Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Art exhibit in Pigtown portrays the stories of female sex workers and users of drugs

Cheryl is mechanically inclined, and Chastity is a terrific chef who will spend an entire day cooking a roast that makes meat lovers drool. Heather and her husband hold exercise classes for senior citizens.

These women and the five others depicted in a new art exhibit have also sold sex, been addicted to drugs or both. Their portraits are being showcased throughout July in “See Me: The Women of the SPARC Center,” a free exhibit that sets out to develop empathy for a group often dismissed by mainstream society. The paintings are for sale; some proceeds are being donated to the center.

“These are kind, intelligent, generous women, but the outside world doesn’t always treat them as such,” said Emily Clouse, program director for SPARC, which stands for Sex Workers Promoting Activism, Risk Reduction and Community Mobilization. “They have complex lives just like everyone else, and this exhibit is our way of honoring them.”

SPARC, which opened in November at 908 Washington Blvd. in Pigtown, is the brainchild of Susan Sherman, a researcher for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Sherman is studying whether providing support services for female sex workers can reduce their risk of contracting HIV and developing AIDS. The center, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, provides women a place to shower, do laundry, use computers and relax. Medical services and counseling are available for those who request them. The women either currently sell sex or use drugs or have in the past.

“See Me” came about two years after Washington-based artist David Marquardt put together an exhibit of portraits of 14 male prostitutes that went on view at the District of Columbia’s LGBT Center.

“A friend commented that the power dynamics are different for male sex workers than they are for female sex workers,” Marquardt said. “A lot of the men I painted chose to be sex workers. One was a successful playwright, one was a designer and one was an artist. Sex work was just one of many things they did.

“But the women my friend knew tended to have more difficult life circumstances. They didn’t have as much choice.”

A friend put Marquardt in touch with Sherman. After the artist explained he wanted to emphasize her clients’ strengths, SPARC’s staff approached the women and asked them to pose. In addition, staff members interviewed each woman about her accomplishments and what makes her happy. Excerpts are included in wall text alongside the portraits.

Eight women agreed to participate — and at least one is glad she did.

“The exhibit shows that just because you’ve had a hard time that doesn’t mean you can’t get out of it,” said Heather, who like the others in the show is identified only by a first name or nickname. “You can change if you want to.”

The eight reacted emotionally to the versions of themselves they saw on SPARC’s walls.

“They love the exhibit,” Heather said. “When Cheryl saw her portraits, she cried.”

Marquardt hopes that the center’s neighbors will have a similar response. At a community forum held at SPARC earlier this year, he said, some local residents and business owners worried that the facility could attract crime instead of deterring it.

“I thought that doing this art project would be a good way for the neighbors to see who these women really are,” Marquardt said. “One thing I didn’t want the project to do was to arouse pity. I didn’t want people who came to the exhibit to see these women as victims but as people they could relate to.”

Keisha, for instance, has a son who is an aeronautical engineer and another who received a full scholarship to college to play basketball. Kathlene loved her bartending jobs and could cut off even the most belligerent drunk and charm him into leaving peacefully. The woman who identified herself as “OnlyOne” is at her most relaxed while holding a fishing rod.

Sherman said that SPARC regularly attends community meetings and that the women who attend the center hope to make a positive contribution to society.

“We know people were wary of SPARC at first,” she said. “But we’ve gotten good feedback. ... The people I’ve talked to are pleased that no one is ‘hanging out’ in front of the center, which had been a fear. … We are there for the long haul.”

Marquardt decided to enlist two other artists in putting together the exhibition so that each of the eight women is represented by three portraits rendered in contrasting styles.

Marquardt works in oils. His realistic portraits meticulously re-create such details as the dimple on Emmi’s chin and the precise slant of OnlyOne’s eyebrows.

Juliana Vallejo of Falls Church, Va.,creates big abstract expressionistic canvases filled with bold hues. She painted Heather’s face a color best described as “true blue,” while Chastity’s immense eyes dominate her painting.

“I tried to portray these women as warriors,” Vallejo said. “They are examples of strength and perseverance.”

Marquardt wanted to include an artist who knows Charm City, so he asked Baltimorean Doug Johnson to participate. Johnson has a loose, gestural style. He typically sketches just the outlines of the women’s bodies in black ink. Then, he’ll add dabs of purple or red paint to suggest contours and shadows.

Johnson is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 10 years and quickly identified with his subjects.

“As I listened to the women talk about their stories,” he said, “I realized that they’re part of my story, too.”

The months that Johnson worked on the project changed him.

“I look at people on the street differently now,” he said. “I’ll be driving down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and I’ll realize that I’m not just looking at someone selling a bottle of water for one dollar. I’m looking at someone’s father or mother or kid. I’ll roll down the window, make contact.”

Clouse said SPARC’s staff members make excuses to visit the room where the portraits are hung. They smile when they see Stevie, a gifted soccer player, look so happy and relaxed in her hoodie. And the gallery is the only place now where they can see Emmi’s mischievous smile.

SPARC staff members were heartbroken when Emmi’s partner called in late May to notify them that the mother of three had died. Clouse doesn’t know what killed the tenacious 23-year-old, but said that Emmi had recently gone back to school and showed all the hallmarks of a crusader in the making. Emmi said in her interview that she hoped to one day counsel others who, like her, struggled with chemical dependency.

“She loved the idea of this exhibit,” Clouse said. “Emmi was our advocate.”

“See Me: The Women of the SPARC Center” is open to the public by appointment through at least July. Those interested in viewing the free exhibit should email program director Emily Clouse at eclouse@jhu.edu.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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