Tooting Baltimore's horn

William Rhodes' paintings of jazz musicians depict `Unexpected Beauty' in the city


October 07, 2007|By Harold Fisher | Harold Fisher,Special to The Sun

At first blush, it's a bit hard to believe William Rhodes' art studio on St. Paul Street doubles as his home.

Almost everything in the building is his creation.

The three-story house in lower Charles Village breathes whimsy and oozes artsy textures even as you step through the front door of St. Paul Art and Design Studio.

Just inside the house, the shine of the hardwood floor catches you off guard. Is it wet? The beams are the color of Sunday-morning sweet-maple syrup, and stretch from the large living room to a slightly smaller dining room.

The open spaces seem to invite the wine-sipping, cheese-and-fruit-tray, bohemian crowd. It takes a moment to warm to the notion that everything is merely the background for the framed art decorating the walls.

Tilt your head and use a little imagination as you step inside Rhodes' living room/gallery and you might hear the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Thelonius Monk, as played by musicians depicted in Rhodes' most recent body of work, Unexpected Beauty in Baltimore.

The exhibit, a collection of 25 portraits, pays a respectful nod to musicians born and raised in Baltimore or connected to the city's storied jazz history. It opened yesterday at An die Musik, a live-performance venue in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood, and runs through Nov. 6.

And what an appropriate setting. Unexpected was birthed from conversations Rhodes had with some of his friends, members of Baltimore's jazz scene.

"My friends who are musicians were talking about the fact that it's amazing how many great musicians and artists come out of this town," he says. "The sad thing is a lot of the crime and the other issues overshadow all of the great creative stuff that comes out of the city. I thought it would be nice to do something that talks about the unexpected beauty in this city."

His depictions include the likes of pianist Lafayette Gilchrist and saxophonist Carl Grubbs -- names that are more recognizable to jazz purists on the other side of the world than here.

Then, there are Baltimore household names such as Ethel Ennis, the iconic jazz vocalist. (Yes, she's still around and doing her thing.)

The portraits of musicians blossom with oil-based crayons, gold leaf and recycled materials.

Almost all were transformed with a technique Rhodes describes as "the happy accident."

While working on a piece about bass player Gary Richardson, Rhodes became frustrated with the work.

He tried to clean the background with turpentine, but the paper began to fall apart. He left it alone for a day. The result was pleasing, and quite unexpected. The flat finish became textured and wavy, and that added new dimensions to his work.

"It almost gave it the impression as if the background was moving with the rhythm of [Richardson's] bass while he was playing," Rhodes says.

The work has a mysterious, swirling, three-dimensional effect that draws you close, and then compels you to stand closer still.

In the piece titled Night at the Castle, flecks of gold leaf dance around Kelly Shepherd, a Korean/African-American saxophonist who spent most of his childhood in West Baltimore's Edmondson Village.

The intensity of Shepherd's stance and the swirls of Rhodes' technique are as much about cultural duality as the exploration of the musical genre.

"It brings to light all of these special people that live in the city ... that people just don't notice," Rhodes says.

Rhodes, 41, began putting together his exhibition in 2005. Many of the paintings are based on pictures or memories of live performances he attended.

"I would go see them perform," he says. "You really try to capture the live essence of what took place."

In February, Rhodes unveiled parts of his exhibit at the Corridor Gallery Brooklyn in New York, which is owned by Danny Simmons, the brother of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

During the same month, the first-floor gallery of the Inner Harbor's World Trade Center showcased another musical retrospective by Rhodes.

Rhodes says Unexpected Beauty stands up for Charm City's weathered reputation.

It's a tribute to jazz from an artist who doesn't play music. It's about the Baltimore artists who do.

"It's important because I love Baltimore. I'm from here ... you talk about the reality, there are serious crime issues, there are serious drug issues. If you're going to talk about that, then you also have to talk about the fact that you have all this great talent in the city," he says.

"Unexpected Beauty in Baltimore" opened yesterday at An die Musik, 409 N. Charles St. in Mount Vernon. The exhibit runs through Nov. 6. For more information, call 410-385-2638 or go to

William Rhodes



Originally from:

Northwest Baltimore's Ashburton community


Graduated from the Baltimore School for the Arts; received an undergraduate degree from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and a master of fine arts from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth


Trips to Central and South America, Asia and Africa greatly influence much of his work as a wood-furniture sculptor.

How he pays the bills:

Working as an arts contractor, he builds exhibits for several museums, including Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture.

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