No Vacancy

Baltimore Artists Transform Blighted Spaces Into Outdoor Art Galleries

October 18, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Along North Calvert Street, just before it intersects with 22nd, there's a grassy stretch of land on the west side, separating groups of rowhouses and other un-gentrified buildings. On the edge of that land, along an alley running parallel to Calvert, sits a wooden bed frame and a toilet.

These are not remnants from some long-gone structure, or refuse dumped there in the dead of night. The objects have been specially constructed on this spot as part of "Axis Alley: Art in Vacant Spaces," which stretches along three blocks of alleyway in one of the many parts of Baltimore that seems suspended somewhere between neglect and transition.

For the next several months, the work of nearly two dozen artists will be seen in a place many people are apt to overlook, or simply avoid.

Overgrown backyards of abandoned properties have been cleaned out and accented with freshly created sculptures or drawings. Crumbling structures have become outdoor galleries for the installation of diversely expressive media. A chain-link fence is lined with a variety of blue collars, forming at once a decorative pattern and a literal statement about the working class neighborhood.

The project is the brainchild of Sarah Doherty, a sculpture professor at Maryland Institute College of Art and a strong believer in the movement known as urban (or social) intervention art.

"I was looking out the back window of my studio onto the alley," she says. "One house wasn't fully boarded up, and there was a brick frozen in the moment of falling. That's what drew me out, that train wreck factor. It was horrible and beautiful at the same time."

What Doherty discovered was lot after scary lot and a world of skeletal houses. "The vacancy rate was 85 percent in a three-block span when I moved here from California two years ago," she says. "But I saw the possibility of transforming this space."

Doherty made "a gazillion calls" to city housing officials to get the green light for the art project, which started with clearing out lots, some of them littered with condoms and needles. She hired local homeless men to help. (Getting the city to remove the collected debris would prove to be one of the most time-consuming and frustrating aspects of the venture.)

Bit by bit, over the past several weeks, site-specific works of art began to appear in the alley.

Doherty, who received an enthusiastic endorsement of the Axis Alley project from the neighborhood association, has sometimes felt a little nervous working alone in the alley. But her overall experience has been decidedly positive.

"I do think this is having an effect," she says. "I live here and I've seen the amount of needles and condoms decrease. Only one artwork has been vandalized. I didn't get much feedback from the junkies and prostitutes, but the street people seemed to appreciate it. And some neighbors helped me hang my painting."

That painting, attached to the second story of an empty house, depicts a giant pair of scissors that seem to be reaching for a pair of dangling feet, all against a background of exceptionally vivid blue.

"There's something very vulnerable about those little feet," Doherty says. She finds in the image a "frailty and sense of impending loss" that can serve as a metaphor for urban neglect. "But there's a transcendence in that blue," she adds.

Issues of transcendence and transformation are very much a part of "Art in Vacant Spaces," which is all about seeing past rats and fear to find avenues of creativity.

Artist and architect Eric Leshinsky subtly emphasizes that message with his work, "Words to Live By," which is found on a fire escape of an unoccupied home. From below, one can read the message "Walk don't run" painted under the stairs.

"I'm always looking to do projects in provocative urban spaces that are lacking in identity," Leshinsky says. "This alley doesn't have a name. It's not even mapped on Google. The idea of doing an intervention on an alley like this made a lot of sense to me."

Leshinsky finds the fire escape architecturally beautiful on its own.

"You could even detach it from the house and it would have some meaning and elegance," he says.

"I wanted to generate a different perspective on it, to work with that form in a way that wouldn't upstage the fire escape itself. [The art] on the stairs reveals itself slowly, and will hopefully bring you in a little closer," Leshinsky says. "An alley will really never be a very welcoming place to look at art, but the art could have an impact on people's perception of the space."

For Leshinsky, the value of Doherty's project is its dimension. "Without the other artists, it wouldn't have as much impact," he says.

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