It's not always clear where Rebecca Hoffberger gets her ideas, but it helps to know that when she was a girl growing up in the suburbs, the founding director of the Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum often received unusual visitors.
"Wild birds always loved me," she says. "They'd fly from nowhere and land on my shoulder. Could they tell I'd never hurt them? I don't know, but I've always had an affinity for winged things."
The story may help explain why birds, planes and other airborne objects have emerged as major images in Hoffberger's latest creation -- the Jim Rouse Visionary Center, a sweeping, $9.3 million expansion of AVAM that will open to the public in a week and a half. Set in a 28,000-square-foot historic building that was originally a whiskey warehouse, the three-story center will "double our footprint" at the Key Highway location, says Hoffberger, and showcase in the process such creations as a 5-foot-tall Bluebird of Happiness, a 6-foot "cosmic egg," a bird's nest balcony high above the entrance, and a phoenix bird more than 35 feet tall.
The pieces reflect the appeal of a museum that, over its nine-year history, has emerged as one of city's liveliest, best-known attractions. Congress once designated AVAM the nation's "repository and education center for the best in original, self-taught artistry" -- America's premier showcase, in other words, for outside-the-mainstream works of the imagination. These have included mirrored mosaics, outsized fiberglass statues, and contraptions as quixotic as the Whirligig, the 55-foot, wind-powered sculpture that swoops and spins above the place.
Hoffberger says she tries to avoid a trap into which many museums fall: Too many are "art mausoleums -- cold, forbidding places that don't do much more than warehouse dead things." When the Rouse Center opens Nov. 16, images of flight will expand AVAM's identity as "a muse-eum" -- a place, she says, that finds ways to inspire thought, dialogue, and, yes, flights of fancy.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a person who has never dreamed of flying," says Hoffberger, her musical laugh competing with the hammering and whirring of saws as she begins a private tour of the new center. "Flight is a wonderful metaphor for the human spirit, for that yearning to slip the bounds of ordinary life, to see and create something new."
Beauty in blessings
In visionary art, the sublime comes into view only when it glints, like beams of morning light, off the things of ordinary life. It's shells and shards of glass, metal and mirrors that make up the outdoor sculptures you'll pass on your way to the old Grosse and Blackwell Co. whiskey warehouse (ca. 1933, the year Prohibition ended).
"There's beauty in the blessings we have," says Hoffberger, her black velvet dress blowing like a cape in the wind.
As trucks rattle past on Key Highway, the director regales a few listeners with tales of a "genius" from Baraboo, Wis., whose life became a scrap-metal monument to that truth.
Twenty-odd years ago, an industrial wrecker named Tom Evermor despaired that he had spent so much time destroying well-made manufacturing sites -- mills, breweries, factories -- just because they were outmoded. He started saving their metal parts and welding them into a massive sculpture. Rouse visitors won't see the legendary, 300-ton "Forevertron," but rather an Evermor "miniature:" a 37-foot phoenix whose body "Dr. Tom" fashioned from the old-fashioned respirators called iron lungs.
When Hoffberger saw it, she knew it was right. It reminded her of Baltimore's high incidence of asthma, and of the city's many "medical visionaries." The fact it was a phoenix -- the mythic bird that rises from its own ashes -- limned art's power to redeem.
"When an idea is good," she says, "it's never right for just one reason, but for 10,000."
Like a mother bird weaving her nest, she found more strands for her theme. A British artist, Andrew Logan, had once made a great "Cosmic Egg"; she asked for another, and the six-foot amalgam of shell, bronze and fiberglass "makes Faberge look naive," she says.
Dick Brown, a local psychologist and self-taught painter she'd just met, had recently made a 5-foot bird for a public-art project. After vandals damaged it, he'd bought it back and embellished it to his heart's content, swathing it in blue paint and the glass fragments from a 50-year-old mirror he found by a roadside.
The "Bluebird of Happiness" now perches on a wall just south of the new center, angled toward the rising sun, where it greets visitors driving in from I-95 and scatters early-morning light in a thousand directions.
"Visionary art," she says, laughing hard enough to be heard above the rush-hour traffic. "I love where this bird has landed."