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Artist previews mural project in East Baltimore

Janice Jacobs-Hudson keeps informed about what goes on in the East Baltimore neighborhood of rowhouses where she has lived for more than 30 years.

So Jacobs-Hudson, president of the Ashland Avenue Association, was surprised to find an artist painting a gigantic "pop-up" mural on a stretch of houses in the 2400 block of E. Eager St., including the house where she grew up. The houses, which are boarded up and vacant, are scheduled to be torn down over the next several months for a children's park.

Stephen Powers, an artist hired by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, recently painted "FOREVER TOGETHER" and "I AM HERE BECAUSE IT'S HOME" in bright letters on the 35 abandoned houses as a preview to a larger project he will be starting in the fall.

Powers will produce a series of murals in September in several areas of the city and finished the two preview murals for $1,000, which he will donate to the Ashland Avenue Association, while he was here last week. In addition, the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development paid $1,900 for a lift for the preview murals, said Ryan Patterson, public art administrator at BOPA.

The result, Jacobs-Hudson said, is "beautiful."

However, at least one resident questioned why public funds were being spent to paint houses that will soon be torn down. Gregory Cabean Jr., who used to live in one of the houses that now have "FOREVER TOGETHER" displayed across them, said, "I think it's the city wasting money."

Though the murals Powers creates in the fall won't be on buildings slated for demolition, the artist said that "nothing lasts. It can't."

Powers' project is called "Love Letters to Baltimore." The murals will be inspired by quotes, stories and interactions the artist has with city residents, Patterson said.

All the sites for the $47,500 project Powers is taking on in the fall are not finalized, though they will be in high-traffic areas of Southwest and East Baltimore, such as near Route 295 and Russell Street, Interstate 95 and the Amtrak line in East Baltimore.

One confirmed site will be the Fitch Co. building off Route 295, which CEO Lynne Kirsner hopes will help make the site a "gateway" to the city.

Powers has completed similar "love letters" in other cities, including New York and Philadelphia.

Powers will be given $40,000 in installments for the project, which he is expected to use to pay for the paint, supplies, travel and labor it will take for him and his team to complete the project, Patterson said. The money will also pay for space where Powers and his team will make free, hand-painted signs for local businesses, Patterson said.

Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Housing, said the money is being provided by the housing department's Vacants to Value initiative, a homebuyers incentive program, and the Baltimore Development Corp.

The remaining $7,500 will go to cover BOPA's administrative costs and housing for Powers and his team, Patterson said.

The artist's mural project is part of a campaign to beautify the city, Porter said. Across Baltimore, murals welcome people to the city, honor notable figures and pay tribute to the history of Charm City.

"It is an outward showing, an artistic expression of the great things that are going on here in Baltimore," Porter said. "Baltimore is in a renaissance. It is a place to be proud of, and to fall back in love with."

Powers said he got his inspiration for the East Eager Street murals from the residents of the nearby houses that are still occupied.

"It's a rare place where you can go and say hello to someone and they'll say hello back," he said. "It speaks to how engaged people are and how engaged people are willing to be in the community."

One resident told him "I am here because it's home," when asked why he had been in East Baltimore for 21 years.

Other residents just wanted unity in their neighborhood, which prompted Powers' "FOREVER TOGETHER" mural.

Though the houses with the murals will soon be torn down, Powers said that's OK, because "the best things in life are temporary."

The city hired the workforce development nonprofit Humanim to tear down about 50 houses in the neighborhood by dismantling them by hand from July to October, salvaging the bricks and creating jobs, Porter said.

Originally, Jacobs-Hudson was confused about the mural project being done on the houses, and in early May, it was halted so community members could approve a sketch of what the finished mural would look like. The community approved the mural, and work on it resumed last week.

"It was resolved in a loving and caring way," she said.

Powers said he wants people to get this message from his work: It's a "beautiful neighborhood filled with beautiful people in East Baltimore, and they're working together to change their world for the better."

Cabean, the former resident, just doesn't think the message comes across. "It's just words on a building," he said.

David Hursey, who lives near the murals, thinks they may be a sign that the neighborhood is beginning to improve.

"It's something to fix the neighborhood up more than it is," he said.

Though he likes the mural, Hursey will be happy when the houses are gone, because he said rocks and bricks fall from the old structures. He looks forward to the park for children.

Powers will be working with students at Maryland Institute College of Art, which supports education and community engagement efforts.

"There is a great deal of change going on in Baltimore, and we're celebrating that," Porter said. "Art changes the energy around the community."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

dmking@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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