'Baltimore': true inspiration

Song about the city sparks creation of students' mural, a dance and a film on homelessness

  • Caleb Stine (left) and Saleem Heggins perform at the unveiling of the Baltimore Song Mural at Penn Station.
Caleb Stine (left) and Saleem Heggins perform at the unveiling… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
March 07, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Fifteen freshmen from the Maryland Institute College of Art went out last fall looking for Baltimore. What they found has been distilled into a four-panel wheeled mural, which is being displayed at Penn Station through this month.

In the process, the students, many of whom were new to the area, not only became comfortable in their adopted city, but were charmed by it. They spent hours tramping through neighborhoods and talking to the people they met.

"I'm surprised that people who live here don't appreciate Baltimore more," says MICA freshman Emily Wooten, who worked on the third panel of the mural. "There are so many different patchworks of communities, and they're all really interesting. I come from Knoxville, Tenn., where people are more separated and in their cars the whole time. Here I walk everywhere, and I interact with new people on a daily basis."

The mural is the most recent outgrowth of something called the Baltimore Song Project, a multidisciplinary effort involving three area colleges, a public radio station and a diverse group of artists, including filmmakers and a hip-hop musician.

In addition to the mural, the Project already has generated a student film on homelessness and, in August, it will form the basis for a dance piece.

"We had no idea what our song would evolve into," says Saleem Heggins, a hip-hop musician who created "Baltimore" with singer/songwriter Caleb Stine. "When you make music, you never know how it will resonate. You never know if people will love it or hate it. To see our song blossom into something like this is incredible."

In the spring of 2008, Sam Sessa, who covers nightlife for The Baltimore Sun and who hosts the "Baltimore Unsigned" radio show on WTMD-FM, had the idea of bringing together musicians from different genres to see what kind of music they would create.

His first pairing was Stine and Heggins, and the two had an instant rapport. Their very different musical styles melded; not only did Stine and Heggins become close friends, they recorded an album together.

One song, "Baltimore," uses Stine's haunting guitar melodies and Heggins' poetry to paint an evocative picture of their beloved city in all of its aspects. The song begins:

"Baltimore, city of dreams / Harborscapes, addicts and fiends / Sugar factories and subway steam / Where people embrace the craziest scenes ..."

When the duo performed "Baltimore" at one of the First Thursday concerts in Mount Vernon Park, Paul Sturm, an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore, was in the audience. He was immediately captivated. "I looked around, and people had tears in their eyes," he says.

"I've been in Baltimore for 2 1/2 years, and Caleb and Saleem caught the Baltimore that I was experiencing. Their song doesn't portray Baltimore as Disneyland, but it says that beneath the problems, we have all these wonderful qualities. It's about hope and faith and everyday life, and about how we as a community are trying to make Baltimore better."

Sturm was so inspired that he assigned the students in his civic engagement class to research the themes in the song and to make multimedia presentations on what they found. One group of students filmed interviews with homeless people.

"In the beginning, some of the students were nervous," he says. "They've been conditioned to cross the street when they see the homeless. They said, 'Why would we want to talk to them?' But in the end, the video they made was a tribute to the humanity of the street people in Baltimore. It was really moving. They set it to the soundtrack of Mariah Carey's 'Hero.' "

The experiment was so successful, Sturm thought about expanding it to other colleges with campuses in the city. He enlisted the help of a University of Baltimore colleague, Christina Ralls, who has an extensive background in community art.

They approached Paula Phillips, who teaches a course at MICA called Finding Baltimore, and the three hammered out a plan to have Phillips' freshmen construct a mural to visually illustrate the song.

The class began planning the design for the four panels in September. The professor has had many conversations since then with her students about their impressions of their new home, and Phillips says they reminded her why she first embraced Baltimore 15 years ago.

"The city itself is a mural," Phillips says. "Funnily enough, it might even be a mural on wheels. Baltimore has the capacity to undulate and change. I fell in love with the city when I came here in 1994. I fell in love again through the mural. This time, I think I married it."

The next project to be inspired by the song will be a dance; in August, students from the Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Conservatory will, Sturm says, "bring the song to life through movement" on North Avenue.

"The whole idea of the artist as a recluse who doesn't get involved in the community is outdated and needs to be revised," says MICA freshman and mural artist Corynne Ostermann, 19.

"I come from a place where people constantly try to do community art, but are unsuccessful. That's not the case here. Baltimore is so different from any other city where I've ever been."

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