Under busy Baltimore street, art flourishes

In Sub-Basement, works of all types reside, minus skylight


October 24, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

It's 10 o'clock on a Thursday morning, and already all the artists are hard at work.

Jeffrey Kent is finishing some last-minute business before heading to Chicago for an opening; Amy Sherald is catching up on correspondence.

And Don Griffin, a tall, bearded man in a rakish tan fedora who looks like a slender version of the actor Morgan Freeman, is tweaking the installation of his whimsical, abstract, mixed-media painting and sculpture in the studio's cavernous, 20,000-square-foot exhibition space.

The place looks like an old-fashioned artist's atelier, with paint tubes, brushes and thinners scattered on worktables and yards of unstretched canvas tacked to the walls - except there's no huge skylight overhead. It's no wonder: The studio is two stories below ground level, right under the busiest part of North Howard Street.

Welcome to Sub-Basement Artist Studios, one of Baltimore's newest art spaces and one of nearly 150 artists' studios that will open their doors to the public this weekend and next as part of School 33 Art Center's annual Open Studio Tour.

For 16 years, the city-owned center has sponsored the event, which allows visitors to meet the city's artists and see their creations in the workshops where they were made. The studios will be open today and next Saturday and Sunday. At Sub-Basement, where Griffin is a visiting artist this month, the workplaces of resident artists Kent, Sherald and painter Terry Thompson also will be open to visitors, and the artists will be on hand to answer questions about their work.


Griffin, 63, has been drawing most of his life, having started as a engineering draftsman after graduating from Baltimore's Dunbar High.

In the mid-1970s, he attended Maryland Institute College of Art to study interior design, but soon decided he was more interested in artmaking than in design. From then until about 1980, Griffin's work was mostly figurative - portraits, genre scenes, landscapes - many of which included images of his wife and two children.

"They were scenes of the individual in some type of environment," he recalls. "There was a background, but you could already see the abstraction creeping in. It finally just got to the point where I felt I didn't have anything else to say with figurative painting, so I quit cold turkey and went to abstraction."

The abstract works incorporated both painting and sculpture, inspired by Griffin's discovery of Robert Rauschenberg's "combine" paintings, in which the artist attached various found objects directly to the surface of his canvases.

"I was always drawn to sculpture," Griffin recalls. "So that's where the construction and assemblage came in. But I could never totally do just one; I was always mixing things. At the time, I had not known of Rauschenberg, and I saw a film about him and heard about his `combines,' and that made the connection."

By the mid-1980s, Griffin, who lives in Baltimore, linked up with the Henri Gallery in Washington, whose adventurous owner, the late Henrietta Ersham, showed many of the era's leading abstract artists.

Griffin's work involved manipulating cotton duck canvas to create three-dimensional forms, which he accomplished by tearing the material into strips, washing and painting them and then gluing the pieces together to form assemblages.

"[Ersham] was an avant-garde gallery owner who basically dealt with sculpture," Griffin says. "I didn't consider myself as a sculptor at the time, but she said I was. That was when I was experimenting with cotton duck and soft sculpture. She liked my work, and I stayed with her until her death in 1996."

Today, Griffin says, he's extended his mixed-media, multidimensional approach to different kinds of recycled papers, newsprint and fabrics, often combined with found texts.


One of the most impressive pieces in his show at Sub-Basement is a mural-scale assemblage of large coffee-bean shipping bags with labels in languages from around the world.

Called Narrative Inclination II (an earlier version was exhibited at Artscape several years ago), the piece is a tour de force of sensuous textures. To heighten the effect, Griffin embellished the bags' rough fabric surfaces with tempera paints, oil pastel, printer's ink and paint chips from the Ralph Lauren collection.

The unusual work also will be part of a performance by Baltimore saxophonist Greg Thompkins and his quartet at the show's closing reception Nov. 6, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., during which the musicians will improvise on the piece.

"Greg will be the only one to have seen it before that night," Griffin says. "So it'll be interesting to see the musicians interpreting the visual art, rather than the other way around, which is more usual."

Griffin believes that if his art works at all, people will respond to it instinctively.

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