As a guy who painted portraits of his family on black velvet, Tony Shore had to have a lot of nerve to even think that what he was doing was art. People said it was too lowbrow to ever be taken seriously, that it was kitsch, or worse.
Shore didn't pay them any mind when they told him that at the Maryland Institute College of Art or at Yale University's graduate school, or in New York, where he worked for years as an assistant to abstract painter David Reed. In New York, the world capital of sophisticated taste, Shore covered the walls of his tiny studio with black velvet paintings of Baltimore and the people he'd left behind. He never doubted the value of what he was doing, but it got mighty lonely sometimes.
So when Mayor Sheila Dixon named Shore the winner of this year's $25,000 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Friday, the painter was so overcome with emotion that he could barely speak.
"It was funny, because on my way up to the stage I actually felt kind of weak," Shore says of that giddy moment. "I thought if I just make it up, there I'll be OK. I was hoping I wouldn't faint on the way."
For Shore, 35, winning the award named after Baltimore's longtime civic leader and his wife meant more than just public recognition for his years of hard work and dedication to the craft.
It was also a validation of a uniquely personal vision whose roots sprang from the tough, working-class Baltimore neighborhood where Shore grew up, and of the tight-knit bonds of family and community that nurtured him from childhood.
Shore's luminous portraits on black velvet of his family and friends, most of whom still live in Southwest Baltimore's Morrell Park, are a reflection of the only kind of art he knew as a child: black velvet paintings of Elvis and other heroes of the common man.
They're the kind of pictures that art-world sophisticates dismiss as kitsch but that some people put on their walls to bring a bit of color and whimsy to the daily struggle of working-class families.
That's why Shore decided to embrace black velvet as his own.
"The paintings I do are directly related to where I grew up," Shore says of Southwest Baltimore. "They're paintings of my family and friends, usually in everyday situations. They are people who definitely would be considered blue collar or lower-class, but in the houses I grew up in, black velvet paintings on the wall were common; they were the poor man's artwork."
Black velvet is the symbol of everything his art is about -- an affirmation of the strength and resilience of the people he loves and the place he calls home.
"He's not the first to use velvet as the background for painting, but he has a great deal of respect for the people he comes from," says Baltimore art dealer Costas Grimaldis, whose gallery will exhibit Shore's paintings next year.
"The velvet fabric he uses is what the European nobility used for their capes, so it says his people are deserving of that kind of treatment," Grimaldis said. "The way he depicts subject matter and puts light in his paintings is reminiscent of Caravaggio. He has a tremendous hand; his works are very beautifully painted, like an Old Master. I was so happy to have them in the museum, because it really makes people understand a painting doesn't have to be on canvas to be a magnificent piece of art."
Still, while an art school student in the early 1990s, Shore's instructors quickly made him aware that the art world considered paintings on black velvet distinctly lowbrow.
"As I started to get educated in art, I became aware of all the connotations of [the material], so originally I was going to do paintings on black velvet of people who would own black velvet paintings," Shore recalls. He says his early efforts in the medium at MICA were more like cartoons or caricatures.
"But the more I started investigating my own family and the places and people that I knew, and the more I began really using this material that I didn't know that much about in the beginning except that it had those negative connotations, the more I started finding inherent values in both of them," Shore says.
"It made me see the value of the people I was painting and respect them for the qualities they did have instead of [seeing] all the things that when I was younger I thought I wanted to get away from by getting out of Baltimore City."
After graduating from MICA, Shore spent a couple of years in Baltimore painting and showing his work in coffeehouses around town. He was still searching for a way to make paintings on black velvet that would dignify his art, and the people in it, and for a way that rendered them acceptable to the mainstream art world.
"Often they were based on mythology or some sort of art historical reference, but using my family in place of those characters," Shore says. "So I did a Last Supper and a David and Goliath and a take on Titian's Venus of Urbino, except I turned her into the Venus of Sowebo.