Prints Of The City

Ocean City, that is, where Joseph Leonard Kro-Art is the P. T. Barnum of the boardwalk, selling art in a three-ring circus of a gallery

June 19, 2006|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK

OCEAN CITY -- So you've sunk a car in the Atlantic Ocean. You've filmed a TV commercial of yourself riding a bicycle off a rooftop. You've had your praises sung by William Donald Schaefer and Marty Bass.

On top of that, you have the most clicked-on Webcam in Ocean City; the most photographed building, perhaps, in the state of Maryland; and you've sold more art - highbrow, lowbrow and in between - than, quite possibly, anyone on the East Coast.

What do you do for an encore?

If you're Joseph Leonard Kro-Art - a man who carries a hyphen in his last name and an exclamation point in his soul - that's an easy decision.

"I want to drive a car off the pier!" said Kro-Art, owner of Ocean Gallery, easily the most gawked-at, talked- about, constantly changing building on Ocean City's boardwalk - one whose exterior has had so many disharmonious items slapped on it (planks, signs, hardware, small appliances, motor vehicles) there's almost a harmony to it.

Outlandish? Sure. Overboard? Absolutely. Desperately seeking attention? That's the building. And that, too, is the man - a Baltimore-born-and-raised artist, who, 40 years ago during a break from college, filled his car with his paintings and headed to the beach with one goal: to survive the summer.

Since then, the man and his store have evolved, or spun madly out of control, depending on your point of view. But Kro-Art's mission - the motive behind the madness - has crystallized, at least to him: It's to take the obstacles that exist between people and art and loudly smash them into itty-bitty pieces.

"We do a lot of wild, fun things," Kro-Art said, wearing his trademark tuxedo jacket. "My whole concept is that fine art is fun, it should be enjoyed. It shouldn't be up on a pedestal. Sometimes people are intimidated by art; they shouldn't be."

To that end, Kro-Art, who never met a gimmick he didn't like, plots publicity stunts - like the planned pier plunge. His overstuffed gallery caters to all tastes - from Three Stooges movie posters to original works by Virginia painter Paul McGehee. And he produces and stars in the kind of zany television ads more often associated with carpet and car salesmen than art dealers.

In one ad that has become a local favorite - bar crowds reportedly go silent and line up to watch - Kro-Art appears to be riding a bicycle that plunges off the roof of the gallery and lands on the boardwalk with a sickening head-first thud.

"We got it perfectly on the first take," Kro-Art said of the taping, which made use of a dummy. "But it was so much fun we did it three more times."

He's completing a new TV ad, in which he assumes the persona of movie character Napoleon Dynamite, shouting what has become an Ocean Gallery slogan: "Art Sale, Baby!"

He's also drawn attention with his art cars, all produced primarily with recycled materials - a cow car that moos instead of honks; a "Neon Man" car; two Batmobiles; and a Titanic car, which he got permission to sink in the Atlantic Ocean to become part of the Ocean City reef.

Kro-Art, who was born on Chester Street in Baltimore, grew up near Memorial Stadium and lives on a farm in Monkton when he's not in Ocean City, has been called the P.T. Barnum of fine art - several times. He doesn't object to being compared to the legendary circus showman and consummate shyster; if anything, he relishes it.

"He was 6-foot-3, my height. He was 210 pounds, my weight. He had an 18-acre farm. I have an 18-acre farm. He had three kids. I have three kids. As with him, there's a touch of fantasy to everything I do," Kro-Art said.

While Barnum had a three-ring circus, Kro-Art has a three-floor art gallery. And like Barnum, Kro-Art has been known to pull a few fast ones.

There are seven "Webcams" attached to his gallery, for instance, but six of them are fake.

"People come and stand in front of the fake ones and wave and dance around, thinking they are live on the Internet," he said. Once they're let in on the joke, they generally stand around and wait for the next victim.

Ocean Gallery's real Webcam (oceangallery.com) is inside the store, behind a window. It reached its peak of popularity during Tropical Storm Isabel, when many used it to watch the storm pass through.

And contrary to the myth his Web site promotes, Kro-Art did not actually dine on houseflies during his early years in Ocean City; that was thrown into the written history of the gallery as a joke by his son, Joey Kroart, who works in the store (but doesn't hyphenate his name).

It's not far from the truth, though. Kro-Art barely made ends meet his first year in Ocean City, where he arrived with little more than a carload of paintings and an idea.

"Everybody said I was crazy - that people at the beach just want to buy T-shirts. But my thinking was that people in their regular lives don't have much time for art. ... When they're on vacation, away from all the hectic stuff, they're willing to take the time to look at something and enjoy it."

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