Work of `Art With a Heart' glows in Baltimore

Project turning out murals and more

September 02, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

One day last spring, Glenn Blair thought he'd be making pictures, as usual, in his after-school art class. But when he showed up at the makeshift studio at Canton Middle School, the sixth-grader's eye fell not on easel and brushes but on a hat full of paper slips his teachers had prepared.

"Life without love," read the note he pulled out, "is a tree without blossoms."

That thought - a rough paraphrase of a line from the poet Kahlil Gibran - inspired an upbeat canvas. In sunny acrylic hues, Blair created the image of a man whose heart seems filled with blossoming trees. And when a team of volunteers finished their work this week, they had replicated "Life Without Love" in a painting 15 feet high, making it one of 11 exuberant murals in Baltimore's newest installation of public art.

Students and teachers returning to Canton Middle School next Tuesday will have more than just the ample talents of Blair and his classmates to thank for the display now overlooking their playground. The spectacle is the latest creation of community activists at "Art With a Heart," a nonprofit agency based in Hampden that has, according to founding director Randi Pupkin, made a mission of bringing art to "underserved communities" in Baltimore for the past four years.

"When I first started looking into [starting] Art With a Heart," says Pupkin, a 42-year-old former attorney from Pikesville, "I was shocked to find out how many kids right here in the area never get to encounter art, let alone feel the joy of creating it. Any number of studies have shown that art isn't just entertainment. It brings health; it opens people up."

Pupkin had worked in the field of construction contracts for 14 years, a career in which she says she found herself helping others all too rarely. She decided to sell her practice, draw on her lifelong passion for art and do what she could to bring art to communities that needed it most. A one-time art student, she began teaching classes in four untraditional settings - at two group homes for adolescent boys, in a facility for Alzheimer's patients and at the House of Ruth shelter for displaced mothers and their children.

"Doing art doesn't change lives overnight, that's for sure," she says, "but it gives people an opportunity to experience something they might not get to otherwise. It's wonderful to bring even an hour of joy to people who may not have felt it for a long time, or never felt it at all."

Drawing on public and private funds, Art With a Heart has expanded to sponsor projects throughout Baltimore and Baltimore County. It provides teachers who offer art classes each week at 12 sites. It has brightened places like the 700 block of Belnord Ave. in Northeast Baltimore, where volunteers and community members painted boarded-up house fronts, planted shrubbery and flowers and cleaned up trash last August.

"Every place we've worked, the communities seem to come together and to love what we're doing," said Linda Latzlsberger, an Arundel Middle School art instructor who teaches part-time at the House of Ruth and was helping finish the Canton murals this past weekend. "Art really can bring hope."

And hope, it seems, can be self-generating. Pupkin and Cheri Landry, program director for Art With a Heart and one of 17 people who work for the organization either full- or part-time, are finalizing plans for a fall fund-raiser. Local businesses have donated spa, vacation and art packages for auction, and organizers will sell original artwork by Art With a Heart participants. The group's Web site, artwithaheart.net, will be posting updated information on the event.

At the Canton installation, meanwhile, Blair's image is not the only one that exudes optimism. On Sunday, volunteers from the American Institute for Graphic Arts looked over the 2-foot-high originals and climbed ladders to replicate them in murals nearly 10 times their original size.

"We want to get every detail right," Landry said during a break. "Each painting has such a hopeful, childlike effect. The kids are going to be thrilled to see their work reproduced on this scale."

And with each image appears an inscription. "The cure for boredom is curiosity," reads one in letters 2 feet high. "Do one thing every day that scares you," reads another.

Not far away, a life-sized figure in an orange T-shirt grins down at the viewer. "It is almost impossible," read the words beside him, "to smile on the outside without feeling better on the inside."

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