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Columbia connection at the heart of Art Promotion Together

Artists from varied backgrounds present harmonious quartet of style, support

By Janene Holzberg, For The Baltimore Sun

6:00 AM EST, November 5, 2013

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They're the first to acknowledge that they make an unlikely foursome. A Polish artist's daughter and three artists representing America, Nigeria and the Dominican Republic have forged an alliance to advance their individual creative visions — after hooking up on the Internet.

The new friends, all co-organizers of Art Promotion Together on meetup.com, "just jelled," said Eva Skrenta, a Columbia resident who joined to showcase her father's work.

When their art is displayed together, any questions about what connects their seemingly disparate worlds quickly fade away. A passion for bold colors and a flair for abstract expressionism unite the works, forming a cohesive, if unexpected, whole.

Art admirers will have the opportunity to judge for themselves when the group holds its first combined exhibit, titled Cross-Continental Connection, scheduled Nov. 8 and 9 at Tatu, an Asian-fusion restaurant in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Skrenta's late father, Jerzy Kajetanski, was a native of Poland and a longtime Wilde Lake resident who displayed his work in Howard County. Skrenta has managed over the past several years to get some of his work into the Museum of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland.

But she found herself longing for greater regional exposure for his art, which runs the gamut from war scenes to landscapes of Wilde Lake and styles in between.

"I felt I had saturated Howard County with my father's artwork and that I would like to show his paintings elsewhere," Skrenta said.

Enter artist Ellen Baer, a New York resident whose late mother, Joyce, was a community activist in Columbia, and who was acquainted with Skrenta. Baer invited Skrenta to join a group she was launching in February on meetup.com, a website where people with shared interests come together.

Federico "Anthony" Ruiz, who lived in the Dominican Republic as a child, and Francisca "Frankie" Alika of Nigeria eventually joined the pair, cementing the four-way collaboration.

"We saw each other's work online, and let's just say none of it is paintings of other people's pets," Skrenta observed.

Aside from advocating joint exhibits — which aren't uncommon in the art world — Baer's concept for the group calls for members to support each other's individual career goals and to work together on the "tedious task" of art promotion, she said.

"Nobody else is doing this," Baer said. "It's also about doing the nitty-gritty work, like writing an artist's statement."

A photographer and a painter have become active in the group since the Tatu event was organized, Baer said. Forty-three other artists have added their names to an open invitation to join at meetup.com, but have yet to become active participants.

Mike Ferger, Tatu's general manager, said the restaurant especially likes to support "up-and-coming artists who are trying to make it.

"This is the first time the four of them have grabbed the bull by the horns and collaborated, and I'm excited to see what happens with this group," he said.

Ruiz observed that people feel some art galleries give off "a high society aura" that can be intimidating. A showing at Tatu, which also features such acts as aerialists and fire eaters, is "a more casual and inviting way" to introduce people to their art for the first time, he said.

Alika, who lives in Hyattsville and has only been in America for three years, said she'd been searching for "a group with a vision and a mission."

"I had something in the back of my mind, and I got a good feeling that this [group] is what I've been looking for," she said. "We want to exhibit and grow together as a force."

Distinctive styles

Though their abstract art shares a common visual impact through color, the artists' techniques and viewpoints differ.

Skrenta described the colorful paintings she chose to represent her father's work in the coming exhibit as fluid forms that incorporate whole-grain cereal for texture.

Kajetanski, who died in 1999, worked in many media and his 3,000-plus creations over six decades range from scratchboards to oil pastels to collages and more, she said.

Ruiz, who is self-taught and now works as a police officer in Washington, said he picked up a paintbrush for the first time since childhood after being profoundly affected by 9/11, where he was a first responder. His art reflects social, political and cultural issues.

The Alexandria, Va., resident applies liquid acrylic and spray paint to balsa wood to create graphic pieces in a style inspired by the work of his uncle, an artist whose full name he shares. One of Ruiz's ongoing themes is men's ties, which he regards as symbols of oppression.

"I try to express the political views I witness from demonstrations on Capitol Hill," he said. "Sometimes I agree with them and sometimes I don't, but I still want to use their views in a creative way."

Baer, who lives in Beltsville, melts beeswax and mixes it with oil paint "to get a tacky consistency," a method found in paintings of kings in Greek tombs, she said. She builds the paintings up in layers like those found in nature.

She applies her materials with a large scraper and then does a "visceral digging and scratching" on the canvas to create a dimensional effect, she said.

Alika's art combines acrylic, oil and ink, and she said her style is influenced by the African wall designs of Uli, in eastern Nigeria. Some paintings are derived from a terrible time in her life — her infant daughter died in 2003 when, she said, a doctor administered an accidental overdose of medicine.

"I had such pain in my heart and couldn't talk [about it] for three years," she said. One of her paintings in the Tatu exhibit communicates the rays of light she felt "when I decided to let go and come out of the darkness."

The four artists of Art Promotion Together have different styles that originate from different experiences, but that is far from a hindrance, they say.

"This group brings out the best in each of us," Ruiz said.

The Cross-Continental Connection exhibit at Tatu, 614 Water Street, Baltimore, will be open from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Nov. 8 and 9. For more information about the group, go to meetup.com/Art-Promotion-Together.