Growth, struggles reflected in exhibit

Howard Live

Arts and entertainment in Howard County

July 15, 2005|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Tom Block When a committee at Howard County Center for the Arts pulled together an exhibit of figurative art, the result was a show that explores the human experience along with the human form.

Tom Block of Silver Spring makes large, boldly colored portraits that depict individuals involved in the struggle for human rights around the world. Jessica Damen of Baltimore paints colorful, textured works focused on children and the experiences of growing up.

The two Maryland artists are joined by Nebraska artist Kristin Powers Nowlin, who uses embroidery and printmaking to examine cultural identity, and Randy Simmons of Kentucky, who makes large, detailed charcoal drawings of children.

"We saw some broad connections," said Amy Poff, deputy director of the art center. "All of them express in some way issues of identity."

Two other shows on display at the center through Aug. 19 feature artwork by adults with disabilities. A reception is scheduled for all three shows from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. tonight.

Block's paintings are part of the Human Rights Painting Project, which he developed for Amnesty International.

Amnesty provides biographical information about the individuals, such as Sowore Omoyele, who suffered abuse by military police in Nigeria before becoming an activist, and Gjergj Komnino, who spent 25 years in prison in Albania before seeking asylum in Italy. From these, Block creates sketches followed by small, midsized and large paintings.

"The point of this project is to say to an audience that this is an issue that touches every part of the globe," he said.

Block had the idea for his human rights portraits for many years before he approached the Takoma Park chapter of Amnesty International in 2001.

Once he started working, he said, his project drew the attention of the national organization and other supporters.

To date, he said, he has done about 200 drawings and 70 paintings of 40 subjects.

Block said one of his goals was to draw the attention of people who are interested in human rights and equality, even if they are not usually interested in art.

"In this particular series, you can see it on a lot of levels," he said. "It seems to capture the imagination of a fairly wide audience, which is exciting."

Block, 42, earned a bachelor's degree in English at Vassar College in New York and took several courses at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

He is now an artist and freelance writer who uses abstract and figurative painting and scholarly writing to explore spiritual and social issues. He plans to start earning a master's degree in fine art at Goddard College in Vermont this fall.

Block said the human rights paintings are "something I see as a lifelong project. I don't think these issues will be cleared up in my lifetime."

Like Block, Damen uses an expressionistic style. But her paintings, which focus on children and growing up, are more narrative, she said. They tell a story with action and setting.

For example, her painting They're a Quick River in a Green Time shows three girls, all representing different expressions of how a young woman matures.

The girls - one with her head coyly to the side, one striking a bold pose and one sitting with her leg dangling off a rock - show "the psychological stages of ... moving from girlhood into young womanhood," Damen said.

There are a dog, a frog and a snake at their feet, and behind them a river rushes and a bearded, hunched figure climbs a hill toward them.

Damen, who often references myths and fairy tales, called the figure a Rumpelstiltskin who wants to steal what is so precious in the young women and what makes him jealous.

After a career teaching pediatric nursing, Damen, 54, started focusing on a career in art in the mid-1990s. She earned a graduate degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art and then attended the institute's Hoffberger School of Painting from 1999 to 2001.

Damen said the story of her paintings is not only in the figures but in the color and texture of the paint.

She often applies the paint with a palette knife, and, she said, the dips, waves and thickness relate to the subject. The effect is visible, for example in the thick strokes and darker colors of the muscles of an adolescent boy in the painting My Two Selves and in the rushing water in They're a Quick River ... .

"Very much what my painting is about is a direct engagement with the subject matter and with the paint," she said.

But, she said, at some point artists have to let their work go and allow the audience to make an interpretation.

"Every single viewer is going to see different things," she said. "Every response is an honest response."

Focus on the Figure is on view at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Also on display are "No Boundaries," a show of work by individuals with disabilities who are enrolled in the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks' therapeutic arts program; and Ellicott City Road Trip, an exhibit of work depicting Ellicott City by adults with disabilities who are enrolled in the Washington-based Art Enables program. Hours and information: 410-313-2787, or

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