I never realized that I was a Kraut until I lived in Italy. As an American, I always just blended in, so it never occurred to me to consider my ancestors as part of my identity. However, in bella Italia I couldn’t order a cappuccino or board a bus without a perfect stranger speaking to me in a halting square-ish language that I discovered was German. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to discern the obvious.
At this point, I have lived here in Baltimore for close to fifteen years and I consider myself a connoisseur of local arts and culture, so it was with trepidation that I checked out the new Outpost Journal, a magazine entirely devoted to the local cultural landscape and written by New Yorkers. I expected the usual crab picking, Edgar Allan Poe, ‘grit’, and Natty Boh clichés, and was disappointed to find them prominently featured, but I also found a number of new, insightful, and surprising revelations which expanded my own understanding of Baltimore’s creative culture.
For starters, who knew that Barack Obama’s favorite TV character is Omar Little? (A man’s gotta have a code!) Did you know that Baltimore was second only to New York as a port of entry for immigrants in the 1800′s? And, did you know the very first railroad station in the US was built in Baltimore? AND AND that the very same railroad station is the home to MICA’s Sculpture Department? That’s pretty cool. Less interesting to me was the official state sport (jousting) and official state crustacean (duh), but it was nice to be reminded of famous Baltimore alumni Billie Holiday, Philip Glass, and Elmo. I definitely appreciate well-researched random information.
After the introduction, the magazine jumps right into Baltimore’s diverse cultural offerings, starting with a typically overlooked treasure, beloved by schoolchildren all over the state: The Great Blacks in Wax Museum. From there, Outpost veers into a lengthy interview with Twig Harper and Carly Ptak, founders of Tarantula Hill recording studio and band members of Nautical Almanac, with beautiful pictures of the duo and their home. Then the mag features twelve different Baltimore visual artists, a page a piece, with a short written text, images of their work, and quotes from each about their favorite Baltimore stuff. It’s not deep, and most of the featured artists are the ‘usual suspects’ we read about all the time, but it’s a well rounded group and I have no major complaints with their picks.
The art section culminates with two limited edition prints (how limited? it doesn’t say how many were printed, and none are signed which seems weird) by Baltimore artists Gary Kachadourian and Shaun Flynn. They’re both kept in a mysterious white folder, so opening that is pretty exciting. Kachadourian’s piece is cool – it’s a cut-and-fold Pepsi machine with a background, rendered in his typical drawn then photocopied style. Once you do the required cutting and folding, you have a little, gray, urban diorama. With the Flynn image, I was hoping for a drawing similar to his geodesic-tennis-ball sculptures to frame and hang in my kid’s bedroom, so I was bummed that it’s an op-art portrait. There’s no title, so I don’t know who is depicted in the black on yellow ‘crackle paint pattern’ image, which is photo-realistic when you squint. It sort of looks like Charles Manson, so it’s definitely not a framer for me, but it’s a fun design and seems to be well printed on heavy paper.
My main problem with the publication is an overzealous and busy sense of design that obscures rather than illuminates. Photoshopped square frames layer and dominate images which would be perfectly adequate without jazzing up, with several color two-page spreads reading as blurry, square targets. Every page abounds with three or four different type fonts, printer icons, giant numbers, and layers of text over text that is hard to read. Less is more in this department, Outpost Designers. I don’t need the extra layers of text and colored boxes over the photos, which are quite effective on their own.
The most interesting section of the magazine is the feature on five creative living spaces: The Warehouse, The Storefront, The Rowhouse, The Penthouse, and The Millhouse. Each home gets two pages and features half a dozen photos, which are beautifully shot. The textures, colors, and assorted cool things in each home sum up the best things about Baltimore – the ability to live as a nonchalant, decadent bohemian, whether that means collecting a zillion vinyl records, expensive works of art, or creating a substantial home studio. It is every bit as interesting as reading Dwell or some other home magazine for nosy people who like to daydream about the possibilities for their own home. All the featured Baltimore spaces are palatial and have loads of charm and funky stuff, which beats a tiny Brooklyn apartment hands down.
Besides the emphasis on artists and creative living, Outpost Journal features a smattering of investigative journalism, with a piece on a knitting program for prison inmates that was inspiring as well as short articles on the Pinball Museum and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death dioramas at the Medical Examiner’s Office. Every attempt was made to be thorough within the mag’s sixty-six color pages and I actually developed a new appreciation for many aspects of my city.
On the whole, the strength of this publication lies in an earnest desire to present a clear and multi-faceted picture of the place we call home, and this is done best through diverse content and mostly good photographs. It’s an honest attempt to get at to the heart and essence of Baltimore, which isn’t an easy or thankful job for anyone in this business. On the whole, Outpost Journal: Baltimore comes off as a warm and fuzzy labor of love. Despite being outsiders, the writers, photographers, and artists who put this publication together made a valiant effort to see and understand our city – and celebrate its “otherness” – and that effort is palpable on each page.
The one-city-a-pop publication is available at Atomic Books and The BMA Giftshop. For more info about the publication go to http://www.outpostjournal.org.