A photo exhibit focuses on plight of the Patapsco

Arts: museums, literature

April 15, 2004|By K Kaufmann | K Kaufmann,SUN STAFF

When Joe Stewart says the Patapsco River is one of Baltimore's little-known treasures, he's not just speaking metaphorically.

"A lot of people don't know we live on the Patapsco," said the photographer and environmental activist, who's been taking pictures of the river, from its headwaters to the Chesapeake Bay, for three years. "Commuters cross the river daily, but don't know they're crossing a beautiful waterway."

Raising consciousness on all things Patapsco is the core of Save the Patapsco, Hon, an exhibit of 40 of Stewart's river pictures, opening tomorrow at Baltimoregallery, 4519 Eastern Ave. in Greektown.

The show, running through May 12, is something of a homecoming. After an exhibit last year at the Baltimore Public Works Museum, the pictures have been traveling around the Patapsco watershed - Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard and Baltimore counties - where they've been displayed at libraries and galleries.

Raised in Severna Park, Stewart is a self-trained photographer whose day job is a state Department of Assessments and Taxation lawyer. His passion for the Patapsco grew out of a background in environmental activism.

He initially thought of the Patapsco as polluted and "too far gone," he said, but, as he learned more about it, he found "lots of people involved in cleaning up the river and ... lots of hidden beauty no one was aware of, off the beaten track."

An integral part of Baltimore history, the Patapsco was first explored by Captain John Smith in 1608. Its name comes from Algonquin tribal dialect with several possible meanings: backwater, tide covered with froth or rocky point.

As Stewart's pictures show, it is also a river of many moods, from the pristine seclusion of its headwaters to its factory-lined banks downstream. One of his favorite images, he said, is of a gigantic rock surrounded by greenery, taken on a secluded stretch of the river he discovered off Belle Grove Road, near Brooklyn Park.

"It's ... kind of pastoral. It's not full of trash; there's no storm drain ... [and] you have to take this hidden path to get there. "

While his pictures are not overtly political, Stewart does see them as "a way to draw people in, to identify with the river and begin to see the possibility of cleaning it up." He also tries to focus public attention on the Patapsco with his annual swims across the river to raise funds for environmental groups.

This year, he'll be plunging in on May 23, swimming from North Point State Park to Venice on the Bay, where a Bernie Fowler-style "wade-in" will also take place.

Stewart's activism was recognized in 2002 when former Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed him to the Patapsco Back River Tributary Team, which tries to reduce pollution in rivers that empty into the Chesapeake Bay. He acknowledges feeling a bit daunted by the other team members who are "more scientific," but he believes his work as a photographer can also have an impact.

"I try to use my talent to make up for what I lack in other areas [by] going out to take pictures others wouldn't conceive of making a top priority," he said. "I feel more like an artist than a lawyer."

The opening reception for "Save the Patapsco, Hon" will be held tomorrow from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Baltimoregallery, 4519 Eastern Ave. Regular gallery hours are noon-4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. For more information, call 410-276-7966.

For more art events, see page 40.

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