Art `walk' proves road to dispute

January 11, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

The other pieces of art celebrate, while this one challenges. The rest are by professional artists, but this one is largely by children. That the piece in question is the African-American contribution to a public art project meant to commemorate Annapolis' 300th anniversary makes this a particularly high-pitched dispute, even by the standards of public art disputes.

On one side is a group of artists and their supporters, who have launched a project called ArtWalk to display on prominent public spaces - the wall of the Naval Academy and the Harbormaster's building on the town dock, for example - big blowups of paintings and photographs depicting aspects of Annapolis history.

On the other side is John Leopold, professional county executive and amateur art critic, who objects to ArtWalk's plan to use the wall of the Arundel Center, the county government building on Calvert Street a couple blocks west of the State House, to display a collage by local artist George "Lassie" Belt and local children.

Leopold, who says he is an "abstract expressionist oil painter" himself, opposes the plan on several grounds: The piece is too busy, with its drawing by Belt surrounded by multiple sketches by children he teaches. The county never agreed to let its wall be used. It would set a bad precedent in which any group could demand that ts artwork be similarly displayed.

He didn't do himself any favors this week by asking rhetorically, in an article in the Annapolis Capital, what if the Ku Klux Klan asks to put up some artwork?

Perhaps not the best hypothetical to raise, when you already have the NAACP angry at you for rejecting a piece whose dominant element is a drawing of a black man breaking free of a chain, with the word "freedom" over his head.

"This is not about race," Leopold said yesterday after meeting with Belt and ArtWalk.

Maybe not, but I'm beginning to think it's not the road to hell that's paved with good intentions, but the road to public art.

Belt and the ArtWalk folk are nothing if not well-meaning. They speak of depicting the struggles of the black community but also its hopes for the future - that's the reason for the breaking-chains motif, and the use of decidedly amateur children's drawings. They speak of how proud the kids were to learn their work would be displayed, and how that would elevate their self-esteem.

That may be where they lose me - I'm for public art, I'm for self-esteem, but I'm not necessarily for public art that's really about the self-esteem of the artist. Isn't that what refrigerator doors are for? Belt's piece strikes me as more amateurish than the rest - except for his part, the drawings are by children, after all - and it seems unfortunate that the one piece that is specifically about the African-American community would be less polished than the rest.

Belt says artwork can be both artistic and self-esteem-building. Something of an unlikely center of this storm, he is soft-spoken and seems genuinely beloved in Annapolis, where many laud him for his more than 25 years of working with youth sports and art programs.

"We didn't bring Al Sharpton in to paint this piece," said Chuck Walsh, a retired telecom lawyer and co-founder of ArtWalk.

Walsh first saw Belt's artwork last year when the artist was honored by the Touchdown Club of Annapolis, which gave him its first Steve Belichik award, named for the late Naval Academy assistant coach and father of Bill Belichik, the New England Patriots coach.

Walsh was blown away by Belt's work -his own art and his efforts with children - and envisioned him as a perfect fit for ArtWalk, which is supported by public and private funds. The other pieces, most of which have been installed, are more traditional - there is Greg Harlin's painting of John Paul Jones' frigate firing on a British ship, which hangs appropriately enough next to a gate to the Naval Academy; there is Sy Mohr's folk-art rendition of a bustling waterfront scene, hanging on the side of the Harbormaster's Building on the City Dock.

Walsh said he was surprised that the piece has proved controversial. He thought the major hurdle would be getting the project past the city's Historic Preservation Committee, which fiercely protects Annapolis' historic charm, but its members gave it the OK.

"You talk about people protecting their walls," he said wryly. "But they understood the project."

ArtWalk organizers wanted Belt's piece to hang on the Arundel Center wall because it faces Clay Street, historic home of the city's black community. With its dreary public housing and teenagers glowering on the corners, the street is just steps away from the pretty, stately Annapolis that visitors tend to see, but also worlds away.

Yesterday, Leopold again told Belt and ArtWalk that he won't allow the art - or any art - to be hung on the county building's outside wall. He did offer to display the art inside in the lobby, promote it on his weekly TV show and help expand art programs for kids.

ArtWalk says it will look for an alternate outdoor site for the piece as well, since it was always intended as part of a larger exhibit of six different sites - the plaques hanging next to the pieces that have been installed will have to be changed because they point viewers to the Arundel Center to see Belt's piece.

As for the artist, he remains undeterred.

"We'll just bless somebody else's building," he said.

jmarbella@baltsun.com

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Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella

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