A Measure of Success: The fourth annual Baker Artist Awards exhibit at the BMA showcases the 2012 winners and the unique opportunities the prize provides. by Cara Ober
There are a number of hardships for Baltimore’s artists. One main issue is funding. The local art market is weak, so sales tend to be few and far between. Another problem is a shortage of press. Baltimore artists are largely ignored by national publications, and, even on the local level, options for reviews are few. And, until very recently, the BMA, Baltimore’s museum of international acclaim, rarely, if ever, exhibited the work of local artists, so achieving a museum show seemed to be an impossible goal.
However, some major changes have occurred in the last few years. Now more than ever, artists are choosing to live and work in Baltimore, encouraged by a number of opportunities, programs, and cash awards. One of the most significant organizations to enrich the lives of Baltimore artists is the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, better known as the sponsor of the Baker Artist Awards and website. Now in its fourth year, the organization has streamlined its approach to funding; provides an attractive, free website for individual artists to share their work; and sponsors exhibitions in a variety of locations. These changes have made a real difference for hundreds of artists living in Baltimore.
As in past years, the Baltimore Museum of Art is hosting an exhibit of the 2012 Baker Artist Award winners, with a free reception on Friday, September 7, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. The exhibition includes bodies of work by the three $25,000 winners: photographer Alex Heilner, sculptor David Knopp, and musician Nathan Bell, who will give a performance at the reception. In addition, eight of the $1,000 B-Grant winners (Chris Bathgate, Brent Crothers, Ellen Durkan, Yoshi Fujii, Tiffany Jones, Miranda Pfeiffer, Marcia Wolfson Ray, and the late Lauren Simonutti) are exhibited in an adjoining group show. The ninth B-Grant winner, Smooth Kentucky, is a local band so they will also perform at the party.
Besides the opportunity to exhibit or perform in a museum setting, each artist got to work with Ann Shafer, the BMA’s Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, to select the best work for the venue. Despite disparate methods and aesthetics, Shafer’s selections come together in an elegant combination of photography, sculpture, ceramic pottery, and drawings, presenting a sophisticated cross-section of Baltimore’s art community.
As visitors enter the exhibit, Alexander Heilner’s aerial photographs fill the gallery on the right. From a distance, many of his images look like abstract paintings with geometric shapes of undulating color. Most of his images were taken thousands of feet above the earth from locations across the globe. The MICA professor highlights man-made landscapes and structures. Viewed in a large group, Heilner’s work presents a conflicted view of civilization, in which man’s desire to alter natural forms is inspired and informed by nature itself.
Musician Nathan Bell’s work is presented in a documentary video, displayed on a large flatscreen TV with headphones for audio. Many of his techniques are original but based in ancient traditions. He has become known for a banjo technique called frailing, where the musician uses a percussive, downward stroke to create a unique sound. Bell is a former member of Baltimore band Lungfish but had little documentation of his techniques, so the Baker Fund commissioned an intimate nine-minute video, which includes musical performance and dialogue and was filmed and edited by Joe Rubino. It is definitely worth a listen.
The next gallery evokes a bodily sense of wonder. Visitors should walk between and around sculptural works by David Knopp, a maze that is dynamic from all angles. The artist has worked with striated piles of plywood for more than thirty years. His knowledge of his media is evident in the voluptuous tables, chairs, and sculptural abstractions that transform the industrial material into liquid curves and twists, where the striations between layers reinforce each contour.
The last gallery gives the viewer a sampling of works by each B-grant winner. It’s a hodgepodge, but it is neatly unified by muted color and the use of industrial and raw materials. The centerpiece of the exhibit is “Death Dress,” a life-sized, wearable sculpture forged of steel, cast iron, and leather by Ellen Durkin. Both menacing and sexy, the dress is a feminist power statement and a critique of contemporary fashion. Visually, the dress relates to the futuristic, metal sculptures of Chris Bathgate, which aestheticize modern machinery, as well as to the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Miranda Pfeiffer, rendered tenderly in graphite at a grand scale. Other constructions abound in the exhibit, especially the elegant three-dimensional combinations of industrial materials by Brent Crothers and the intense, dark, sculptural ‘thickets’ of twigs and sticks by Marcia Wolfson Ray.
Even the photography in this exhibit relies heavily on dark and muted color, making for a more-seamless-than-expected presentation. “The Devil’s Alphabet,” a grid of twenty-six black and white photographs by the recently deceased Lauren Simonutti, is a dark and beautiful exorcism of personal demons and features ghost-like images that reference each letter of the alphabet. Tiffany Jones’ grid of six images, titled “Black 1–3,” pair Civil Rights-era images with self portraits to explore, both subtly and confrontationally, what it means to be to African American in America today.
Although lighter in color and demeanor, the intricate ceramic vessels by Yoshi Fuhii stand out on their own. They don’t immediately relate to the rest of the works in the show, but their celadon glaze and incised patterns are a feast for the eyes, if you choose to notice them.
Whether or not the works in this year’s exhibit are aesthetically appealing to you, one issue we can all agree on is the impact of the Baker Fund on the arts here in Baltimore. “We believe that Baltimore is a super-creative city with great cultural organizations and that our artists are a significant regional resource,” says Melissa Warlow, Executive Director of The William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund.
So far, the organization has financially supported twelve artists with $25,000 prizes and nearly forty smaller cash prizes, as well as a number of other programs and exhibits. Beyond the cash awards, more than 700 artists have participated in past competitions by uploading their images to the Baker Artist Awards Website. Well-designed and user-friendly, the website is an effective resource for any type of artist, curator, or collector residing in or around Baltimore.
“The site gives visibility to many artists who have not had opportunity to expose their work in public before,” says Connie Imboden, president of the Board of Trustees of the William G. Baker Jr Memorial Fund. “Two of our Mary Sawyers Baker winners this year were ‘outsider’ artists, not formally trained. I believe that the site has also given a sense of community to Baltimore artists, a forum where they can comment on each other’s work, discover other artists they are interested in and, in some cases, develop collaborations.”