Art in Annapolis' public places

Pictures: A grant is funding three murals, including one depiction of a fondly recalled black community.

October 20, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A vibrant age when the smell of hot rolls, the swing of Pearl Bailey's singing and the sound of easy laughter on porches permeated the air is coming back to Annapolis -- this time in an artful vision of the 1940s.

A few blocks from the State House, a mural being painted shows lively scenes of what longtime residents say urban renewal tore from the heart of the city's black community, long centered on Clay and West Washington streets.

Art in Public Places, a new city initiative, commissioned the two-woman team of Cynvia Arthur Rankin and Diane Monday to create a large outdoor work on the front of the Stanton Community Center, the city's lone African-American schoolhouse during segregation.

"The mural is like looking into a mirror," said Sally Bean, 62, a community center employee. Pointing to a parking lot, she said, "That was where my home was, with a nice porch, where we'd be setting out conversing with neighbors. You could walk to church, the YMCA, grocery stores, nightclubs, the Alsop CafM-i, the Star Theater -- the only black movie theater -- the Masonic Temple, and everywhere for activities and functions."

In the mural, Bean is glamorous in a blue evening dress. The nightclub scene has the same clear joy of living as an Impressionist painting set indoors in Paris.

During a break from their high scaffold work on a recent morning, the artists said their goal is to document the days when the Fourth Ward was in full bloom. It is art with a streak of time travel and social history.

"The mural lives beyond us," Rankin said, "for a hundred years at least."

"We've enjoyed watching their closeness to each other," Monday said of the family and friendship ties among the Fourth Ward's denizens.

The local painters, both in their 50s, are college friends who met in Chapel Hill, N.C. They teamed up for the "Old Fourth Ward" mural project, a 33-foot-by-33-foot work funded through a $25,000 city grant. It is one of three murals commissioned by the city. The subject matter of the murals has been chosen, city officials said, and two are under way.

Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said she launched a competition for outdoor murals last year because of a conspicuous lack of such public art in the state capital. By contrast, Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts has funded numerous, neighborhood-based murals in recent years.

"All cities of renown have good art in public places," Moyer said. "This program shows that the city values and treasures a broad-based definition of arts."

The public art program's second outdoor mural is now going up near a footpath by City Hall. Stewart White, a Shady Side artist in his 50s whose mural work includes one at the Naval Academy Alumni Hall, is creating a maritime portrait of Annapolis, with a blue palette that highlights the sky, sea, clouds, birds and boats of the Chesapeake.

Back in the heart of Clay and West Washington streets, the two women artists, both white, were first seen as outsiders. But they reached out to meet more than 70 people in the neighborhood -- including a renowned civil rights leader, the late Rev. Leroy Bowman -- and persuaded each to let them take their photographs for possible use in the mural.

One couple danced for the camera and became the mural's central figures, while other adults wore festive and formal clothes. In the 1940s, Bailey lived in the nearby Washington Hotel, so music became a motif, the painters said.

As for children, they were asked to wear everyday street clothes. "I insisted that kids get to wear what they wear," Monday said.

The artists discovered that even though many community rowhouses and some beloved landmarks were razed decades ago, memory of the time is intact, since many Fourth Ward residents have lived there all their lives.

Kirby J. McKinney, the center's executive director, is a 56-year-old native Annapolitan who says reminders of the old days include an 85-year-old woman called "Miss Edna," who still lives in a house with a white picket fence. "She knew me before I knew myself," he said.

Janice Hayes Williams, a local historian who advised the artists, laments neighborhood changes that have taken place.

"This was a self-contained community with blacks and Jews before urban renewal killed the spirit of a village," she said. "Thirty-two African-American businesses left in the late '60s and early '70s. It's heartbreaking, and the people still feel that today."

The mural includes well-known figures such as Larry and Harry Reese, twin brothers who run a family mortuary business, and city Alderman Cynthia Carter.

Lt. Robert E. Beans Sr., 63, the city police director of community relations, said the images in the mural bring back his carefree boyhood of playing double dutch and games of wild horses with curving tree branches.

"We'd sing and have a street corner symphony," Beans said. "These are the things that are absent now, laughter about the little things."

The presence of public art in the community is already being felt, according to Larry Griffin, a Radio Clay Street talk show host.

Griffin said that even as the artists undertook the project, their mission struck a chord, noting that Clay Street residents came to identify individual portraits at night. "People actually stood here and cried," Griffin told them.

The artists embraced. "We did it!" Rankin said.

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