When I was The Sun's art critic, I was often surprised to come upon what turned out to be wonderful artworks in the most unlikely places. They were tucked away in old bus terminals and factories that had been shut for decades or in the sub-basements of downtown office buildings and in suburban strip-mall storefronts.
Still, I was unprepared for how moved I felt standing in front of the recently completed mural dedicated to Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Painted on a large wall at the corner of Presbury and Mount streets in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Gray grew up, it is at once a somber memorial and the passionate protest of a dream deferred.
Readers may have seen photographs of the mural published in The Sun this week. Photographs, however, can never completely capture the felt experience of an artwork or the ineffable quality that gives some works what the writer Walter Benjamin called an "aura" of expressiveness that speaks directly to the heart.
The memorial, which takes the form of a triptych with three panels, like a Renaissance altarpiece, is special that way, and its location in Sandtown-Winchester, on the site of Gray's arrest, is integral to the aura it casts. It's one of three murals local artists and activists have created in the weeks since the unrest following Gray's death. When I visited the site, the calming influence it seemed to exert on people walking along the streets or sitting on front stoops was almost palpable.
Last week, a tour bus filled with out-of-town visitors unexpectedly appeared in front of the mural, which towers over a tiny, immaculately tended flower garden neighborhood residents have created to frame the memorial site. The tourists never got off their bus, but the driver lingered at the curb several minutes while they stood and silently snapped pictures through the windows.
They needn't have feared stepping onto the sidewalk, though. One gets the feeling people nearby have already started thinking of the spot as something akin to hallowed ground. They don't want anything bad to happen to anyone there again.
What they do want is for people who visit the site is to feel what they are feeling — their struggles, their pride in their community, their hopes for the future and their humanity. The mural communicates those feelings far beyond the power of words to express.
The artists and activists who created the memorial hope to paint at least 18 murals in Sandtown-Winchester over the course of this summer. They work with residents to find out what kinds of images people want to see in their neighborhoods, then scrounge up the materials needed to complete the project. The materials for the Freddie Gray memorial, for example, cost about $1,000, most of which was raised through donations of paint, brushes, ladders, garden supplies and other equipment from a local Home Depot store.
The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which sponsors the city's annual Artscape festival, will also be working on its own mural project in Sandtown-Winchester this summer. Its program will employ 80 city youngsters working in teams of 10 to assist professional artists to create eight more murals in the neighborhood. The program is funded by the city's Youthworks initiative, and students will also get workforce development training in such "soft" skills as time management, interview preparation and resume writing.
I'd love to see some art world superstar volunteer to participate in Sandtown-Winchester's mural projects, not only to draw attention to the community's continuing struggle but to encourage the less well known artists on the project who are donating their time and talent. I'd also like to see more people in the Baltimore region make the trip to Mount and Presbury streets. The memorial is a small masterpiece in a part of town most people never see, and I can't imagine that anyone who visits it with an open heart will come away unmoved.