The annual Art Cars parade and display at last year's Artscape festival.
The annual Art Cars parade and display at last year's Artscape festival. (Joe Soriero, Baltimore Sun)

A juke joint, a national park and a health spa for cars — all located within about five blocks of one another. For three days beginning Friday, a stretch of North Charles Street will be transformed into what just might be the coolest stretch of roadway in the U.S.

That's the idea behind the Roadside Attractions corridor at Artscape, a collection of art objects, road signs, live performances and interactive installations designed to capture the ambience, spirit and spontaneity of a trip along America's highways. Think of it as a few thousand miles' worth of tourist enticements and highway scenery, all compressed onto about a half-mile of Baltimore asphalt between Preston Street and North Avenue.

"You say 'roadside attractions' or 'road trip,' and everybody has an experience, an idea of what that means to them," said Jim Lucio, visual arts coordinator for Artscape, the nation's largest free arts festival. Lucio decided to turn a stretch of North Charles Street into old U.S. 66 for a weekend.

"It's really up to the artists to see how they want to interpret that, whether it will be something as literal as a giant ball of string or something that just reminds them of something they saw on the road," he said.

Lucio issued the challenge to area artists in early January, including a plea to think outside the box.

"I expressed ideas of novelty architecture signage, graphic design, unusual exhibits," he said. "I wanted people to think of all those things, including national parks — Old Faithful and that kind of thing. It can be a natural wonder; it doesn't have to be man-made. That's part of what a 'roadside attraction' would be."

Some 45 proposals came in, Lucio said; he eventually approved about two-thirds of them. And the range of what visitors to Artscape will be able to enjoy this weekend, he said, blew away his expectations.

There's the group of Morgan State University students and their Station North Roadhouse, a sort of modern-day juke joint, built of reclaimed wooden pallets and other materials, where visitors can spend a festive afternoon. There's the Stillpointe Theatre Initiative, a Wild West street — named Wycherley Gulch — re-created near Penn Station. And there's a display of sculptures and kinetic works, created by artists Tim Scofield and Renee Tantillo out of street signs supplied by the State Highway Administration.

Happily, many of Artscape's roadside attractions are interactive; just look at them, and you'll miss half the fun. Some will require help from the public to work properly, while many include performers whose job is to involve the audience directly. Some of the larger installations, including the roadhouse, will host musicians and performance artists, such as a lecture on 19th-century frontier etiquette, tongue planted firmly in cheek, by Miss Penelope Primrose and the Stillpointe Theatre.

Hitting the road has never promised such a good time.

"I thought it sounded like fun," Pittsburgh artist Nina Sarnelle said of the corridor. Her Autospa, created in collaboration with Scott Andrew, Agnes Bolt and Maryland Institute College of Art grad Erin Womack, will operate as "kind of a mash-up of a mechanical carwash and a spa treatment," all operating strictly on people power. "The aesthetics are a little bit different than your average carwash," she said. "It's kind of like an entire body treatment — pun on the word 'body,' obviously."

But the award for clever wordplay has to go to the group of artists transforming the Charles Street Garage, near Lanvale Street, into "National Parking." Visitors may not find the Grand Canyon transported to Baltimore, Lucio acknowledges, but they will find caverns, a scenic overlook and "a few surprises."

But mostly what visitors to Artscape's Roadside Attractions will find, Lucio assures, are what happens when creative types are given free rein.

"I know I'm going to be surprised also," said Lucio, who acknowledges that some of the finer details of what people are planning remain a mystery to him. "I just can't wait to see what they come up with."


If you go

Artscape runs 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday in the area surrounding the intersection of Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue. Information, including a full schedule, where to park and how to get there via public transportation: artscape.org.