Baltimore artist displayed love of city on canvas

Ralph McGuire 1917-2006

November 21, 2006|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

Ralph McGuire was a Baltimore artist who spent a lifetime painting bridges and wharves slowly, with a palette knife and fine brush. Never much of a salesman of his own work, he supported himself by framing other artists' pictures - along with a lot of university diplomas at a jammed third-floor walk-up studio on Mulberry Street.

"His pictures were quirky, funky and whimsical, with a wonderful quality of color," artist Raoul Middleman recalled yesterday. "He claimed the city as his environment - and early on recognized the harbor for the beauty that most people passed by."

Mr. McGuire died Friday of Alzheimer's disease complications at his daughter's Glen Burnie home. He was 88.

Born in Baltimore's Hampden, he was the son of a railroad oiler. His mother worked in the Jones Falls Valley cotton mills.

As a child, he played trumpet in a Salvation Army band and was fascinated by the industrial city. He also liked riding the No. 1 streetcar's rambling route from Druid Hill Park to the end of the line at Fort McHenry. He sketched along the way.

"I painted everything," he told a reporter. "I love bridges for their composition. They have very distinct composition. You can put people on them, and under them and trains going over them."

After graduating from City College in 1935, he took a job with the Social Security Administration and painted in his off hours while studying with artists Donald Coale and Herman Maril. The latter became a mentor and critiqued Mr. McGuire's work until his death in 1986.

"His work had a childlike quality. It was sweet and charming but not naive," said artist Greg Fletcher, who spoke at Mr. McGuire's funeral yesterday in Pikesville. "He was a sophisticated artist. He often spoke in simple terms and disguised his deep understanding of life in his own humility."

In the 1940s, Mr. McGuire's works caught the attention of Baltimore Museum of Art director Adelyn Breeskin. She recommended him for a scholarship at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, where he studied under artist Karl Knaths. Mr. McGuire had a one-man show at the BMA in 1947.

"I felt like a man in the opera; I felt like singing all the time," Mr. McGuire recalled of the acclaim. "I had enough money to live on for three or four years. I felt sort of carefree."

The 1947 show attracted the attention of art collector James Blankford Martenet, who wrote Mr. McGuire a check for $5,000 for much of his work. In 1959, Mr. Martenet committed suicide and left his collection to the museum, where Mr. McGuire's works remain undisplayed and in storage.

Using some of the money, Mr. McGuire and his wife, artist Tobia Samuels, bought an old Mulberry Street rowhouse behind the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library and opened the framing gallery on the top floor. The shop became a gathering place for local artists and was decorated with dozens of Mr. McGuire's pictures: meticulous cityscapes, harbor scenes, paintings of large ships and wood assemblages.

"He came across as somewhat of an outsider artist, but he was aware of the major movements in the 20th century and studied with mainstream artists," said Craig Flinner, a Charles Street gallery owner who sells Mr. McGuire's paintings. "Ralph had his own look. It never seemed like he followed someone else's trends. He might have been a bigger deal if he had moved elsewhere, but he remained in Baltimore."

Over the years, Mr. McGuire showed his works at Martick's bar and restaurant, Loyola College and the old Peale Museum. In 1996, several of his works were shown at the University of Maryland, College Park. Their titles conveyed his affection for Baltimore: "Scene of Hawkins Point," "Harbor at Night," and "Sunset Over City."

In the late 1970s, Mr. McGuire was diagnosed with epilepsy.

"He probably had it most of his life, but we didn't recognize it," his wife said in a 1993 newspaper interview. "Then one day, he was holding a tray of food and he suddenly went over onto his back."

In 1999, the couple closed the gallery and sold the Mulberry Street building to the Pratt. Mrs. McGuire died in 2004.

Survivors include two daughters, Bonnie Ferris of Glen Burnie, with whom he had been living in recent years, and Stephanie McGuire of San Jose, Calif.; two brothers, Wilmer McGuire of Baltimore and Joseph McGuire of Lutherville; a sister, Rose Marie Hill of Ellicott City; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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