From the moment Sandye Sirota opens the door to her three-bedroom unit in Guilford’s Carrollton condominiums, it is clear that she could charge an admission fee.
“Welcome to the circus,” she says cheerfully. “I feel like I need a barker standing here, saying, ‘Step right up!’”
With its 7-by-4-foot folk art re-creation of a circus sideshow suspended on the foyer wall (complete with a knife thrower, a saw box, a snake tamer, and a seal balancing a ball on its nose), it’s probably safe to say that this is the most original entranceway in Baltimore.
But barkers need not apply. Sirota is the perfect ring mistress, as she gives the narrated tour of her sprawling apartment, chockablock with interesting artwork, unique objects, and one-of-a-kind pieces.
“I’m a consumer of stuff,” says the former antiques dealer and decoupage artist. “I like pretty things. I don’t like jewelry, and I’ve never had the shoe/pocketbook thing. What gives me pleasure is to buy a beat-up piece of crap that is decorative and that I have no place to put anywhere, but I want it anyway. This is what I’m passionate about. This is my expression.”
Sirota became a passionate collector when her youngest of two daughters attended nursery school. “I started going to garage sales and auctions for the thrill of it, and then I got hooked,” she says. “I would collect stuff and then sell the excess at garage sales to pay for my habit.”
Her collection is vast and varied, defying any time period or style. There’s her intricate Victorian shell box collection, the French reverse paintings from the late 1700s, tortoise shell antique lacquer boxes, 19th- and 20th-century Palissy-ware-style pottery purchased in Portugal and France, and a signed Henry Moore watercolor. (“Never had it verified,” she says, “but it’s supposedly his.”) Her own artful decoupage plates, cigar ashtrays, and lamps are also prominently displayed throughout the space.
Some of the unique novelty items, which came from the now-closed American Dime Museum (cofounded by her partner Dick Horne), offer the perfect counterpoint to the more serious pieces. They include a porcelain sculpture of conjoined Siamese twins Eng and Chang and a whimsical bust of a boy with a kazoo embedded in his cheek.
“I’m very visual,” says Sirota. “I don’t care when something is made. Names mean nothing to me. I like what I like.”
And she likes a lot of it. “When you look in the magazines now, the spaces are so boring,” sighs Sirota. “Unless they are a real ‘wow’ architecturally, all this monochromatic stuff is not memorable. Everything here has a story.”
Hard as it is to believe, Sirota once contemplated switching her style from pack rat to minimalist. “I was looking for a loft in Hampden,” she says. “I was going to go industrial. I was going to go modern . . . . Sometimes if you wear black all the time, you buy a red dress because you think, ‘This would be great,’ but then you never wear it because you really feel happy with black. I really wanted to be a minimalist,” she chuckles, “but life got in the way.”