Strange bedfellows for street art

Artists Gaia, Momo and Michael Owen join in rare collaboration

  • From left, Gaia, Michael Owen and Momo are seated with a section of their cinderblock installation, a collaborative project, inside the Creative Alliance. The artists each painted larger works onto the 147 cinder blocks of this wall, which was then rearranged.
From left, Gaia, Michael Owen and Momo are seated with a section… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
September 07, 2012|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

Musicians collaborate all the time; so do actors. But artists, not really — and that goes double for street art, where making an individual mark is the name of the game.

That's why one of Baltimore's best-known street artists had to try it.

The result is a head-turning show called ZimZum, opening Saturday at the Creative Alliance. It features an expansive indoor and outdoor group effort between Baltimore Love Project founder Michael Owen and the artists Gaia and Momo.

"Most street artists just want to put their voice up on a wall," Owen says. "It's interesting and pretty unique to really force these people together into a space and a concept. It's losing a bit of your style to make a better work, a very unique idea in the graffiti scene."

ZimZum, sometimes spelled Tzimtzum, is a term from Kabbalah used to explain how God creates by first removing his essence from an area. The artists like to think of it as God breathing in inspiration from the environment and then creating with the exhale.

Owen got to know Gaia working with him at the Creative Alliance. He met Momo through Open Walls, the mural program that started this year in Station North. The three weren't close, and their styles are utterly different.

Momo, who's 37 and based in New Orleans now, is known for painting a winding orange line though downtown Manhattan, what The New York Times called "possibly the biggest graffiti tag in the world."

Gaia, 24, is a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate known for pasting fanciful animal figures onto buildings in some of the most blighted parts of Baltimore. As street artists, he and Momo try to preserve their anonymity.

Owen is best known for creating the Baltimore Love Project, his effort to paint the word "love," spelled out on murals, throughout the city. He's about to turn 30.

The merger wasn't easy.

Momo was concerned that his graphic work would become the background. Gaia had to leave town and met with the others via Skype. Owen wanted everything planned out before anyone got out a paintbrush — the others were more freewheeling.

And more than anything, it was hard for the artists to let go of their original ideas.

"People have to be willing to forgo certain starts, then enter down other routes," Gaia says. "It really has to be a balance of input and a cutting of the chaff, and you can't be hurt by the chaff."

It came together fast, in less than a month. ZimZum-style, the three drew inspiration for their work by walking the neighborhoods that surround the Creative Alliance: Highlandtown, Canton and Patterson Park.

Gaia chose to paint a classical-style horse, inspired by the Casimir Pulaski Monument in the park.

Inspired by a steel bridge that runs over train tracks in Highlandtown, Owen painted a bridge laid over splashes of bright pinks, greens and blues.

Momo's piece is an abstract linear melange in primary colors.

They decided on an installation that reflected their struggle to blend. First, inside the gallery, they would each have a piece of their own hanging on canvas.

Then they painted replicas of those works on cinder blocks, dismantled them and used the blocks to build a wall, mixing the various works together. The wall is six blocks high and spans nearly the length of the gallery, cutting through the middle.

Finally, they took the work outside, painting a mural onto the side of the Creative Alliance and using elements from each of their pieces.

"In the end," Owens says, "we've got something with three individual parts screened on top of each other so that it becomes one piece."

"I was blown away when I saw our cinder block wall," Momo says. "Somehow the different parts were just enough to play off each other well."

Recently Gaia and Momo were outside, up on a scaffold, spray-painting the horse and using housepaint to fill Momo's stripes. Owen handled the lower end of the stripe from the sidewalk.

All three were covered in paint. Music blasted from a boombox.

The mural, which covers the East Avenue side of the Creative Alliance, stretching from roof to sidewalk, became a neighborhood focal point well before it was finished — an impossible-to-miss tableau for riders of the No. 13 bus.

A young man in camouflage pants bicycling past gave it a double take — twice — before pedaling on his way. A woman who works in a business across the street kept her eye on it while sitting on a smoke break. Someone all but stopped their car in the middle of the street to have a look.

The Creative Alliance commissioned the trio to create the piece. Megan Hamilton, the organization's program director, loves the artists' "crazy young energy" and hopes it will not only draw young people to the Alliance but continue to engage people from the neighborhood.

"Our raison d'etre is to create art that's contextualized in the history and dialogue of the neighborhood," she says. This piece is "really rooted in a sense of place."

If you go

ZimZum: Gaia, Michael Owen and Momo

When: Opens Saturday, Sept. 15, with a reception from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and then a Sweatboxx dance party in the space featuring Baltimore club music starting at 9 p.m. The show runs through Oct. 27.

Where: Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave., Highlandtown.

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