Startling images have been popping up on buildings around Station North. Seemingly overnight, bold stripes and peculiar geometric shapes cover a wall overlooking the parking lot across from The Charles Theatre; an enormous elephant lurks around the corner on Lafayette Street; there’s a portrait of community activist Dennis Livingston adorning the side of a house a few blocks away; and a cupped hand cradles a pigeon on a vacant North Avenue storefront.
“I’ve been wondering what the hell’s going on here,” says a man who identifies himself as Nate at the bus stop at North and Charles. “Seems like I see something new every few days that makes me stop in my tracks.”
He nods toward the painted pigeon looming behind him. “I think some artists done lost their minds,” he says, before letting out a cackling laugh.
A bus approaches, and Nate picks up a duffel bag sitting beside him on the sidewalk. “But I hope they do some more like that elephant,” he says. “That’s a damn good elephant, probably the closest I’ll ever come to one. But why would somebody from Baltimore paint an elephant?”
He shrugs and steps onto the bus.
Nate, like a lot of people, might be surprised to learn that that elephant was painted by an artist from South Africa, the geometric shapes over the parking lot were done by a New Yorker, and the Livingston piece was executed by a Reno artist. They’re part of Open Walls, an ambitious street-art exhibition in Station North. All told, 23 large-scale artworks will go up on buildings around the arts and entertainment district, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, by June 1 and will stay up indefinitely.
Open Walls has city support—Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake heartily endorsed it at a March launch event—as well as funding from both PNC Bank and the National Endowment for the Arts, and an impressive roster of local, national, and international artists. The artists go by names as colorful as the pieces they produce and include the likes of Overunder, Specter, and Swoon. They value anonymity, because, despite their rising star status in the art world, their work often flirts with illegality, at least when it isn’t sanctioned by the city.
“I’ve chosen people that create truly beautiful work, but visually, they’re pretty safe,” says Baltimore street artist Gaia, who curated the exhibition and painted the pigeon. “It’s work that I personally admire by artists who I’ve worked with in the past, so I know how they work and what I can expect from them—something that’s well-rendered and sensitive to the neighborhood and the city.”
With his paint-splattered shoes, camouflage hoodie, and curly hair tucked inside a baseball cap, he looks like a product of MICA, which he is (sculpture major, Class of 2011). “I came for MICA and stayed for Baltimore,” quips the Manhattan native, who’s lived here for the past five years.
As he speaks, Gaia unloads buckets of stucco from a van parked outside the Bell Foundry into an adjacent courtyard where supplies such as paint, ladders, and scaffolding are stored. He explains that the stucco will be used by Vhils, a Portuguese artist, to create a bas-relief, photo-realistic portrait on the Foundry’s eastern wall. A piece of lush surrealism by Bay-area artist Doodles already adorns the building’s western wall.
After parking the van and locking the courtyard gate, Gaia sits on an overturned bucket, lights a cigarette, and marvels at how quickly the project came together. He exhibited a giant Raven piece—which he’d done as a fundraiser for the Edgar Allan Poe House—at his senior thesis show last spring, and that work caught the eye of William Backstrom, PNC’s Community Development Banking market manager, who asked what it would take to do a street-art exhibition in Baltimore.
“Gaia was exactly the right curator,” says Backstrom, “because, besides being a talented artist, he’s also a history freak and a preservation freak.”
“I sent him some numbers, he thought about it, and things settled for a couple months,” says Gaia.
In December, Gaia got a message while traveling in Europe that Backstrom, The Baltimore Museum of Art’s Doreen Bolger, and Station North executive director Ben Stone wanted to talk. During a subsequent conference call, they told him Station North was applying for an NEA “Our Town” grant and asked him to put together a proposal for a mural/public-art project.
“We envisioned something that would bring artists out to the streets to make them and their work more visible to people in the area,” says Stone. “We also wanted to make Station North more visible to the outside world.”
“I saw this as a neighborhood-revitalization project,” says Backstrom, who has a nonprofit background and worked on community-development initiatives in Highlandtown and Patterson Park. “There were a lot of great things going on in Station North, but it didn’t seem to broadcast itself beyond the arts community. A project like this draws attention to the district in a very appropriate and cost-effective way.”
A month later, money from NEA and PNC came through, and, says Gaia, “We had about a month to plan everything—confirming artists, securing walls for them to paint, arranging flights and accommodations, getting paint sponsorships, doing our PR—the whole shebang. The first week of March, our first artist started painting, and we launched the project, which will be finished by June.”
The $83,000 budget ($20,000 from the NEA grant and $63,000 from PNC), says Gaia, provides the artists with “a decent stipend for a week’s work, but it’s nothing exorbitant.”
He pauses a moment to take a phone call, which turns out to be from a Voice of America reporter inquiring about Open Walls. “A lot of people are taking notice,” he says, after hanging up. “I knew we could do something really big but manageable in terms of quality and making sure that everything is superlative. I knew we could knock it out of the ballpark.”
The state of Maryland designated Station North as Baltimore’s first arts and entertainment district in 2002. Encompassing the Barclay, Charles North, and Greenmount West neighborhoods, the area was already a hub of artistic activity thanks to nearby MICA and artist-occupied warehouse spaces like the Copycat Building, Area 405, and the Cork Factory. Besides offering tax and zoning benefits to artists and property owners within the district, the designation put a frame around the existing activity by upping its profile and defining boundaries—roughly 20th Street to the north, Greenmount Avenue to the east, and train tracks running southeast from the Howard Street Bridge to Oliver Street.
“The naming of Station North has had a huge and strange impact on the Baltimore art scene over the last 10 years,” says Gary Kachadourian, a Baker Award-winning artist, Open Walls participant, and former administrator with the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. “I say strange because I think maybe the most important part of that impact is simply the naming. The name became, almost instantly, this ultra successful ad campaign for all of the art that has always been made in the city.
“The fact that it was placed on this specific area was genius, because this is the area where almost everyone making art, in any part of Baltimore, will be showing or socializing. In essence, Station North is like the official proclamation that there is a huge, energetic, diverse, and ad-hoc art-making machine here.”
That identity has helped enhance the area’s development—especially in terms of arts-related infrastructure—despite the slack economy. MICA spent $20 million converting the old JoS. A. Bank factory on North Avenue into a Graduate Studio Center, and the college has also gotten involved in the redevelopment of the Centre Theater a few blocks away. A few doors down from the Studio Center, the long vacant Parkway Theatre figures to get a makeover, as three developers are vying to restore it; City Arts, a $15 million artist-housing complex, opened last year at Oliver and Greenmount Streets; and, next year, the Baltimore Design School moves to a state-of-the-art facility on Barclay Street after $25 million in renovations are completed.
Additionally, a smattering of restaurants and cafes have taken root (Joe Squared, Tapas Teatro, Liam Flynn’s Ale House, Outtakes Cafe, and Station North Arts Cafe among them), along with a few shops (Artist & Craftsman Supply, Cyclops Books), exhibition and performance venues (Load of Fun, Metro Gallery, case[werks], The Windup Space), a print shop (Baltimore Print Studios), and a burgeoning theater scene (thanks to Glass Mind, Single Carrot, and Strand theater companies). Everyman Theatre, a longtime presence on Charles Street, departs for the Westside at the end of the year, but the newly formed Baltimore Open Theatre is seriously considering Station North as a home base, according to co-founders Philip Arnoult and Buck Jabaily. Add neighborhood fixtures like The Charles Theatre, The Club Charles, and The Schuler School of Fine Arts to the mix, and it’s a solid and diverse mix.
But all this activity isn’t always apparent to people from outside the area. They’re likely aware that Station North still grapples with crime and grime, and, driving through, they see the abundance of still-vacant storefronts and houses. Open Walls provides a different type of focal point, one that nods to the artists and creative types who are staking a claim to not only the district’s future, but also the city’s.
“Folks like Gaia, or the D.I.Y. [Do-It-Yourself] types, are the group of people that will grow our city,” says Backstrom. “They’re artistic, resourceful, technologically aware, and socially connected. At the end of the day, they’re exactly the type of entrepreneurs you hope to attract and retain. We should be supportive of them.”
That attitude dovetails nicely with the role of Gaia, who considers himself more coordinator than curator. “I don’t take a disestablishment approach,” he says, “and I’m not against the system, per se. My goal is to be a bridge between the grassroots and the establishment, so it’s really encouraging and exciting that these massive institutions recognize the value of what we’re doing.
“I think it took people like Doreen [Bolger] and Will [Backstrom] to recognize that the work artists do and the freedom and liberty they represent are actually assets to a struggling city. Artists have the resources to do a lot of amazing and transformational things that can help with revitalization.”
The city certainly offers plenty of opportunities for additional collaborations. “We have something like 45,000 vacant buildings,” says Gaia, “which on one hand, is an unfortunate canvas. But it also means there’s lots of potential for more artist-run projects like Open Walls. All we need is the green light.”