Artists' landscape

Western Maryland embraces its emerging identity as a thriving arts destination

November 04, 2006|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Reporter

Woodworker Terry Bachman has crafted any number of fine bookcases, sideboards and tables throughout his career. But it took a move to Cumberland to inspire a series of mesmerizing artworks that honor the quilts of Gee's Bend, Ala.

"I hadn't done a single piece of decorative work until I got here," Bachman says. "The encouragement was instrumental," he says of the supportive role played by the arts community to which he now belongs.

Bachman and his wife, Jerri Dell, a retired World Bank official, moved a year ago from Silver Spring to Cumberland, lured by its "New England Mill town feel," handsome, affordable real estate and creative energy.

During visits to a weekend home in Flintstone, the couple had discovered a region animated by artistic possibilities as an initial trickle of transplants grew to a steady flow. The Mountain Maryland Artists' Studio Tour, taking place today, tomorrow and next weekend, is a prime opportunity to explore the thriving arts community tucked into the mountains of Western Maryland.

The tour, coordinated by the Allegany Arts Council, covers 40 studios on a meandering path from Flintstone west to Grantsville that ventures into Pennsylvania and West Virginia as well. Along the way, painters, photographers, sculptors, potters, stained-glass artisans, jewelry makers, printmakers and other artists will demonstrate their crafts and offer work for sale.

Among the Cumberland stops will be Bachman's 4,000-square-foot studio. Although it is not officially on the tour, Dell's Arteco Institute, a gallery that usually focuses on international art, will feature the work of area newcomers.

On any given day, Cumberland's new identity is evident on Baltimore Street, a pedestrian mall lined with galleries, cafes and performance spaces.

"I call this `Appalachian hip,'" says artist Dennis Sherald, from his sidewalk perch outside of Mark's Daily Grind cafe, where his street life renderings are on display.

Cumberland's revitalization is fairly remarkable, considering its resemblance to a ghost town not so long ago. In the past five years, the former manufacturing center has reclaimed a promising slice of its old vibrancy with the arts as a potent catalyst.

"People have just stumbled upon this community, and there's such a good buzz that other people are finding us," says Andy Vick, the hyperkinetic director of the Allegany Arts Council, which has its own exhibition space, the Saville Gallery.

Vick and Cumberland's Department of Community Development have partnered to amplify that buzz with an aggressive recruitment campaign for enterprising artists that they have taken online and to large art shows around the country. Taking advantages of tax credits and exemptions within the state-designated Downtown Cumberland Arts & Entertainment District, numerous newcomers have restored historic buildings and established working studios and retail shops, bringing new life to the city's streets.

In 1998, Vick purchased one of those downtown lofts with his wife, Beth Piver, a jewelry artist. With 6,000 square feet, the loft afforded the couple an airy living space as well as a studio with room to grow. And it cost a third less than the Fairfax, Va., townhouse they left behind.

In Cumberland, Vick and Piver also found ideal conditions for a comfortable, small-town life. "We saw a wonderfully charming community with great red-brick buildings, set in the mountains and convenient to the Washington, D.C., area," Vick says.

Drawn by Cumberland's artist-friendly climate, Jean Barnes Downs, a printmaker, moved five years ago with her husband, Ray Downs, from Arlington, Va., to a home outside Cumberland with a spectacular mountain view.

The couple had been looking for places to retire and discovered Cumberland on a trip to Ohio. "`Wow, it's really beautiful here,'" she remembers thinking.

Since arriving in Cumberland, Jean Barnes Downs has plunged into the arts community, teaching classes and helping to establish Arts at Canal Place. The cooperative gallery is crammed with jewelry, paintings, photographs and crafts by its 37 members, both Western Maryland natives and recent arrivals.

Buoyed by an assortment of performance spaces, the cultural clout of nearby Frostburg State University and a trove of enduring musical traditions, the performing arts also flourish in the Cumberland region.

At the Queen City Creamery, bluegrass musicians join a weekly jam session. In summer, downtown Cumberland swells as more than 1,000 spectators gather for the Friday After Five concert series. Cumberland and Frostburg are also home turf for Page France and Jon Felton and his Soulmobile, indie bands with growing renown outside the region.

Several Cumberland performance spaces, including the New Embassy Theatre, Windsor Hall at Town Centre, Cumberland Theatre, as well as downtown Frostburg's Palace Theatre and the university's Cultural Events Series, offer a tapestry of music, dance and theater.

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