Art guards

This ink drawing by Ben Stiegler is part of "Guardists," an exhibit of works by Baltimore Museum of Art security guards on display in Towson. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun / August 19, 2011)

Art museum guards don't, as a rule, call much attention to themselves.

The unobtrusive men and women in uniform who ensure the safety of what's on the walls and floors are expected to issue do-not-touch reminders as needed. They'll also direct you to a gallery where you can find works in your favorite genre. And, of course, they can be counted on to point the way to the nearest restrooms.

What you might not suspect is that many of the guards create their own art.

"Guardists," an exhibit opening Friday at the Towson Arts Collective, brings together painting, drawings, photography and more created by security personnel at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"When you're a guard, you're the most visible person in the museum, but people don't really know you at all," said Linda Smith, a five-year BMA guard and organizer of the show. "I hope this opens up their perception of us. I think people might be surprised that there are all these artists here."

Smith got the idea for the exhibit after reading about a show at a New York gallery last year featuring work by about three dozen guards at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; those guards also started their own arts journal.

"It's amazing how many people who work at museums are themselves practicing artists," said BMA director Doreen Bolger.

The intimate Towson Arts Collective welcomed Smith's proposal for a Baltimore version.

"It's the first time I've organized a show," said Smith, a 56-year-old Baltimore native who has also sung in local bands. "There is a lot of DIY curating these days. Artists are taking more control of sharing their work, and there are more opportunities. I am hoping we can do this again in a bigger venue."

Although the Towson Arts Collective put out a call for entries to anyone in the area earning a living by guarding artwork, only BMA guards responded — 13 from a security staff of about 40.

"We have annual staff exhibitions in-house for ourselves, our trustees and volunteers to see," Bolger said, "and every year it has been pretty incredible. A lot of the guards are really talented people."

Some of them have displayed art in area galleries, but the Towson venture marks the first time the public can take in an all-guard show.

The shadowy pieces Smith submitted for the "Guardists" exhibit have in common window imagery, and the windows have moody muntins.

Moody also describes paintings by Jeff Valluzzi, 38, a supervisor on the BMA guard force. He specializes in figurative painting.

Among his works in the show is a vivid portrait of actor Chris Farley. Another portrait reveals a seated male figure painted in black and white; the effect is at once eerie and wry.

"He's a friend of mine," Valluzzi said. "That's him after getting drunk on two beers. I call it 'The Teetotaler.'"

In common with those works, a large, striking self-portrait of Valluzzi reveals a nod to German expressionism. He is depicted at a desk, the look in the eyes suggesting boredom, maybe annoyance. The skin tones are boldly orange and yellow, providing a visual jolt.

"That was done when I was a security guard at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston," said Valluzzi, who studied painting at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. "When I came to Baltimore almost a year ago, I had security experience and art experience, so a guard job at the BMA seemed like a good fit."

It became an even tighter fit when he learned more about his colleagues on the security staff.