ABCs of Artscape live on in traveling show


April 12, 2009|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,

For 27 years, Baltimore's Artscape festival typically has presented art exhibits for a brief period, and then the art disappears from public view. But one exhibit has taken on a life of its own, finding new audiences long after the initial show ended.

Alphabet: An Exhibition of Hand-Drawn Lettering and Experimental Topography was one of numerous shows organized for the 2005 Artscape festival. It featured 60 ways to draw the alphabet, as conceived by 47 artists.

But after Artscape ended that year, the city's arts agency began receiving requests to present the Alphabet show in other settings - at art schools, graphic designers' meetings, galleries and elsewhere around the country. With the city's permission, the show became a traveling exhibit, appearing in cities such as Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Portland, Ore. Now it's back for a return engagement in Baltimore, appearing through April 26 at the Current Gallery.

"This is the longest-running Artscape show by far," said Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator for the festival and the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "We've had a couple others that have gone one other place, but this is the farthest we've taken it. ... It's a show that people want to see."

Kachadourian said he thinks the show has been popular because it addresses a universal theme, and the artists' responses are both wide-ranging and instructive - a veritable primer on the ABCs of graphic design.

"For Artscape, we're always trying to figure out shows that talk about how to make art," he said. "This seemed like a good show that did that and also focused on a niche."

The premise was simple: Artscape's organizers put out an "open call" for artists to submit new typefaces. One rule was that they could not have been published before. More than 100 artists responded, from students to professionals. The show was curated by Baltimore-based graphic designers Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen, who run a design studio called Post Typography and teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Some artists invented typefaces or updated traditional lettering. Others made letters from images of everyday objects, such as earrings or stuffed animals or railroad tracks. Theo Rosenblum took each letter and "rebuilt" it using images of foods that start with that letter. The letter D, for example, is made from a date, dill, duck, dumpling and deviled egg. Other featured designers included Elaine Lustig Cohen, Ed Fella, Andrew Jeffrey Wright, Paul Nudd, Michael Stout, Sibylle Hagmann and Lump Lipschitz.

The show at Current Gallery includes all the entries from the 2005 exhibit, plus a few more that were added after it began to travel. Organizers say the exhibit has had an impact beyond the showings. Some of the artists were hired to provide graphics for magazine articles, posters or CD covers.

Willen said the show helped inspire a book he and Strals have written about graphic design. Called Lettering & Type, it will be published this fall by Princeton Architectural Press, and includes several examples from the Alphabet exhibit.

Willen said he thinks the show has drawn strong interest because it's accessible on a variety of levels and demonstrates the many ways artists can reinterpret "an ordinary and ubiquitous subject."

Graphic designers can learn from seeing what their colleagues proposed, he said, while people who don't normally visit galleries and museums can appreciate the whimsical suggestions.

"Everyone can find something to appreciate in [the show], even if you don't know much about art or graphic design," he said. "There are so many unusual or clever takes on the alphabet."

if you go

Alphabet runs through April 26 at the Current Gallery, 30 S. Calvert St. Hours are 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. For more information, go to

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