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Baltimore artists catch Ravens fever

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Baltimore has been enveloped for weeks in a deep purple hue — figuratively at the very least, often literally — and this all-Ravens-all-the-time stimulation was bound to rub off on the arts community.

Local artists have been expressing their enthusiasm for the Ravens throughout the football season with freshly created works, including pop-up images on downtown streets and murals in private homes.

"It's pretty natural for artists to get excited about something going on in popular culture," said Jenny Carson, chair of the art history department at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Artists who tackle sports subjects do not necessarily get their rah-rahs out by doing portraits of popular athletes or incorporating team logos.

The famous boxing paintings of George Bellows in the early 20th century, for example, "were more motivated by the crowd reaction," Carson said. "Bellows would probably respond more to Ravens mania than the players."

But as the crowd-pleasing, critic-dismissing works of the late LeRoy Neiman and a few others demonstrate, there's a market for celebratory football-related art.

Just the fact that the Ravens secured a place in the New Orleans contest was enough to get Loring Cornish psyched.

He's the self-trained, Baltimore-born artist known for his use of found and recycled objects, especially glass (his Druid Hill home is encrusted in prismatic glass pieces). He jumped wholeheartedly into the spirit right after the Ravens clinched the AFC championship.

"How many times do you get this far in football," Cornish said, "where you're sitting on the edge of your seat and going, 'Oh my God, we won another game'? I just knew the team is deserving of this art. It is the least I could do. I wanted to make something shiny to reflect how big this is for the Ravens, and the way the city really believes in this team."

Cornish placed bits of hand-cut glass on pressed wood to create a work measuring about 7 by 3 feet. The glass, some reflective and some painted, reveals a symbolic football field with multicolored yard lines.

"The championship represented a national win for us, so I used colors of teams we beat," the artist said.

Protruding from one corner is a full-sized, football-shaped object covered in silvery mirrored glass. (The artist said he would keep people guessing whether an actual pigskin is encased.) At the diagonally opposite corner, the "S" in Ravens also rises from the surface, larger than the other letters — "The 'S' is huge because of the Super Bowl, of course," Cornish said with a laugh.

An emblazoned Ravens logo at the top of the work completes the bright, celebratory piece, which Cornish finished after about 100 hours of work. His title for it: "Ravens Bringing Sunshine to Maryland."

"How could you not have a big piece of art for this spectacular event?" Cornish said.

The artist also produced an equally large work fashioned from dozens of old sneakers. "I wanted to do a piece about the fans of Baltimore and how we support our teams," he said.

It takes a long second look at this work, called "Fans Coming to the Game," to notice that some of the shoes have been arranged to spell out "Ravens."

Among the rich assortment of art objects in Cornish's Fells Point gallery is a massive glass work celebrating the Orioles that he made a few years ago. Friends and customers have asked when he was going to give a nod to the football team, too, and this season turned out to be the right time.

The gallery's location also provided motivation.

"They might as well call this Ravens Point," Cornish said. "It's a mecca for Ravens madness. When a game is on, it looks like a ghost town around here. Then, after the game, people spill into the streets. It's going to be crazy here for the Super Bowl."

It's going to be crazy in a lot of private homes in the area, too, as the game is played. But most people will not be quite as thoroughly surrounded with a Ravens ambience as those gathering to watch the broadcast in the basement at the home of loan officer Ken Davis in Millersville.

"We bleed purple in this household," Davis said. "Our basement already had a Ravens logo my wife painted on one wall and a Maryland Terps logo on the other. They were good enough. But over the summer, we decided to remodel the basement."

That remodeling project led to purple for the walls ("It's more of a light lavender, but you get the idea," Davis said), and then, as the crowning touch, a pair of Ravens-theme murals painted by Brian Propst Jr., who was commissioned before anyone knew the team would make it to the Super Bowl.

"I had been painting in a visceral style when I graduated from MICA," Propst said, "with fixed blobs of paint. Then I made the transition to graphic design, which is a big, big transition."

Propst went on to develop commercial relationships with the Ravens, designing licensed Torrey Smith apparel, for example. He also has a graphics outlet at the business he joined with his father, Propst & Sons Sports, which specializes in T-shirts.

Davis, who has known father and son, gave Propst free rein for the basement murals. The first one, started in mid-December and finished a couple of weeks ago, is a tribute to Ray Lewis.

"It's Ray's last dance," Propst said. "The view is out of the [stadium] tunnel, and he is casting a shadow back into the tunnel. It's saying how he's not coming back, but he's leaving a big shadow."

Other details fill the mural, including a reverse-image of the Lewis dance on the Jumbotron and a fan leaning over the rail to take a cellphone shot of the linebacker.

For the second mural, which Propst promised would be finished in time for the Super Bowl festivities at the house, the artist depicts a Ravens locker room where jerseys of celebrated players hang.

For MICA grad student Dixon Stetler, a subtler Ravens theme caught her eye just before the team played the AFC championship game.

Although photography is not her main pursuit (her focus is community collaborative arts), Stetler grabbed a camera to capture three potent images on Federal Hill — the American flag, a cannon and the Ravens helmet logo painted onto the hillside grass.

"I couldn't resist it," said Stetler. She titled the neatly composed photo "Aggression Symbols Stock Images."

"It's crazy how you can get swept up in the Ravens frenzy," she said. "I'll be watching the [Super Bowl] eating fried things sprinkled with Old Bay, drinking Natty Boh and enjoying every minute of it."

Ravens-theme art can be found in public, too. Images of team members and logos have blossomed around Baltimore recently via street art. There is bound to be more of it, especially if things go well in New Orleans on Sunday night.

"I always have Ravens fever," said the street artist known as Sorta. (Street artists, who work on the fringes of legality, frequently do not use their real or full names.) "And I'm going to be putting some massive pastes of Ray Lewis up in undisclosed locations. They'll be like 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide."

Such large-scale manifestations seem fitting, given the city's fixation on its football team.

"You can go into any random store and all types of people will be talking about the Ravens," said another street artist, Nether. "It's great how it brings people together. People really love this city, and they really celebrate when something good like this happens. I love being downtown and seeing all the purple, the solidarity that connects people."

The Baltimore-born Nether has poured his own support for the team into a boldly outlined, black-and-white drawing of a strong-jawed man in a Ravens hat. That image has been pasted in several Baltimore locations.

One of the spots Nether chose was the surface of an electrical box on a pole in the Station North area.

"It had to be redone four times because the city kept taking it down," the artist said. "But since the Ravens beat the Broncos, they haven't taken it down again."

Last year, Nether was just as willing to put his purple pride on a wall. He pasted a large mural at the intersection of Howard and Monument streets, a vivid triptych of Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Ray Lewis, each with a fiercely determined expression on his face.

There's a cool, time-lapse YouTube video showing Nether creating that work — a good thing, too, since not much other documentation of the mural remains.

"It was done just before the [January 2012] championship game," the artist said. "It didn't stay up long. I think it was destroyed by someone who was not happy when the Ravens lost that game. I think there's just a chunk of Ray Rice's face left now."

Nether got into the genre as a way of drawing attention to abandoned or neglected buildings, and many of his subjects address political and social issues (his image evoking slain, hoodie-wearing Florida teenager Trayvon Martin sprang up in the city last year to compelling effect).

But the artist relishes adding Ravens themes to the mix.

"I love sports. I know that's not what some people think of artists," Nether said. "And I love how the Ravens are so connected to Baltimore. If we win the Super Bowl, I'm thinking of putting up an image that is more victorious, something that says, 'We did it.'"

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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