David Klein, a well-known Baltimore artist who turned found materials into high-end pieces of furniture that captured the gritty eccentricity of his hometown, died of colon cancer June 6 at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson. He was 71.
"He was always in and around Baltimore. Everybody knew him. He was like Gertrude Stein. He had his studio and exhibits, and everybody always visited," said Anita Klein, his wife of 49 years. "He was a one-of-a-kind of Baltimore."
"His pieces, without question, are museum quality," said David Hayden, a close childhood friend and one of the largest collectors, along with his wife, JoAnn, of Mr. Klein's work. "We've had solicitations from museums who want our stuff because it is so Baltimore."
"He was one of the most extraordinary Baltimoreans that I've ever met, and I've made a career out of knowing eccentric Baltimoreans," said Rafael Alvarez, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and close friend of Mr. Klein's. "He was a living encyclopedia of a Baltimore that is gone, and not in a scholarly way — in a folklore-ish way."
Mr. Klein, who everyone called by his last name, discovered his cancer only in January, his wife said: "I thought we'd have more time."
The son of Irv Klein, a Baltimore theatrical agent, Mr. Klein grew up into a world of Baltimore kitsch and nostalgia in which his father represented the last-of-their-kind burlesque acts on The Block, friends said. He lived partly in the white, working-class Hollins Market area with his maternal grandmother — his mother died when he was young — and had a soft spot for the Baltimore he knew as a child.
Mr. Klein attended St. Peter the Apostle parochial school and graduated from Edmondson High School.
He and his wife have lived for nearly four decades in their art-filled home near Lake Montebello in the city's Mayfield neighborhood, and Mr. Klein maintained a studio at Xibitz Inc. in Hampden.
A dabbler in many trades through the years — he appeared as an actor in two of Johns Waters' films, "Polyester" and "Desperate Living" — Mr. Klein found his calling with woodwork, friends said. He started receiving notice in the broader art world when he began creating meticulously crafted furniture out of found pieces of paint-chipped, weather-beaten wood from abandoned rowhouses and on the street.
"We both puttered, but as the years went on, we both started to get more serious about our art," said his wife, a crafter, sewer and painter .
Mr. Klein became particularly inspired by the woodwork of a Northeast artist, Stephen Whittlesey, his wife said. Mr. Klein's work began drawing notice after he exhibited it at the Rehoboth Art League in Delaware and the Gomez Gallery in Baltimore. His reputation grew again after he had booths featuring his art at two American Craft Council shows in the early 1990s.
David Hess, a local sculptor and collaborator of Mr. Klein's, said Mr. Klein had a "real integrity of craftsmanship" and a connection with people. "A lot of artists are a little bit more aloof and disengaged from people, but he just sort of collected friends."
Mr. Klein turned his craft into a full-time endeavor, Jazz Cabinets, though he also continued to work commercially as a carpenter to supplement his income, building bars and other structures for people in Baltimore, his wife said.
Mr. Klein was an animal lover with a sweet side; a man old acquaintances would stop and chat with wherever he went in Baltimore; a raconteur and a tell-it-like-it-is, no-nonsense Baltimorean, friends said.
"He was a free spirit. No question about it. He was his own man. He marched to his own drum," Mr. Hayden said. In his art, Mr. Klein was a perfectionist, making made-to-order pieces for specific places in Mr. Hayden's farm home in Upperco.
"He was meticulous with his detail. He went through great pains to put the right colors together," Mr. Hayden said of the found-wood pieces Mr. Klein built for him. "When he would do a piece for us he could tell you exactly where each piece of wood came from [in Baltimore]. He knew exactly the spot where it originated from."
"The back of the piece was just as good as the front of the piece," Ms. Klein said of her husband's art.
"He was pretty impeccable. Everything had to be very exact, and I think it's very counterintuitive, considering he and I used to go around to these abandoned buildings and gather up things that they were discarding," said Mr. Hess. "We would be finding garbage and turning it into fine woodwork."
Ms. Klein, who recently retired from the Maryland Institute College of Art, said her husband's many circles of friends and his cousin, Richard Klein of Annapolis, have been tremendous with their "love and support" for her husband in recent months and for her since his death.
In lieu of services, Ms. Klein said all her husband's friends are invited to a "memorial party" in his honor at his studio at Xibitz Inc., 3601 Clipper Mill Road, on June 30 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
In addition to his wife, Klein is survived by his brother, Richard Klein, and sister, Wendi Blum, both of Florida; and nieces and nephews.