Portrait of a Scene: An artist reflects on the Baltimore Portrait Project

City Paper

I am totally one of those super-ADD people who doesn’t own a TV but can’t stop staring at a screen when there’s one in a bar. It drives people crazy. I couldn’t care less about whatever sports event is typically on, but if someone is trying to talk to me and there’s a glowing image behind them it’s impossible to hold my attention. And now, like many residents of Midtown Baltimore, I find myself looking up constantly—waiting for the bus, crossing the street, blundering up a crowded sidewalk—transfixed by the seductive glow of the Baltimore LED Art Billboard. 

But here I’m not indulging an antisocial impulse to aimlessly stare at strangers chasing balls—which was also the case when the hookup app Grindr found its way onto my phone—I’m looking for familiar faces. The Baltimore Portrait Project is presently in rotation on the screen, featuring work by nearly 100 local artists who were randomly paired to paint, photograph, draw, or sculpt one another. 

The project is the brainchild of Brooks Kossover, founder of Terrault Contemporary, and Carabella Sands (who, in the interest of full disclosure, was my roommate in the Copycat way back in 2006). About once a year, I try to come up with an excuse to practice oil painting, so I signed up and attended the pairing party at The Windup Space in late August. 

Surprisingly for an art event in Baltimore, the bar was packed almost exclusively with strangers. I ended up paired with one of them, John Shepard, a photographer who recently moved in to the city from the suburbs. Unfortunately for John, I came into the project with a pretty clear idea of how I wanted to dress for my portrait: in drag, as the geisha lady on the billboard from “Blade Runner” (I am obsessed with that film, and I have a weird love of video billboards because they will forever remind me of that scene). After our first attempt at fulfilling this fantasy at John’s house, he confessed, “I had absolutely no idea how difficult shooting men in drag and/or clown makeup could be.” I probably should have warned him that close-up flash photography is not a good look when someone has two inches of grease paint matted over stubble and drawn-on cheekbones. But because John has the patience of a saint, we ended up re-shooting with less-harsh lighting a few weeks later. All the makeup in the world can’t make my boxy face (in drag slang: a brick) into a geisha supermodel, but our second round of photos at least came out just creepy and not flat-out terrifying. We even made an extremely creepy GIF of me eating candy, but that sadly can only be played during road closures for legal/safety reasons (true story). 

After our first photoshoot, I started working on my oil portrait of John. It occurred to me that I only come up with an excuse to practice oil painting once a year because once I actually start the preparations for a painting I remember that it is a maddening process. Gesso takes forever to apply and dry and sand, toxic cadmium pigments end up under fingernails, mistakes always seem to be too dry to wipe off and too wet to paint over, and noses never seem to rest in the right spot on a portrait’s face at the correct angle. In the end, I did have fun with the painting once I stopped thinking about it as “a painting” and considered that it will live on an LED screen as a digital image and not an object. I have always really loved that huge modernist high-rise on 20th Street (probably because it also reminded me of “Blade Runner,” pre-paint job) and decided to use that as a background for the painting. Theoretically, if you stand in the right spot between Penn Station and the new University of Baltimore law building, for a split second the image matches up with the real (and as of late, frequently quite painterly) building and it looks as if John’s torso is floating. I’ve stood there like a crazy person waiting for this to happen so I can snap a photo, but that ADD keeps kicking in and I move on.

Now that all the portraits are done, it’s pretty fun to watch to watch them take turns on the screen. Some of them are pretty goofy, but a lot of them are actually pretty good. My favorites remind me that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I love (occasional CP contributor) Rob Brulinski’s portrait of Ilenia Madelaire. It’s a flash photo of her leaning against a stucco wall. Something about her facial expression and averted gaze makes it seem like she’s totally uncomfortable being photographed, but she’s surrounded by cheeky, brightly colored brushstrokes. The image looks like it was printed and hand-painted on before being re-scanned and submitted for display. It’s sort of the post-production equivalent of telling someone to “cheer up” or “smile for the camera.” Her painting of Rob is great and funny too—he’s almost totally absent as a negative space defined by cartoonish clothes, sunglasses, and decorative motifs—an “anti-portrait” of sorts. 

Mostly, though, when I find myself looking for familiar faces on the board, I am disappointed at how few I see. I am friends or acquaintances with literally hundreds of artists in this city, yet very few of the people I usually see in the city’s DIY, gallery, or DIY gallery scenes chose to participate. It’s a recurring issue with semipublic art projects in Baltimore (witness the decline over the past few years of overlap between who contributes content to Artscape or public sculpture projects and who contributes content to shows in galleries tucked away in warehouse spaces). I would love to see portraits by my friends who fall asleep reading Sontag’s “On Photography” or make work that critiques the usual content of billboards via appropriation or wrote a thesis on the inherently-problematic-for-whatever-reason nature of portraiture. The art scene has always been convinced that we live in “Smalltimore” and is increasingly preoccupied with discourse over how inaccessible or elitist our world is. Well, we live in a bigger city than you realize—one with countless opportunities to share your work and perspective with more people than your Facebook friends. Come out and play. I just met almost a hundred new people who were into collaborating with total strangers and it was pretty damn cool. And maybe some other stranger (hopefully a “Blade Runner” fan) will catch a glimpse of one of the pieces I collaborated on with John and do a total double take. 

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