Gloria Garrett is moving her hands. She is moving her arms in wide circles. She is pacing, gesticulating, dancing, and talking.
Gloria Garrett talks loudly: "Those dolls are made from old sheets! You cover them with wax paper and then iron them. That wreath is made from a hanger. This is the picture that was in the show. It's called 'Dressing Up.' It's so important to make your own beauty in life! And when you make it out of stuff someone's gonna throw away, you're saving the environment!"
We are in Gloria's studio, in the front room on the second floor of her home on North Charles Street that she calls her "art castle" on account of the turret out front. It is the same house that City Paper was born in; Gloria has lived here 20 years with her second husband, Ben, who is sitting a room away, almost—but not quite—dozing in a chair. We are talking about Gloria's art, which she markets as "folk art for the folks."
Gloria calls herself "The Mother of Makeup Art." She brings her natural style to painting, performance (call her, she'll impersonate Lena Horne at your next party), teaching, and the everyday interactions that lead to new art and new art sales. She is very straightforward about everything she does.
She has shown her work at the American Visionary Art Museum and, earlier this year, displayed for Maryland's First Lady Yumi Hogan at an event to raise awareness of and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.
"You gotta look like a artist, too, so people start the conversation," she says. "They say, 'Hey, you look like a artist, are you an artist?'"
Combining a book-keeper's sense of order with a preacher's mysticism and an advertising executive's eye for what sells, Gloria keeps her paintings and other artwork in binders arranged by subject: "Here's my birds, my flowers. I'm part of the Herb Festival," she says, naming yet another of her markets. Most of the works are 8 1/2 by 11 inches. That's what people want.
Gloria gets the stuff of her paintings from people who donate. They donate makeup, paper, crayons, cloth, beads, tile, any art supplies. Gloria uses them in her work, whether painting or teaching or performing.
"You become part of the circle of love and the circle of giving!" she says, and you believe it because there is not an ironic bone in Gloria Garrett's body. She is an evangelist for joy. The people in her paintings all have this smile. It looks like a simple slash, almost happenstance, like a child's drawing, until you notice how it focuses almost every painting with an unfathomable depth.
"How do I do it? I go over it again and again and again!"
Gloria's technique is erasure, do-over, repetition. She paints with her hands, her fingernails, plastic forks, whatever. She uses rouge, base, eyeliner, crayons—even nail polish. When she paints, she starts putting materials together around 10 p.m. and gets going by midnight. "And I'm usually not done 'til 10 the next morning!" she shouts, smiling. "I put my makeup in front of me, my Wite-Out, my crayons, and God works through me."
She spends hours on the backgrounds, she says, and moves to the faces last: "I do the face. I put the Wite-Out over it, I say I don't like it, and I do it again. And again. And again! And (she's laughing now), then I ask God to help me, and he lets me rest for five minutes. I'm gonna tell you something that Matisse said: 'It's hard making something look easy!'"
Born in Baltimore 57 years ago, Gloria grew up on the east side with three sisters and a brother. She was a stand-out student at Eastern High School, earning a college scholarship she had to forgo. Pregnant at 16, Gloria was sent to the school on Cathedral Street where they used to send the pregnant girls. "I was so disappointed in myself," she says, remembering the depression that crept into her life then. But her grandmother told her the baby was "a gift from God, and will bring more love into the family, so snap out of it."
"I snapped out of it," she says.
Gloria graduated and got a job with the National Security Agency, where she worked at the Friendship Annex complex for 21 years, starting out as a secretary. She took initiative. First thing was transportation. "I initially took two buses," she says. "One downtown to #16 and we had to walk from airport to Elkridge Landing."
Gloria protested the mile hike. Her bosses fixed the problem with a bus from Patapsco to the complex. It was still a two-and-a-half-hour commute each way, she says: up at 5 a.m. and in bed at midnight, raising three daughters.
"My girls saw me working," Gloria says. And she worked her way up the ranks, ending her career as a GS12, acquisition specialist.
Gloria's daughters turned out pretty well too. Her oldest daughter is 41, an accountant for T. Rowe Price. She has a bachelor's degree from Morgan State and a master's from Loyola. The middle daughter, 36, has a B.A. in marketing and runs her own business. The youngest, 34 years old, got her bachelor's degree from Coppin State University, and is going to school to become a physician's assistant.
Gloria's oldest granddaughter is 25 years old and getting her master's degree. The second oldest granddaughter, 22, is graduating from college on a full scholarship, Gloria says with an infectious pride: "I had my children young, my daughters had theirs young. They all went to college and kept going."
An unapologetic advocate of clean living and positive thinking, Gloria says drugs and violence lurked in the Baltimore she grew up in, just as they do today. "They had a campaign: 'This is your brain on drugs.' I said I don't want my brain looking like that," she says.
Gloria Garrett may thus be the only person that infamous fried-egg commercial truly reached.
Gloria's husband, Ben, is a retired studio supervisor at Maryland Public Television. He was a year away from getting his undergraduate degree in physics, but got into photography and from there into videography, more or less on the ground floor. A friend he knew from Baltimore Little League got him into MPT.
"I worked on the first broadcast for MPT," he says.
Ben Garrett worked there for 20 years. He had a photo studio on Erdman Avenue at Belair Road. One day, Gloria came in with a print job, a photo of her daughter, and a poem.
"I said you need a gimmick. Let's call it a PEP: a poetically-enhanced picture."
She gives these out even today.
"We started working together," says Ben. "It's a lot of fun. It's fun to work with her."
They've been married for about 20 years now.
Thanks to an art patron, the couple went to Italy.
"She was taken with the Coliseum," Ben says. "I have a problem with places like that. Put it like that. When I went inside the [U.S.S.] Constitution, I felt uneasy for weeks afterward."
Ben says his favorite was the da Vinci museum in Florence.
Next year, Gloria hopes to go to Greece. She says she also want to take her husband on an Alaskan cruise. This is all happening because of the art.
Years ago Gloria told her granddaughter that she would take her to Paris one day. Last year a patron told Gloria she'd pay her way in exchange for three paintings. That enabled her to bring her granddaughter: "So I went. And I brought back pictures. I painted 12 and they took three."
"Here's me on the Seine River," Gloria says, flipping through one of her books. "This is the Luxembourg Gardens."
Gloria Garrett was an artist all along, working mainly with pen and ink, in black and white. She says she started painting in color with makeup after a tragedy: Her 18-year-old nephew was killed in Baltimore City in 2005.
"I said, 'God, please let me have color in my life,'" she says. And then she dreamed that God said she was going to be a painter, but she's allergic to paint. Then her mother gave her some makeup, and a light went off in her head. Later that week, she sat at her old electric typewriter. She turned it on, and she swears it typed by itself the phrase, "with our best wishes."
She started out at the farmer's markets, Waverly and downtown, doing art for donations, seven or eight years ago. She put up the pictures and told people to take them and pay what they thought was fair. She was pleasantly surprised by the amount in the kitty at the end of the day: "We opened that box and we were shocked."
The next year the market left the crafters out, she says. So she had to find a new way. She's been finding new ways ever since, and sharing her discoveries.
"I want to do the interviews and help artists," Gloria says, speaking of the four- and five-minute videos she posts on YouTube. "I want to share what they're doing. There's some wonderful artists doing wonderful things in Baltimore, but we can't get them in touch with the right people!"
"All the beautiful art wasn't made 300 years ago," Ben adds.
Ben also shoots Gloria's videos, where she describes the city's art scene or interviews local artists. These are done usually in one take, with Gloria speaking a mile a minute.
"Artists have to take advantage," Gloria says. "You just have to look the part and come up with something different."
The whole Garrett house is a gallery, with art in the bathroom, the living room, the bedroom, even the kitchen.
"This is my middle passage," she says, entering a short hallway between the rooms. "To honor our ancestors."
It is decorated with a sailing ship and jumping fish. Slavery is barely implied, just beneath the surface.
She has taught arts and crafts to young people and the elderly for 16 years. Lately she'd worked with The New Day Campaign, a two-year-old nonprofit dedicated to using art to "challenge stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness and substance use." It was founded by a man who lost his 24-year-old daughter to a heroin overdose.
"We save each other," Gloria says. "It's about the folks. You've got to know how to make yourself happy. Art is the only thing that can touch the soul!"
She is evangelizing again. It sounds like evangelism, which is another way of saying it sounds like a desperate plea, a last chance. Beneath the bubbly, effusive positivity, the frenetic movement, the loud voice and the grand and balletic hand gestures is that tragedy, that sense of impermanence. Real life.
That is what makes art, somehow.