Civic treasure might find way out of the basement

Painting: After years in storage, a present from Baltimore's Japanese sister city might go on display in a local restaurant.

April 20, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

Six years ago, the mayor of a Japanese city traveled all the way to Baltimore bearing a gift, one sister to another.

The gesture marked the 20th anniversary of Kawasaki and Baltimore's Sister Cities ties, a folksy brand of international diplomacy that's more kumbaya than Condoleezza Rice, where gift-giving can be a big deal. On behalf of Kawasaki, the mayor presented Baltimore with an elaborate painting on silk.

Unfortunately, aside from any lucky Baltimoreans who might have caught a glimpse of the painting during the exchange, it's a safe bet that no one in the city knows it exists, let alone has been culturally bettered by seeing it.

That's because almost immediately after getting it, Baltimore reboxed the screen and stuck it in a City Hall storage room, where it has logged lonely years ever since, tucked away with leftover party supplies and boxes of dusty books.

Until now.

City officials have granted a sushi restaurant named after Baltimore's Japanese sister permission to display the painting. Kawasaki, on Charles Street in Mount Vernon, will get it once owner Tsu Yang has installed an appropriate display case.

Kawasaki dignitaries might have had higher ambitions for the piece than a home amid salmon rolls and miso soup, but, no doubt, they weren't aiming for the artwork to stay boxed in City Hall, where officials say there's no room to hang it.

Local Sister City committee members are torn - glad the painting will be displayed but skeptical of where.

"This was given to the city and the public," says Warren Cohen, chairman of the local Kawasaki committee. "People shouldn't have to pay to go to his restaurant to see it. ...

"In Japan I think it would be taken as an affront."

But Robin Dodd, a former Kawasaki committee chairwoman, says the Japanese give so many gifts, yet have such small and spare homes, they'd probably understand their American sister's dilemma.

"Every time you look at them, they give you a gift. What can you do with all this stuff?" Dodd says. "I can't see how they would be too upset about it."

Worth an estimated $20,000, the two-paneled screen stands more than 5 feet tall, silk stretched between its wooden borders. Painted on the fabric, in jewel-toned hues, is an orange-robed figure wearing a golden headdress, standing among blossoms, trees and birds.

It's just one of many presents, generous ones, that Kawasaki has given Baltimore over their 26-year relationship.

A stone lantern is on display outside the Maryland Science Center. And on the fourth floor of City Hall, outside the council chambers, stands ornate warrior armor worth $100,000.

Judy Orlinsky, director of the mayor's office of international affairs, says that while the gifts from Japan are typically "lavish," Baltimore usually doesn't lavish them back. Although Kawasaki committee volunteers have occasionally raised money to buy their sister something special, like a painting of the Inner Harbor or a painted screen, they're more often presenting honorary Baltimore citizenship certificates or pewter city seals.

With a $5,000 budget, that's the best they can do. When the Kawasaki mayor brought forth the artistry on silk, Baltimore probably didn't overwhelm him with the potluck party in his honor in a City Hall conference room.

"We just can't do it," Orlinsky says, adding that the big givers don't seem to mind. "They don't look at value. They look at intent. I think they understand."

Kawasaki is one of 10 international cities that Baltimore considers a sister. Others include Gbarnga, Liberia; Xiamen, China; Genoa, Italy; Rotterdam, Netherlands; and Odessa, Ukraine.

And because most of these relationships have resulted in gifts, exotic trinkets line the display cases on the path to the mayor's office.

Still, the Kawasaki screen is hardly the only present that the city has mothballed, Orlinksy says - recalling seven boxes of who-knows-what from Liberia and a throne-like king's chair from the same place.

Jeanne March Davis, the city's curator, says the painted screen can't be propped up just anywhere. The delicate silk is sensitive to both light and touch.

"City Hall is not a museum," she says. "Neither is a restaurant, obviously. But Mr. Yang is making an investment."

Yang, a longtime Sister City volunteer, says he will spend thousands on a protective case for the artwork.

"I feel bad it was sitting in the basement," Yang says. "I have a good reputation. I will put it on display, and people can see it."

When Yang was a boy, he used to hear the fairy tale that the painting depicts:

An older couple who couldn't have children wished for a baby. Their wish was answered when they discovered a miniature girl inside a stalk of bamboo, sent to them from the moon. She grew into a beautiful, regular-sized girl - but a starry-eyed one, always looking to the night sky because someday she would have to return there.

The painting depicts the November day when the girl had to leave Earth.

Because Yang has done a lot for Sister Cities, Dodd would rather see the painting at his restaurant than not see it at all.

But Ginny Rutherford, another committee volunteer, says a private restaurant is not an appropriate spot for a public gift.

Orlinsky says she called around to see whether one of Baltimore's museums would take the piece. But because it wasn't an antique, she says, no one wanted it. The restaurant, she figures, makes as much sense as anyplace.

Cohen, however, just can't accept that there's no public spot for the art.

"We're talking about a whole city, there's got to be a public place. Put it in the Convention Center. Put it at the top of the World Trade Center. I don't know," he says with exasperation. "Can I have the painting and put it in my house?"

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