Street art, murals, art installations and photography do more than beautify downtown Annapolis. In many instances, they add meaning and purpose to young lives. Individuals who scratch below the surface of the City’s vibrant public art’s scene soon discover that what goes on behind the scenes in the planning and execution stages is often as impressive as the finished product. Closer inspection reveals a host of individuals who are sharing their talents, vision and enthusiasm to help unlock doors for underserved populations and build cultural bridges around the world.
What follows is a brief introduction to some of the many Annapolis artists and art enthusiasts who are giving back to the community – not only by creating beautiful works of art and inspiration, but by enlisting the help of others and showing them how they can do the same.
Photographer Kirsten Elstner launched VisionWorkshops in Annapolis in 2001. After working primarily for the New York Times, the International Red Cross and as a photography assistant for National Geographic, she decided to put cameras into the hands of the individuals whose lives she was trying to document and let them tell their own stories. With offices at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis’s Arts and Entertainment District, VisionWorkshops is the creative force behind a series of photography workshops for youth from underserved communities around the world. Her organization’s mission is to provide innovative, dynamic, educational and life changing experiences for youth, using the tools of photojournalism. Kirsten sees VisionWorkshops as a catalyst of hope, inspiration and expression for youth who need encouragement. She sees the results of the program’s efforts contributing to a more peaceful and tolerant world. Among VisionWorkshops’ many offerings, a “Coming Up” workshop provides an opportunity for youths ages 11 to 18 to learn photography basics and put them to us in the field.
Annapolis photographer Alison Harbaugh taught photography to youth from underserved areas with VisionWorkshops for about ten years before she launched her own photography workshops, “Fearless Girls Photography” in 2015. One of her first students, now age 17, has launched the photography workshop group, Females in Focus, which is currently working to assist young Annapolis girls living in the underserved public housing neighborhood, Newtowne 20.
Harbaugh owns Sugar Farm Productions, a photography and video production company that she operates out of her Art Farm storefront at 45 West Street in downtown Annapolis. Art Farm offers eight-week kids’ classes in spring, fall and winter, as well as weeklong summer art camps. Evening workshops invite attendees to create a work of art in a single night. Attendees explore a variety of creative possibilities, including: Turkish paper marbling, wood carving, block printing, weaving, mosaics, ink and watercolor techniques, and intuitive painting, among other things.
In summer 2016, Annapolis artist Jeff Huntington and his wife, Julia Gibb, created the nonprofit organization, “Future History Now,” that works with underserved youth to create street art in their communities. Former VisionWorkshops student, Newtowne 20 resident, and local community leader Deonte Ward has introduced Huntington to his neighbors so the artist can work with them to turn empty boarded up buildings into beautiful works of art. As he’s done with youth from other underserved neighborhoods, Huntington brings them into his Jahru Studio, using it as a satellite incubator for the arts projects.
Through Future History Now, Huntington has worked with Jovenes Artistas to create street art behind the Light House Bistro at 202 West Street in downtown Annapolis. He’s helped kids from Bates Middle and Annapolis High Schools to create an image of U.S. founding father Benjamin Franklin – a composite of twenty individual grids worked on independently by a host of students. The grids were then assembled to create Franklin’s portrait. According to Huntington, “The idea is to have many parts come together with the common goal of creating a single, finished piece – One Annapolis, One Love – literally.”
Huntington has shared his talents with the world. He traveled to a village in India with representatives of the Rivers of the World Foundation. There, he worked with children of the Himalayan English School to create a water-themed mural of the Ganges River in January 2018. In 2015, he created murals in Brazil. It was around this same time that he fell in love with street art all over again. “I like to problem solve in the elements, with the elements. I was searching to find art in a more meaningful way. I have found it in sharing art with these kids (through the Future History Now program).”
Huntington was a graffiti artist in the 1980s when street artists weren’t accepted by the traditional art world. He says things have changed. “Today, art institutes are trying to get street art into their galleries. Real soul, real talent is having to do things and figure things out – like how to create something that’s three stories tall in a single day.”
Annapolis resident Roberta Pardo founded Urban Walls Brazil in 2014. Initially, she brought artists from her native country of Brazil to Annapolis to create public murals. Today’s expanded program includes artists from all over the world in an international cultural exchange. To date, Urban Walls Brazil artists have painted 12 murals in Annapolis’s Design District, and Pardo is plans to have two additional murals painted in summer 2018.
Pardo recently began moving into the area of education. She and two artists gave talks at area public schools last year. In March 2018, she visited area schools with two Brazilian artists who had painted a temporary school inside a refugee camp in Lebanon. The artists shared their experience at five Annapolis-area public schools. They also presented a workshop for kids from Annapolis high school. It demonstrated how art can be used as a communications tool – as a means for giving a voice to people who don’t have one. As Pardo sees it, “It’s so easy to get information about what’s happening around the world these days via the internet and social media. The biggest problem is that people don’t understand the culture behind the information. This can cause a lot of problems. Society can become judgmental.”
In 2017, Pardo launched Art Talks around town to highlight local artists. “Locals don’t know their artists. It’s important to get to know them and appreciate their art. The best way to do this is to learn the stories behind the works, why the artists paint what they paint.” Pardo has presented two Art Talks thus far. One was given by Annapolis artist Jeff Huntington. The other featured Baltimore artist Jaz Erenberg. She spoke about her “Bmore Homeless” project that’s designed to give a voice to the homeless living in Baltimore.
Pardo says she wants to bring street art and Art Talks to every high school in the area. “Our kids are the next generation. This is the age when they need the information. These are the kids who are getting ready to go out into the world. We want to help give them tools to cope with situations on all levels. We are all human. We all have our stories. There is nothing wrong with being different. All of this can be conveyed through the arts.”
Art at Large owner, Sally Wern Comport, has been an illustrator all her life. She began working in her father’s advertising agency at the age of 15. With 40 book titles to her name in languages ranging from Korean to Japanese to Swedish, Comport has most recently illustrated children’s books, including: Love Will See You Through by Angela Farris Watkins; Six Guiding Beliefs, a story about Martin Luther King, Jr.; Nile Crossing, published in fall 2017; and Dream March, published in December 2017.
After working for thirty years as an illustrator, Comport created Art at Large in 2003. As the name implies, she was thinking big. She was no longer content with designing her work to fit in magazines and books and on billboards. Instead, she began creating custom illustrations for walls. “I love materials, surfaces, architecture – all of the stuff that fuels material, tangible art. I started thinking in terms of murals.”
In 2007, Comport and others launched a public arts initiative, Annapolis Artwalk, to bring grand scale art to the exterior walls of buildings – using the City of Annapolis as an open-air gallery. In 2008, the nonprofit organization received a grant to install public art around the City for Annapolis’s Charter 300 celebration.
The last of the 16 Charter 300 installations inspired Comport to begin working on art programs involving underdeveloped areas and underserved populations. Her focus shifted to helping provide art programs with a vision to thrive. “Instead of competing for a grant, ArtWalk does grant searches and collaborates with organizations and then hands them the grants. Part of the fee enables us to do the installation, so the program and the grant can have the visibility.”
Examples of ArtWalk’s collaborative projects include an art installation at the Light House Bistro at 202 West Street; and the 2010 installation of a healing garden at the Light House Shelter on Hudson Street in Annapolis. Individuals that Providence Center serves, and residents of the Light House Shelter created the artwork for the garden, garnering visibility for both organizations. ArtWalk also collaborated with students from the Bates Arts Integration Middle School on a project that incorporated self-portraits of the students into a fence at the Wiley Bates/Maryland Hall Integrated Arts Campus. In a similar way, Art at Large worked with inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institute’s Jessup facility in 2011 to create a reflections healing garden featuring artwork the inmates had created.
Comport’s proven ability to create artwork on a grand scale won her the contract for wall installations at Anne Arundel Medical Center, including its LEED wall in 2011. This led to museum installations, including Historic Annapolis’s Freedom Bound exhibit at 99 Main Street as well as installations at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, Flag House Museum, Mount Vernon, Armed Forces Retirement Home, Hospice of the Chesapeake and the Harriet Tubman Visitors Center that opened in Dorchester County in 2017.
Comport’s largest undertaking to date was the 175-panel “Tree of Life” at BrightView Senior Living in Rockville, Maryland. Conception and execution of the 18-month project involved working with a host of partners including the Montgomery County Public Art Commission, the City of Rockville, BrightView residents and a host of area artists. “You have to gather all of this input and get everyone on the same page. Projects such as this are like a choir, rather than a solo voice.”
This spring semester, Comport has been putting her creativity to work on another ArtWalk project – crosswalks for the Annapolis Arts and Entertainment District. She’s been working with teachers and students from Anne Arundel County Public School’s magnet arts program, Studio 39, to design and install artwork for the first in a series of crosswalks. The first phase will add artwork to the crosswalks on West Street across from the Westin Hotel and on Amos Garrett Boulevard at West Street. “We want to pay homage to this amazing group of high school kids. We’ve been involving them in the entire process. They’re seeing it through from start to finish.” Comport says the project involves more than just painting a street. “We want the two crosswalks – and all of the crosswalks in the Arts and Entertainment District – to be walkable, art friendly, more inspired spaces.”
Comport calls her work community engagement art. “It’s a marriage of the architecture, where it’s located, the community, the people – their art or their input about what they envision – and my design. It’s all these things working in concert. Visual communication is about digesting the input and conveying the heart of what the communication is, without having to say a word. One of the biggest challenges – and the most fun – is marrying all the pieces to convey one clear message. It builds bridges between groups. People ‘get’ each other through visual communication. Much like music, it’s barrier free. It’s a visual voice. It’s the one thing I can do to help make the world a better place.”
The citywide Second Annual Annapolis Arts Week, June 1-10, will provide an introduction to the work and lives of some of the many individuals who contribute to Annapolis’s thriving arts and entertainment scene.
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