- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

A model ship made of 193,000 toothpicks, a family of robot sculptures made from scrapped gloves and appliances, and a four-story whirligig are just a few examples of the unique art showcased at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.

“Our artists are all self-taught, which means the art is more intuitive and creative,” says Marcia Semmes, director of public relations and development. “The art often has philosophical themes like ‘love’ or ‘war and peace,’ and sometimes it comes from life experiences unique to the artist,” Ms. Semmes adds, completing the definition of what constitutes a visionary artist.

The museum is unique in its total devotion to works by visionary artists, she says. Visionary artists are different from folk artists in that their vision is personal, while folk artists derive some of their inspiration and style from local or family traditions, she says.

One of the museum’s visionary artists is Gerald Hawkes, a matchstick artist and Baltimore native who found his calling as an artist after a brutal mugging. Mr. Hawkes says of his art: “Each matchstick represents a human being. My work shows the beauty and strength of what can happen when people work together.” This text is posted next to his matchstick art, which includes a matchstick sculpture of a near-life-size man with a fiddle.

The adult themes and NC-17 life experiences so pervasive to visionary artists don’t mean the art is unapproachable for children, museum officials say.

“This is a wonderful place for children. Most museums are like fortresses, but we have made a conscious decision to make this a playful wonderland,” says Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum’s founder and director. “The children can touch everything, and we never talk down to children. The guards never shush them.”

Favored pieces among children include an outdoor wooden wedding chapel, in which children can play, and the four-story whirligig, Ms. Semmes says.

In the past, Ms. Semmes says, some temporary exhibits haven’t been very child-friendly, such as last year’s “High on Life: Transcending Addiction.” However, the current one, “Holy H2O: Fluid Universe,” explores the practical, playful, mythical and sacred roles of water and fascinates all ages, she says.

“This exhibit aims to restore our reverence for water — it’s to get people to think about water — to take care of it,” she says.

“Holy H20” includes sparkly, colorful, sequined sacred flags of Haiti; fish sculptures made solely of bottle caps; and Paul Edlin’s mosaiclike pictures with water themes made out of hundreds (maybe thousands) of tiny, cut-up postage stamps.

“Holy H2O” is on the second floor. The permanent exhibit, which includes the toothpick ship and the family of robots, is on the first floor.

The exhibit also has an interactive component. Automata, sculptures with mechanical components, sometimes referred to as kinetic art, move when visitors push a button.

One interactive piece is Tom Duncan’s “Coney Island.” The artist, who’s in his 60s, drew on childhood memories of the Coney Island carnival atmosphere for this piece, Ms. Semmes says. By pushing buttons, visitors can make a Ferris wheel turn and a model subway travel along its tracks. It took Mr. Duncan about 20 years to complete the piece.

The third floor houses the museum’s restaurant, Joy America Cafe, and another temporary exhibit. The current one is “Tapestries of Survival” by Holocaust survivor Esther Nisenthal Krinitz.

The artist recorded with text and embroidery on dozens of tapestries her personal experience of the Nazi takeover of Poland. Though most of her family was killed, she, then 15, and her sister Mania, 13, survived by pretending to be Polish Catholic farm girls. The happy pre-Nazi tapestries have colorful borders, as do the tapestries that depict the artist’s emigration to the United States in 1949. The Nazi-year tapestries have black borders.

If visitors still have room in their minds and energy in their legs to explore more, the museum recently acquired two more buildings, former whiskey barrel warehouses, next to its original home, a former copper paint factory. These new buildings also hold exhibits, including giant sculptures and more automata art.

Ms. Semmes, who says the exhibits are appropriate for children 4 and older, recommends that families plan to spend at least two hours visiting the many exhibits.

“There is so much to discover,” she says. “I think children get a lot out of it — I think they understand creativity even better than adults.”

When you go:

Location: The American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, Baltimore.

Directions: From the District, take Interstate 95 north toward Baltimore/College Park. After about 30 miles, take Exit 55. At the bottom of the ramp, make a left onto the Key Highway. The museum is 1.5 miles ahead on the right at the corner of Key Highway and Covington Street.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Mondays.

Parking: Street parking is available.

Admission: $11 for adults; $7 for school-age children, seniors and students; children ages 4 and younger are admitted free.

Information: 410/244-1900 or www.avam.org.


• The museum has a restaurant, Joy America Cafe, on the third floor. It serves New World cuisine and offers views of the Inner Harbor.

• The museum celebrates Martin Luther King tomorrow with cake, live gospel music and jazz, films and a demonstration by Abu the Flutemaker, an artist who makes musical instruments from recycled trash.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More

Click to Hide