At a recent meeting of the Filbert Street community gardeners at the Curtis Bay Recreation Center, Chanan Delivuk—a community gardener and artist who uses new media to explore dialogue and everyday stories in her art practice—saw a group of young girls taking a dance class and told them, “When I was young I took dance here too.” The kids looked at the blonde, 28-year-old artist covered in tattoos with befuddlement.
“It was great to be back in that space and to see that’s still happening,” Delivuk says, recalling a transformative moment in her life.
Twenty years ago when an 8-year-old Delivuk walked on stage in a packed, standing-room only auditorium in Cherry Hill to perform with her Curtis Bay dance crew, the silence of the audience was deafening. Once the music started—the bump, bump, bump, bump of C&C Music Factory’s 1990 hit ‘Everybody Dance Now’—the young dancers killed it. “We just busted out our moves and the whole place is vibrating with amazement,” she recalls. Delivuk allowed the music to tell her what to do and that experience changed her life, because it was in that moment of what she calls “bold fierceness at such a young age” that she became an artist—though, at the time, in her hard-scrabble neighborhood, Delivuk wasn’t even sure what that meant.
Delivuk moved with her mother to the Curtis Bay neighborhood at the southernmost tip of Baltimore city after her parents split up when she was only a year old. They lived with her grandmother in a two-and-a-half-bedroom rowhouse, where her uncle and his two kids also sometimes lived. The neighborhood itself had seen the boom and bust of industrial development, and by the 1980s, when Delivuk was born, it had fallen on hard times. “It feels very separate, like we aren’t wanted by the city or the county,” Delivuk says. “We kind of just existed.”
But those experiences provided a powerful sense of place. “I think a lot of people are not willing to be open and honest that they grew up really poor or that they grew up with a lot of struggle,” she says. Yet Delivuk remembers Curtis Bay fondly. “I had great experiences there. I had great friends there. I still took dance classes. Even if they weren’t the top-dollar ballet, I still learned a lot from those experiences.”
Still, the dance classes were a kind of salvation. “Me and all my girlfriends used to go to the rec center after school. We had dances and dance classes to help us because there was no escaping that part of town. You had no access to getting out of there. In Curtis Bay you can’t really get much further than Curtis Bay. You might end up in Brooklyn, but you’re not going to get much further than you are.”
Delivuk did get out of the neighborhood. She was the first in her family to go to college. She attended McDaniel College in Westminster, where she was a journalism major until she took an art class with professor Steven Pearson to fulfill a general education requirement. It was her first art class ever and it changed her life. “I could easily pass a history exam or a math test and reading was always something I was very comfortable with,” she says. “But the first time I saw that I could draw and it’s like this immediate tension with your brain, your hand, your mind. It was like this interesting play getting out ideas visually that I never even considered or imagined.”
Still, McDaniel College was uncomfortable at first. “It had a lot to do with growing up in a city and being around different people,” she says. “McDaniel was definitely a white majority. For me it was like being in a classroom with everyone who looked like me and not feeling comfortable.” Though she is white, she found a home within McDaniel’s Black Student Union and the Art Club and founded the Art History Honors Society. After graduating with a double major in fine arts and art history, Delivuk got an Masters in fine arts from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. because she wanted to leave the bubble of Baltimore but still be close to her family and the city she loves and the place that defines her and her work.
In graduate school, her artwork began to move into new media and to take a personal turn for the first time. For her thesis, she interviewed people who worked in the food industry and lip-synched the conversations for video works, and, for her first solo show, she talked with the women in her family ranging from her niece to her grandmother about their relationships with food. She uncovered rich stories about the rise of processed food. “That’s why the garden is so important to me. I know what it would be like not to have it in that neighborhood. I know what that’s like not to have access.”
Delivuk returned to Baltimore in 2012 to pursue a second MFA in imaging and digital art and lives at the City Arts Building with CP contributor Michael Farley, his partner Ryan Mitchell, and their dog Chicken Wang. (Full disclosure: This writer is a professor in UMBC’s Department of American Studies and has worked with the garden.)
She calls herself a “conversation artist,” which she defines as someone who collects dialogues and stories as part of their practice. “It goes back to my interest in journalism and always wanting to interview people—to hear what they have to say or to hear a little history about them.”
Later this summer, Delivuk is heading to Croatia, the country her grandfather came from. “Now I’m focused on my dad and our lack of relationship—how art was a way that connected us once I was in college,” she says. “He started painting when I was in college. I didn’t have a relationship with him until I was an adult. That was a really easy way for us to navigate conversation because we could talk about the same thing. This interest in my Croatian heritage is a way for me to navigate my relationship with him.” Her father has never been able to travel to Europe and is now ill. Since he works in landscapes, she will send him digital images from Croatia to paint.
But she’s not gone for good. “I will always live here because I love it so much,” she says. “I want to walk out on a busy street, with sirens going off, and people walking, and a lot going on. There’s something about this city that’s so unique.”