color brilliancy.

Local artists Dan Van Allen and Spoon Popkin, working under the auspices of the Baltimore Mural Program, took on the job of restoring the large murals in early November, after J4P Associates, which owns the Eastside State Complex across from the murals, contributed funds for their restoration to the city's Office of Promotion and the Arts.

Peter Handal, the company's president and a collector of Miller's work, proposed the project to the city back in March.

Miller, who died of AIDS in 2000, designed the three-story mural at 1339 E. North Ave. in 1991. The second mural, on a low wall along the grounds of the Eastern United Methodist Church across Harford Road, was originally painted in 1992, then redesigned in 1996.

While the murals share Miller's bold style, they differ in theme. Often referred to by the African proverb it features, the taller mural shows an African man in the desert reading a book open to a page that says, "However far the stream flows, it never forgets its source."

The low mural is a scene of young African-American children playing on a city block under the watchful eyes of their elders, a scene Miller likely saw often growing up in Baltimore.

Baltimore has celebrated Miller's works since he attended the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Jungle Chest, one of his furniture pieces, is on display in the contemporary wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

In the 1980s, Miller developed a style that came to be known as "Afro-deco," featuring African-American subject matter in modern expressions of bold patterns and colors. The bulk of his art consisted of old furniture refurbished into decorative and functional art with bright colors and animal motifs.

Van Allen and Popkin painted the redesigned low mural in 1996 when Miller was too ill to paint it, and did a touch-up of the neighboring mural at the same time. Gary Kachadourian, the city's mural program coordinator, went directly to the pair to complete the current restoration of these works, which he says were important to the artist.

"I think for Tom, being someone who grew up in Baltimore and someone who was so committed to Baltimore, it was huge for him," Kachadourian said. "I think it was one of the things he was most proud of."

Van Allen and Popkin, assisted by Pablo Fiasco, fought high winds when they began restoration in early November, before taking advantage of late fall's final week of warm weather to complete the bulk of the work.

Many people in the community, they said, expressed enthusiasm about the project; shouts of "thank you" came often out of passing cars' windows.

Some more skeptical residents feared the artists were actually painting over the landmarks, Van Allen said, but were pleased to discover the art was actually being restored. For Van Allen, being able to bring Miller's public works to life again was philosophically gratifying, too.

"I'm in favor of putting art on the streets as much as possible," he said. "Get it out of the galleries and onto the street."

Final touch-ups on the murals will be completed when the scaffolding on the taller mural is removed after the holidays, Van Allen said.

And the reborn murals will glow at night as well as during the day. Besides funding the restoration, Handal's company has also committed to a five-year deal with Baltimore Gas & Electric to light the murals, Kachadourian said.

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