Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne stands on the second floor of the American Visionary Art Museum on a Sunday afternoon in mid-September, looking every bit the part of a world-traveling frontman for one of music's most popular psychedelic rock groups.
His messy salt-and-pepper hair contrasts with a skintight powder-blue sweatshirt that sports a cartoon face across the chest. Form-fitting black jeans look like the typical rock-star staple, but plastic, multicolored jewels glued to the crotch add a flair that falls in line with Coyne's acidic aesthetic.
The 54-year-old from Oklahoma City is discussing the reason he flew in to Baltimore the night before: Coyne is preparing to make his museum debut with an immersive art installation titled "The King's Mouth." And with less than two weeks before its premiere, there is still plenty of work to be done to the grotesquely gorgeous, floor-to-ceiling silver head of the fictitious character Coyne created while sketching at his kitchen table. He wants visitors to enter the open mouth and lie down on the springy, hot-pink tongue.
"We know one of the great, unconscious delights of going in here is you get to lay down," Coyne said. "Once you go inside of it, you realize, 'Oh yeah, we're going inside his mouth and we're looking at what exploded inside of his head.'"
The wide-ranging works of Coyne and more than 25 other artists will be on display from Saturday until next September for the Federal Hill museum's annual exhibition. Curated by AVAM founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger, the exhibition — titled "The Big Hope Show" — explores the concept of hope and its many manifestations through pieces that can be described as whimsical and serious, abstract and unflinchingly realistic.
The exhibition is special to Hoffberger not only because it debuts on the eve of the museum's 20th anniversary, but also because of the subject's relevance as Baltimore continues to deal with the pain and unrest caused by Freddie Gray's death in April, she said. Hoffberger chose the theme before his death but said the show naturally took on a new resonance after it.
"For our 20th anniversary, I wanted to talk about hope openly, particularly at a time when our city has felt, in some ways, perhaps hopeless in some people's eyes," Hoffberger said. "We don't hear enough of people that have gone through more tragedy than most of us have gone through but come out, not only having survived, but thrived in some unexpected way. That's a level of true creativity that's at our feet."
Hoffberger said Coyne's inclusion fit perfectly with the show, given the artist's own brush with mortality many years ago. When Coyne was a teenage fry cook at a Long John Silver's restaurant, an attempted robbery led to a gun being pointed at his head. Coyne said the experience made him understand how quickly life can end.
"Wayne was almost murdered," she said. "Instead of making him paranoid and reclusive, it made him the opposite."
"The King's Mouth" is Coyne's first piece to be presented in a museum, but the creativity for his visual work and his music percolate in the same section of his brain, he said. (A new 26-minute composition Coyne made with the Flaming Lips specifically for the installation will play on a loop inside the mouth, he said.)
"When I see things, I think, 'Man, how is that going to sound? That sounds cool.' Then when I hear things, I always think, 'What's that going to look like? That's going to look cool,'" Coyne said. "One is always feeding the other. This is probably telling some subconscious truth about the way I am. I want to go in some place that has its own world, its own sound and its own interpretation."
Beyond Coyne's work (which also includes drawings and a sculpture), AVAM's exhibition features artists including New Orleans' Jackie Sumell, whose installation "Herman's House" re-creates the 6-foot-by-9-foot cell where Black Panther Herman Wallace spent more than four decades in solitary confinement for a conviction that was overturned right before his death.
There are homegrown artists as well, like Bobby Adams, the former pirate radio DJ known as the Psychedelic Pig. Adams' room in the exhibition has tributes to his late mother and toy poodle, Odie, and also celebrates the artist's lifelong love of scrapbooking. It features trinkets, mementos and photographs from the 69-year-old's life, including candid shots he took of famous pals like John Waters, Traci Lords and a young Johnny Depp.
Hope to Adams means remaining thankful and positive — through loving relationships with family, animals, music and art — even in the face of loss and tragedy.
"You look around the room, and you see your whole life, and you see it's good," Adams said. "It's all the positive things I've always said: Live life well and love with a pure heart."
For some artists, the theme of hope took longer to spark inspiration.
Last Thanksgiving Eve, Hoffberger called Nancy Josephson — the Wilmington, Del.-based artist who previously donated the eye-catching art bus that sits outside of the museum — about doing a "monumental piece" for the show. Josephson said the theme took to time to resonate, but after she realized hope starts as "just a seed," the idea for her "Erzulie Kouvez" sculpture crystallized.
The beaded, 10-feet tall bird cage took several months to create, she said, and represents "a safe space" for hope (embodied by the colorful, beaded birds) to grow. Josephson said she likely would not have gone through with the piece's daunting construction if it were not for such a long-running show.
"To have an opportunity to show something for 11 months is a whole different kettle of fish," Josephson said. "The idea of doing something that enormous with that much involved with it — I just don't think I would have taken it on had I not had this opportunity."
"The Big Hope Show" explores the concept of hope in deeply personal ways, such as Dan Patrell's stained-glass dedication to the wife he lost to ovarian cancer and Noah Scialom's iPhone photographs documenting Baltimore during April's unrest. (Scialom has worked as a freelance photographer for the Baltimore Sun Media Group.)
It also addresses more hollow forms of hope, like Craig Norton's tongue-in-cheek "Don't Worry About Us Indians We All Own Casinos and are All Stink-in Rich."
"This show is about hope, but this is the anti-hope, the other end of gambling," said Norton, a St. Louis resident who is part Native American. "A lot of people would rather think of happy things most of the time, so if you add a little humor into it, in my experience, people tend to give it some thought and take a look at it."
What all of these artists share is the belief that art can provoke and evoke our most significant feelings, including hope. At the helm is Hoffberger, who premiered AVAM's first major exhibit, "Tree of Life," in November 1995. Two decades later, Hoffberger said giving artists the space to display such earnest and well-crafted work remains as important as ever.
"This museum has always been about what a miracle it is — the true stories of human beings, and to get a better understanding of what it is to be in our world," Hoffberger said, "and to not sugarcoat it but never minimize the wonder."
Visually, "The Big Hope Show" is the museum's most exquisite show in its history, she said.
"That's saying a lot. It's like having favorite children and saying one is prettier than the other," Hoffberger said. "But really, there's something about this show that is just a song."