Whenever things have started to unravel, there has always been work to throw myself into. I’ve been lucky to always find an outlet. By the end of the summer of 2013 I had gotten out of a bad relationship that I was still reeling from, and I was also questioning everything about everything as a result of my parents’ abrupt separation and divorce the year before. And I was about to enter my senior year at MICA with nary an idea of what I’d do with a degree in painting. So I quit one of my jobs to take a then-unpaid editorial internship at City Paper, back when the staff cranked out an issue each week at a creaky, old, and beautiful mansion on Park Avenue, and spent the rest of my time obsessing in my studio or crying in my living room at 3 a.m., trying to file a draft that I was struggling with.
On Park Avenue I started to learn how a story comes together. I learned it in reverse, by fact-checking, by calling sources and emailing writers and reading documents and so on. I also started to become a better writer over there, thanks largely to then-arts editor Baynard Woods’ thoughtful evisceration of my first drafts. Some of those first drafts included a review of David Brewster’s whiplash-inducing, phenomenological landscape and horse paintings at C. Grimaldis Gallery; another review where I made a connection between Morris Louis paintings on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the patchy graffiti-cover-up paint jobs you often see on the Howard Street bridge, and elsewhere. These were exercises in understanding little things about art and the world around it at the same time. At some point early on, Baynard sat down with me and went through what I wrote, line by line, explaining how a certain sentence works or totally doesn’t work at all; please, never do that again. I could write a whole other essay on how the culture of City Paper allowed us all to take formal and conceptual risks—we knew we’d be challenged by our editors if something was too outlandish or heavy-handed or weak, so we weren’t afraid to follow our weird, experimental trains of thought. And I think if I were to write that Brewster review today, I’d try to find a way to work in that famous, goofy @horse_ebooks tweet, “Everything happens so much.”
After finishing my internship and a brief stint with an office job unrelated to my interests (which allowed me some brain space to submit a couple freelance pieces to City Paper), I took a job at the end of summer 2014 as the fact-checking coordinator/intern coordinator/arts writer (and eventually all of that still but with the title of visual arts editor) for City Paper, a few months after the Baltimore Sun Media Group bought us. I was now part of this ramshackle alt-weekly, all of us tackling an incredibly demanding (edifying, frustrating, Sisyphean) workload. There hasn’t been much time in the last three-plus years to take stock of all that I’ve learned here, but I can tell you that I’ve learned mostly everything I know from working at City Paper.
Often it was the artists whose work I wrote about that taught me something. Their work and words stay with me; in small ways, they helped me break down some of the roadblocks that art school built up in me. When I interviewed the artist Jeffrey Kent, right as he was about to close SubBasement Artist Studios, the massive underground art gallery and studio space way underneath a fancy apartment building near Lexington Market, he told me that art helped him recover from drug addiction: “Idle time is the real killer,” he said to me in 2014. “And that’s where I realized how art saved me. My idle time is now spent stayin’ busy!”
Melani N. Douglass, an artist and curator whose Family Arts Museum asserts that art can be anywhere and everywhere around you and it can heal you, co-organized an event featuring music, poetry, sculpture, and capoeira, among other things, at a laundromat of all places during the Baltimore Uprising. “I’d rather talk about how to move past that trauma,” she told me at the time, “and use artists to celebrate redemption and make something beautiful out of something tragic.” And later on I encountered Katie Bachler, whose multitudinous art practice with the BMA Outpost encouraged people to be active participants in the world around them: “It’s really important that places feel like our own,” she told me in 2016. “So much of life is scripted [about] where to go and how to be in a space.”
There’s no script for a life in the arts and you don’t always have to pander to gallerists and people with money. I’ve witnessed these and many other Baltimore artists who have demonstrated in different ways time and again that equity in the arts requires active participation, that passivity promotes stagnancy. These artists have showed how art can rupture the ordinary, how it can be radical and challenge power, how art can shock, how it can heal.
About a week after my dad died suddenly last fall, I got to talk to Malcolm Peacock about his piece “Let the Sun Set on You,” which was going to take place at Druid Hill Park as part of Ginevra Shay’s curatorial project Rose Arcade. For two and a half hours that day in September, Malcolm and I mostly talked about death, because it had to do with his art, but also because he didn’t want to give me too many details in terms of what the reader could expect if they came to the park to experience the piece (as it turns out, it was everything, it was a lot of things; we named it 2016’s Best Experience). Underneath this artwork, not latent but not obvious, was Malcolm’s yearning question about the ways that death—particularly the deaths of black people at the hands of racist police, racist citizens, and racist laws—spawns movements throughout history. “It was interesting how history affects death, and how death affects history,” he told me, “depending on who dies, depending on what dies, what will determine how it’s spoken about.”
The paper’s whole approach was to think critically and push back against the powers that be, and in the arts section that meant we tried to look at everything in context of the things around it. Artists had been discussing for years how the arts scene is siloed and segregated, how the scene and its many factions replicate in miniature issues that plague the whole city. Kalima Young wrote an essay on that very thing for our 2014 fall arts guide, and then the following year CP’s Performing Arts Editor Maura Callahan and I compiled “SCUM (Segregated Communities and Upward Mobility),” a piece that echoed, in part, what many people were already saying along the lines of equity and inclusion. Those questions of equity came up again late last year when the tenants of the Bell Foundry, many of whom were queer and/or black folks, were suddenly evicted by the city from the DIY stalwart they’d made a home. And then people in the arts community did what a community does: They helped the tenants move their belongings out and offered places to store their stuff; some gave people places to sleep.
And then Maura and I were able to take four months reporting, researching, and writing our cover story from a few months ago, “Abuse and Accountability in the Arts Scene: A Reckoning.” That was the most difficult thing I’ve ever worked on, partly because the story was long overdue, and we wanted to do it right. We wanted to take all of the information and radical thought that had informed us, to present the reader with a cogent, coherent (but open-ended, non-authoritative) piece that brought together survivors’ voices and ideas for how, perhaps, things could change. City Paper is the only outlet we could have written that for, and I couldn’t have contributed to that piece without spending these formative years at the paper.
Since my dad died, most of my thinking and writing has been tinged by death, in some way—either there’s a greater urgency to all of it, because I’m remembering that one day I’m going to die and what if it’s sooner than I expected, or I’m just interpreting a work of art or an event or a piece of news through some lens of loss or trauma or something harder to pin down with a word.
And of course we’ve been reckoning with the paper’s imminent death, speeding toward it and putting words in these papers and contemplating just what our gasping legacy might be.
These experiences accumulate and melt together and when I try to pull apart the past three years (or four if you count my internship), when I spell it out like this, it doesn’t seem like enough. (I didn’t even give a proper shout out here to all the writers and editors that I got to work with every day at City Paper.) And three years seems like a short amount of time even when it’s been packed full and the papers have stacked up with thoughtful and complicated stories on Baltimore news and artists and activists and movements and cronies. I’m going to miss being on this side of the process, working with everyone to edit and fact-check and proofread pieces before they go to press, letting ourselves breathe for a day or less afterward and then plodding on toward the next issue. But now there won’t be a next issue, and it feels wrong—it feels incorrect—like many deaths do.
Rebekah Kirkman is the visual arts editor and intern coordinator at City Paper.