Plan aims to bring art to people

Annapolis considers murals to help illustrate city's tricentennial

January 07, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

For the first time in Annapolis, serious consideration is being given to a major outdoor art show as a city panel weighs in Tuesday on a proposal allowing a series of murals in public spaces as part of the city's celebration of its 300-year-old charter.

For an old city, the new idea is viewed -- with cautious optimism from backers -- as a way to bring in the 21st century. About a dozen pieces would be included in the exhibit.

"This brings art to people, not people to art," Sally Wern Comport, the Artwalk project curator, said in her West Street studio. "This will let children understand the birthday celebration. It's for the diverse community as a whole."

Four proposed sites in the downtown historic district will be scrutinized by the seven-member Historic Preservation Commission, which is expected to decide on the proposed installation Tuesday night. Two other proposed sites are outside the historic district.

Five well-known local artists, including the late photographer Marion Warren, are represented in the collection, which organizers would like to keep in place for up to three years.

The six downtown sites identified by organizers include walls at the U.S. Naval Academy and on West Street, the Annapolis harbormaster's building at City Dock, Calvert Street near the Clay Street community, a Compromise Street playground and Westgate Circle.

Lead organizer Chuck Walsh, a former telecommunications lawyer, said the arts project has drawn constructive comments from city officials. Last year, the city awarded a $70,000 grant to Artwalk. Walsh said one issue still on the table is how long the pieces should be on display. But both sides agree that nothing quite like this has been done before in the state capital.

"This is an innovation, with a mixed palette, and certain things need to be evaluated," said Donna C. Hole, chief of historic preservation.

A key, Hole said, is whether the paintings and photographs will enhance what she calls the "big outdoor rooms" of Annapolis' streets, building and sidewalks.

City officials who safeguard the pristine 18th- and 19th-century architecture say the artwork must blend into the areas for which they're proposed. For example, they will consider a classic Warren black-and-white photograph from 1954, of the city mayor, police chief and a judge talking outside the courthouse, for a West Street site.

Contemporary stylized images would also be on display.

Participating artist George "Lassie" Belt, 55, is a minister and recreation leader at the Stanton Community Center. He grew up in the heart of the surrounding Clay Street community, a historically black neighborhood. His rendering of a black man's profile would appear on the nearby Arundel Center building on Calvert Street if the commission approves the project.

"All that I had, I brought back to this neighborhood," he said. "All that I can do well comes directly from God."

Comport, an artist and illustrator who is preparing work for the show, said her contribution will be a 1930s-style depiction of workers and craftsmen once clustered in Eastport.

The Annapolis project has brought together artists who had never met before, she noted, including Sy Mohr, an 83-year-old native New Yorker who lives in Bowie.

Mohr, who recently created an image of an immigrant for the City Dock site, said his work reflects "determined egalitarian multiculturalism and irrepressible joie de vivre." A painting he made of the Amish hangs in the permanent collection of Pennsylvania's State Museum in Harrisburg.

At least one city official plans to speak to the panel in favor of the project. Chuck Weikel, executive director of the tricentennial celebration in 2008, said free and open cultural events are critical to giving residents a stake in the event.

"Annapolis Charter 300 will be best when the most people are involved. There's no better way to engage people than through public art," Weikel said. "Art helps frame the scenes we glimpse through the window of history."

On a recent day, Comport invited Belt to bring some children from the Stanton Community Center to paint fish, flowers and fanciful figures, which she plans to incorporate into the collaborative project.

June would be the perfect time to start installing the exhibit, the artist said. But, she observed, "We have many hours of conversation left to go."

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