Think of the artists most commonly associated with Baltimore and a common trait begins to emerge. Poe. Dark, right? Zappa. Eccentric. Waters. An auteur unto his own.
Immediately, other names come to mind: Mencken, Tupac, David Byrne, David Simon, Philip Glass, Grace Hartigan, John Barth, Divine, John Doe, Gertrude Stein, Animal Collective, Dan Deacon, Cab Calloway, and even Anne Tyler. For such a mainstream author, Tyler creates more than her share of offbeat characters.
Offbeat is also a word to describe the city where she lives, a city that also gave us the Ouija board, a national anthem written by a poet imprisoned aboard an enemy ship, and the American Visionary Art Museum.
So what is it about Baltimore that nurtures eccentric and peculiar creativity? In short, why the edge?
It may be rooted in a long and colorful history of contradiction, defiance, and lawlessness stretching back to colonial times. It could be related to the city's location on the map, tucked between the nation's political and economic capitols and situated along a bustling waterway ferrying illicit substances and a veritable rogues gallery to our shores. Race probably figures into it, too, and so might the presence of a world-class art school (MICA).
With all this in mind, we asked a few dozen creative types—from film directors and writers to a historian and a cartoonist—to offer reasons of their own. Their responses reflect this city's unpretentious character, poignant circumstances, and dedicated resourcefulness.
And they convey an overall impression that if you're not on the edge, you're taking up too much room.
Theory No. 1
It's the extremes of Baltimore, the parts that aren't like anywhere else. It's the fact that people don't want to leave Baltimore, and they look at you peculiarly if you say you're moving to New York. They say, "Why?" No other city has that. People here aren't influenced by trends, and they don't feel inferior because they don't live in L.A. or New York. They don't understand why you would think about moving. People don't even want to leave their own neighborhood.
And it is edgy. I lived in San Francisco and New York, two places that used to be known for their edge, and as much as I loved both those cities, God knows we have more edge in Baltimore. And the edge is, in some ways, what people are trying to hide about Baltimore. But for anyone involved in any kind of a creative thing, it is the most appealing thing about Baltimore. It is interesting. It is an eccentric city. It isn't like anywhere else, and that's what artists want to celebrate.
No one wants to write about Harborplace. Nobody wants to write about people from Washington moving here and fixing up the neighborhoods. That's all good, and if we didn't have it, the city would have died. But those things aren't interesting. They aren't funny. They aren't going to inspire someone to make a movie or write a novel.
I know a lot of people who say, "God, I go through there on the train and see how horrible it looks." I love how it looks when you go through on the train. It looks like, "Don't be stoppin' here unless you have a sense of humor. Keep on going, buddy." It isn't for everybody, but the people who like it like it better than anyplace else. It's still what influences me.
The racial thing is . . . there's no reason I don't have more black friends when I live in a city that's 70 percent black. It's still wrong. I went to Ultra Naté's birthday party one year, and I was the only white person. It looked like the black Club Charles, all the coolest black kids. I thought, "How come I don't know these people. Is that my fault? Whose fault is it?" We still do not mix. It's still a black and white city. But even the coolest black people and the coolest white people, who really aren't racist, they still don't mix.
I find that alarming, but that can add to the weird kind of psychological island that the city is. It's like Berlin when the wall was up. I think that's when Berlin was much more fun, because, at that time, the only people that lived there were young people who didn't want to go in the army, punks, gay people, and old Nazis. There was no middle class. Of course, Baltimore has a middle class and we need to have a middle class, but its overall weirdness is key.
I think that when some people see the city from the train, they feel like Baltimore is Berlin, and I'm sure the Chamber of Commerce and the Mayor work very hard so people don't think that. But I think that's one of the main reasons that artists, for the first time ever, are moving to Baltimore from New York. That's never happened—it was always the other way around. But they are. Baltimore is cheaper, edgier, and filled with possibilities. It's like what the Lower East Side used to be.
Theory No. 2
Barry Michael Cooper
Baltimore is a very Gothic city. There are elements of New York, Paris, and London, and even Berlin, in its architecture. The waterfront—along the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Canton, and other areas—lends itself to a certain kind of meditation and reflection, and being able to view a body of water has a certain transcendental power to it. Also, Baltimore is a bustling metropolis, but it's still a small, exotic, almost Southern city. For a New York native, when I moved here, I felt like Richard Wright or Hemingway going to Paris as an ex-pat. Baltimore has the air of the foreign, in the midst of the familiar.
Theory No. 3
If you took a jelly jar full of Patapsco River water and let it evaporate, you would not be left with salt. You would be left with grit. That's what remains when the artist boils away the surface of Crabtown. That's what we have to work with.
Theory No. 4
Dan Deacon & Karl Ekdahl
Deacon: From an arts perspective, so much of the country is focused on New York, L.A., Chicago, Miami, and even Boston, but they glaze over Baltimore. As a result, when it comes to the art scene in Baltimore, the attitude is, "If you like it, you like it. If you don't, who gives a shit?" Baltimore has its own culture and identity that hasn't really been homogenized like a lot of other cities. It attracts people who are like, "Let's make the best of what we have." Depressed communities are forced to build themselves up.
Ekdahl: Things are so shitty that you need to do something awesome.
Deacon: No one is going to clean up the street, so if you want the street cleaned in front of your house, do it. No one's going to fix things for you. It's a large city with a lot of dead zones with commercial areas that aren't commercial areas anymore. So it's easy for artists to exist cheaply, and there's space to do what you want to do. Baltimore is so under- populated. It's designed with an infrastructure for a million people, and there's just over half a million people here. That says a lot about the amount of space that each individual has. People can have the space to create. I grew up on Long Island, in the suburbs, and I had never seen anything that looked like Robocop in real life, until I came to Baltimore. The first time I came here to visit, I saw rows and rows and rows of buildings that were boarded up.
Ekdahl: I come from Sweden—which looks like it's made of sugarcane—so for me, Baltimore is just insane. But I love this place. As a music and art scene, it's extremely liberated.
Deacon: But I think space has a lot to do with it, and it can go in either direction—positive or negative. I've seen it work positively. I think that crime benefits it by keeping things cheap. It keeps people away who are going to be mad that you're practicing late at night. I used to live in the Copy Cat building, and we used to be able to practice anytime we wanted. All of a sudden, there are condos up the street, and that changes. But luckily, there's so much of Baltimore that they won't be able gentrify all of it. For a long time, there will be somewhere for artists to go.
Theory No. 5
I think it's the Old Bay seasoning. It makes everyone sort of peppery and quirky, and also a little bit outside of their time—like the label on the can.
Theory No. 6
Ben Claassen III
Comic Book Illustrator
Theory No. 7
Director of MICA's MFA program in graphic design
Baltimore is an in-between city. It's in-between Philadelphia and Washington, big and small, North and South. It attracts people who like to be off-center, on the edge, just outside of the dominant traffic pattern. And its economic in-between-ness is friendly to artists, so the overall vibe is good for creativity.
Theory No. 8
There are so many great musicians that have come out of Baltimore. When you're talking to cats that really know, and you mention you're from Baltimore, they look at you in a different light. They know the type of musicians that come out of Baltimore: Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday, Albert Dailey, Dennis Chambers, Gary Bartz, and some other cats like Mickey Fields and Ethel Ennis. Some people say it could be in the water, but it's part of that great hub that went up the East Coast back in the day.
Theory No. 9
Co-Director, Maryland Traditions
I always thought it was the water. Actually, it comes from being a city that no one wanted to admit being from for a certain period until 1980 when the Harborplace phenomenon shined us up a bit. But then when crack cocaine came in 1985, we went back into the shadows. It is a leftover inferiority complex. How many of us growing up would only admit to being "from near Washington"? We have to make our statement in a different, oblique, indirect way—like Zappa and Byrne and Simon. In the same way that we sideswipe the city when traveling—via the harbor tunnels and the industrial side of town—the outer edges are where the creativity originates, and that creativity is colored by the gray side, rather than the fertile, rich green of the valleys.
Theory No. 10
Madison Smartt Bell
There is something receptive about Baltimore for idiosyncratic talents like John Waters, Anne Tyler, and our cousin Mr. Poe. It's the fact that it is a major East Coast port city and, at the same time, something of a backwater. And there is a touch of grotesque already available. And for [artists like] Laura Lippman and David Simon, it starts with knowing most intimately where all the bodies are buried.
Theory No. 11
It's because Baltimore is so sarcastic and unnecessarily negative—everyone's taking the piss out of each other. It's a redheaded stepchild that some people just don't get it. As a result, it has a toughness that I was thankful for, especially as I learned to write and play music. Baltimore is a good place for an artist to be from, because it has a bit of soul and a lot of heart.
Theory No. 12
Baltimore is such a stratified city. It has that history of division and diversity, which is fascinating. At the same time, the lines are thinly drawn. I think young people from other places are shocked at the way we live so close together, yet remain so far apart. If you're an artist interested in people, I think there's no greater city. It's the reason I stay. And perhaps it's the reason so many young artists from MICA stick around after they've finished their degrees. If you buy into the idea, on some level, that art is an effort to communicate, then living in a city where communication is a necessity validates your art.
There's a diversity of environment, too. Maryland really is "America in miniature." And every day I find a new location that inspires me. (Case in point: Last week we shot film of paintball in White Marsh, a family in Cherry Hill, Carroll Skatepark, Hemlock Gorge, Double Rock Park, and Fullerton.) Plus, we experience the seasons here, which requires that we change four times a year. Little adjustments in environment cause personal revolutions, defeating complacency and initiating periods of reflection and growth.
Theory No. 13
A new municipal slogan, maybe? Baltimore Sets The Muses' Teeth On Edge.
Theory No. 14
Founder and Director, American Visionary Art Museum
You almost can't go back far enough looking at reasons why this area produces more than its share of eccentricity. It goes back to Colonial times. It's neither north nor south. It has some of the greatest per capita wealth and some of the greatest poverty. As John Waters points out, it leads the country in VD, but at least you can get a date here. It has great symbols of healing, with Shock Trauma and Johns Hopkins Hospital, yet all the Army's chemical and biological warfare development is clustered right here. Maryland was the first colony to pass miscegenation law, making it illegal to marry someone of a different racial background. On the other hand, you had heavy duty Quakers who were abolitionists. There's a large Jewish community and the first American saint, Elizabeth Seton, lived in this area. And yet Baltimore's Madalyn Murray O'Hair was the one who got prayer out of the public schools. Baltimore represents the extremes of what it means to be a human being, especially an American human being, warts and all. It's a pressure cooker.
Theory No. 15
In contrast to other parts of the country, this is an old city, and it's great being able to walk through history. As a result, you can always think of something to make art about. And there's this polyglot ethnicity—it's not just black and white—with Germans, Italians, and all those cultures bringing something zesty to the mix. Now, we have a large Hispanic population, so the rainbow is changing. The palette is changing.
And you have to overcome adversity in Baltimore, which has had unfulfilled starts at becoming a city that's wealthy and prominent. So you're propelled into being creative, if you want to live a fulfilled life. People make because they have to.
Theory No. 16
It's the trash. The streets and alleyways are filled with materials to work with. A lot of my ideas stem from piles of debris. As a visionary artist, there are benefits to living in a city that isn't on the top ten list for cleanliness.
Theory No. 17
Author, Maryland, A Middle Temperament: 1634-1980
Adversarial experience and subversive attitudes toward the proprietary regime seem to have left a mark on early Maryland culture, as did Maryland's religious toleration and, later, its cultural mixing of Yankee ambition and certitude on the one hand and the pleasurable pursuits and romantic illusions of the South on the other. After the Civil War, I detected a similar mixed Maryland attitude toward "progress" and its promise. Perhaps we can say that Maryland artists in their work often partake of this ambivalence, suspicion of certainty, cynicism, orneriness, and peculiar empathy.
Theory No. 18
William P. Tandy
Editor/Publisher, Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!
Collectively, we may suffer a bit from the Napoleon Complex here. We're not New York, we're not Philadelphia, and—thank God's gentle teeth—we're not D.C., either. And as such, we're forced to try a little harder. We don't have the same sort of resources one might expect in any of those places, so we're forced to make use of what's on hand. Our bigger siblings got the looks, but we got the personality. The humor. And that fosters creativity.
Theory No. 19
Radio/TV Host, This American Life
Artists from Baltimore don't put on airs. Philip [Glass] is chief among them. He'll go anywhere and play anywhere and play with anyone. I think that's part of coming from Baltimore. My wife is from Detroit and she swears she can tell when someone's from Detroit by their sense of humor. It's a particularly dark sense of humor. It's like that in Baltimore, too. There's a cynical attitude that one doesn't find everywhere, and it pervades the town. It's a bemused cynicism. It's one of the things that's so great about The Wire. It's so dark, but the attitude of the characters about what's going on around them is resigned and, sometimes, amused. That's so Baltimore.
Theory No. 20
Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Baltimore has a very hometown, quirky spirit about it that says, "Different is Okay, maybe even a good thing." Baltimore is the only city I've ever lived in where the first question people ask me is: "What can we do to help?" That communal support is amazing and invaluable to creative growth and development.
I love Baltimore and especially love the tapestry of difference that everyone seems to embrace!
Theory No. 21
Maybe it's in the water? The city is surrounded by it. Or the latitude and the longitude. You know, the position of the Earth and the planets and the stars. It's probably no one thing, but Baltimore is a ballsy, contrary town, so maybe it breeds ballsy, contrary artists or at least enables them. This smallish city is rough, no doubt about it. It's rife with drug addiction, social problems, racial tension, and general lawlessness.
Some of this edge works well for the artists who choose to live and work here—especially for the artists that roll up the sleeves and start their own gigs. Artists create their own cultural realities and scenes, and, in Baltimore, they have to.
There is no commercial art market, and I imagine being a gallerist in Baltimore is really, really hard. We're too close to the NYC art market and too poor to have a purchasing audience, but we have a strong cultural not-for-profit sector that begins to fill the gaps, but never in the way a thriving commercial gallery scene might. No single community or discipline (art form) is large enough, so there is a significant amount of cross-disciplinary work, which cultivates experimental art.
What does this mean? Only the nuts stay and work? Experimentation can thrive in this environment?
Well, I still think it just might be in the water.
Theory No. 22
Otolaryngologist, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; Faculty Member, Peabody Conservatory of Music
From a biomedical point of view, I can't make a reasonable hypothesis about why this is the case. But personally, I know that art reflects the place where it's made, so Baltimore's eclectic art must reflect the fact that living in Baltimore can be a very eclectic experience.
Baltimore is an odd place, one that doesn't reveal its charms quickly, in that it's a large city that feels like a small town. And I think that's important, because there isn't the anonymity of a place like New York. As a result, it's comfortable here, and the artwork Baltimore produces has a certain lack of pretension. In every aspect, art is very accessible here, and Marin Alsop is a great example of that. Classical music is the paradigm of elitism in cultural music worldwide, but, in Baltimore, we have a female conductor—first time ever for a major orchestra—who's doing everything she can to bring the orchestra to the people. That's the sort of thing that happens in Baltimore, and it's the wave of the future.
Theory No. 23
Co-founder, Link: A Critical Journal on the Arts in Baltimore and the World
It's a push back. I think Baltimore has had a bit of a chip on its shoulder for a long time. Its gutsy, edgy identity, and irreverent, iconoclastic art is part of the push back against feeling that the city is in decline, everyone is poor, it's been left behind, and all those kind of ideas. Baltimore, even as it rebuilds, always seems to be falling down around you.
As a result, there's also some critiquing going on in the artistic community. David Simon's work, in terms of critique, is very important. John Waters, in a different form, is critiquing what's around him and pointing out what other people don't want to acknowledge.
It's also important to consider if what Baltimore artists are producing is changing over time. It's exciting to see someone take the ball and run in a different direction. There's always room for something new to profoundly change things. What will become the "new" Baltimore?
Theory No. 24
People in Baltimore have a different attitude—everybody is humble, and they are automatically real. In Baltimore, unlike in New York or L.A., we aren't spoiled, and we're used to not having [material things], so we work hard. Also, there's a lot of violence going on, so we have to deal with that reality, too. That's what gives Baltimore its unique vibe.