Artists explore American identity in Sondheim Artscape Prize exhibit

Artists explore American identity in Sondheim Artscape Prize exhibit
Stephen Towns is among the finalists for the Sondheim Artscape Prize. His paintings are on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art in an exhibit that also features the works of five other finalists. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Perilous journeys under desperate circumstances. Travelers in a hurry shedding pieces of their lives. Newcomers who step by step and day by day reshape the streets, towns and nation in which they have settled.

Immigration is on the minds of Americans in a big way right now, so perhaps it’s not surprising that artists also are preoccupied with the topic. Consider, for instance, the six finalists for the 2018 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize whose works are on view through Aug. 5 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.


Three finalists — Erick Antonio Benitez, Stephen Towns and Nate Larson — deal explicitly with immigrants’ impact on the way America defines itself. Benitez created an installation that includes items left behind by people illegally crossing the U.S. border from Mexico. Towns fashioned 13 paintings inspired by the Middle Passage and the brutal conditions aboard the slave ships. And Larson has embarked upon a project to explore how more than two centuries of immigration is slowly pulling the nation’s population south and west.

That theme is present less overtly in work by two other finalists: the painter Eunice Park and the photographer Nakeya Brown. Only the abstract sculptures by Sutton Demlong head off in a different direction.

“When the exhibit was being installed, there were a lot of conversations among the artists about how their work in different ways deals with the great complexities of the American identity,” exhibit curator Cecilia Wichmann said, “with the borders and boundaries and exchanges. Our national identity shifts monthly or hourly and is constantly being redefined and renegotiated.”

The winner of the $25,000 prize will be announced at the museum on July 14.

Exploring the border

A toothbrush sticks vertically out of a pile of sand strewn on the floor of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Nearby are a pair of pink children’s sandals and two flattened water jugs tied together with twine. Behind looms a floor-to-ceiling double wooden fence. An opposite wall contains a loop of barbed wire.

Erick Antonio Benitez found these objects while traveling the U.S. border between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean in 2015 and 2016. The 29-year-old Baltimore artist was inspired by his mother’s ordeal.

Visitors take in an installation by Erick Antonio Benitez.
Visitors take in an installation by Erick Antonio Benitez. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

A native of El Salvador, she quit school after third grade. After becoming pregnant in 1988, she embarked upon the dangerous trip to the U.S. to give her unborn child opportunities she’d never had.

She was in the desert for two weeks. Midway, her group was abandoned by their leader and left to perish.

“They got lucky when another group came by,” Benitez said. “After they joined them, a leader raped one of the travelers. People she was traveling with died.”

The installation recreates part of the wall separating the U.S. and Mexico. Behind the fenceposts runs a video of the landscape Benitez shot while traversing the 1,954-mile border. On the opposite wall, a monitor shows footage of refugees living in migrant shelters. Headphones allow visitors to listen to interviews with border agents and migrants.

Benitez’ mother will view the installation this weekend for the first time.

“I’m excited to have her see it,” Benitez said. “If she overcame all these obstacles to give me a better life, there isn’t anything I shouldn’t be able to do. I’m working hard to make her proud.”

The politics of hair

The photographer Nakeya Brown was cradling her infant daughter in 2012 when she first envisioned a project exploring the fraught relationship between black women’s hair and their self-esteem.


“Mia had soft, silky, straight newborn hair, but I knew it wasn’t going to stay that way,” the 30-year-old Laurel resident said. “My hair is very thick and curly, and I thought, ‘How am I going to prepare her for being judged for the way her hair looks?’ ”

Nakeya Brown's archival inkjet prints from the series "The Refutation of Good Hair" (2012).
Nakeya Brown's archival inkjet prints from the series "The Refutation of Good Hair" (2012). (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

As a young woman, Brown was told that to succeed in the corporate world, she couldn’t wear her hair naturally but would have to chemically straighten or braid her locks to approximate white women’s styles — a process that’s time-consuming, expensive and often painful. Today, Brown, who has a master’s degree in fine arts from The George Washington University, sports an exuberant mop of gold and black curls.

She has created a dozen subliminally off-kilter digital photographs featuring hair care products and techniques. These still-life compositions pop against flat backgrounds of saturated colors such as peach blossom and sea foam.

In one photograph, an oven mitt, burner grate and hot comb are juxtaposed against a cotton-candy pink background. In another, a woman lowers more than two feet of box braids into a pot of hot water to seal the ends, completely obscuring her face.

“The global hair market is a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Brown said. “The politics around hair can debilitate your sense of self. But there’s a lot to be learned by discussing it publicly.”

Faces of slaves

The artist Stephen Towns' big year keeps getting increasingly fabulous and surreal.

In March, the 38-year-old Baltimorean landed his first show in a museum. His ravishing story quilts inspired by the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831 are showcased through Sept. 2in the Baltimore Museum of Art, will travel to Los Angeles and were praised in The New York Times.

Now, his new painting series is a finalist for the Sondheim Artscape Prize.

Paintings by Stephen Towns are among those in an exhibit of Sondheim Artscape Prize finalists.
Paintings by Stephen Towns are among those in an exhibit of Sondheim Artscape Prize finalists. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

“I have the freedom to experiment more now knowing that people will see my work,” said Towns, who has a bachelor’s degree in painting from the University of South Carolina. “But I was afraid of this particular installation because it’s so different from the Nat Turner quilts.”

The 13 painted panels were inspired by slave ships that sailed to the Americas between the 16th and mid-19th centuries. The five center panels are curved to resemble the cross-section of a ship’s hull and are set in Africa during the slave trade. They’re flanked by eight rectangular canvasses featuring contemporary African-American adults standing behind a baby in a floating reed basket. These panels meld the present-day United States with the biblical story of Moses.

Like some of Towns’ earlier work, these canvasses are decked out like Eastern Orthodox icons. Each person’s head is surrounded by a halo and emerges from a gold leaf background. The paintings also contain intricately worked fabric swatches.

Upon close viewing, subtle details emerge. For instance, butterflies are a symbol of hope for the artist. The central panels contain blue butterflies found in Ghana, while the butterflies on the side panels are orange North American monarchs.

“We’ve survived so much: the Middle Passage, slavery, and Jim Crow,” Towns said. “I wanted to pay homage to our power and our strength.”

From her mind’s eye

The Korean-born Eunice Park spent her adult life determined not to paint. But faces kept crowding her mind, demanding attention. Eventually, she surrendered. Almost in spite of herself, she began creating strikingly evocative and original canvasses.

“They are so overworked,” the 60-year-old Park said. “They are over-processed, rancid. I scraped off the paint and scrubbed them with a bathroom brush. But the faces rose up from underneath.”

Paintings by Eunice Park: "Which Way" (2017) and "Mama Needs Teeth" (2017).
Paintings by Eunice Park: "Which Way" (2017) and "Mama Needs Teeth" (2017). (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Her faces — often of indeterminate race or gender — appear painted quickly, almost brutally. One portrait is marked with random jabs of blue. But in a few economical lines, a personality emerges. Park’s people and occasional animals (a bird, a monkey) are energetic and mysterious, sinister and sly, with independent minds and complicated pasts.

A junior high school art teacher provided the newly arrived immigrant with her first paint set, and young Eunice began saying things with color and shape that she couldn’t express in her imperfect English. In the early 1980s, she received a scholarship to Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts but dropped out after a few years.

Eventually, Park moved to Parkville, supporting her three children by working in dry cleaning shops.

“I was always doodling,” she said. “If my children left notebooks behind that had empty pages, I’d fill them up.”

About 15 years ago, Park’s daughter gave her art supplies for Mother’s Day. After they sat untouched for more than a decade, Park’s daughter told her mother she’d pay her to complete even a single canvas. There was one stipulation: no faces.

“I came home and did nine paintings of faces,” Park said. “Some belong to homeless people and some to people who are mentally challenged. Some I’ve never seen before. But they are like family or friends I’ve known all my life.”

Population art

The photographer Nate Larson is on a quest to, as he puts it, “get closer to the real.”

In 2014, Larson, 40, embarked on a project he expects will take him years to complete — photographing life in the roughly two dozen cities and towns that since 1790 have served as U.S. population medians.

Each decade, census officials designate a residential center, the point through which a north-south line and an east-west line would cross, dividing the total number of Americans in half. In 1790, that epicenter was Chestertown, and each decade since, it has drifted to the southwest. In 1800, the midpoint was in Ellicott City; after that it left Maryland for good. By 2020, the median is projected to be near Hartville, Mo.

Initially, the westward pull resulted from the nation’s rapid geographic expansion. Now, Larson thinks, it’s caused by the influx of mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants into such states as Texas and California.

“The current administration wants to add a citizenship question to the census,” he said. “If that goes through, I’m curious whether that will mean that the center of the population shifts farther east.”

Larson, a member of the photography faculty at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, has been a finalist for the Artscape Prize twice before.

He began by visiting each epicenter briefly, and has spent up to a month in four. He gets to know the landscape and residents before creating intimate documentary-style images. (Some aerial shots are filmed with a drone.) Eventually, he will also collect oral histories. The Sondheim show includes photographs taken in seven median cities, including Ellicott City.

“The current administration has shaken up my notion of our national identity,” he said.

”I wanted to get the real sense of the country — not that there’s any one ‘real.’ I’m trying to understand what America is in 2018 and how the current presidential administration does or does not reflect that.”

Defying physics

Visitors to the Baltimore Museum of Art might find themselves crawling on their hands and knees, peering at a white beam elevated a few inches off the ground, trying to figure out how the sculptor Sutton Demlong did it.

The 28-year-old Baltimorean’s enigmatic creations seemingly defy the laws of gravity, not to mention common sense.

Consider, for instance, that beam. It is perched on the two tiniest supports imaginable — a peg at one end, while at the other, it intersects a blade of charcoal-painted wood that’s about as wide as a knife and balanced vertically. A large half-hoop, anchored to the white beam at either end, tilts precariously to one side. A long pink tassel suspended from the hoop’s center dangles nearly to the floor. There’s nary a nail or a drop of glue in sight. It all fits together like pieces in a puzzle.

The whole configuration ought to come toppling down. But somehow it remains erect.

Sculptor Sutton Demlong, a finalist for the Sondheim Artscape prize
Sculptor Sutton Demlong, a finalist for the Sondheim Artscape prize (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

How the heck did he do it?

Demlong smiled and said: “I’ve always liked puzzles. I’m a very haptic learner and building sculptures is an excuse for me to solve problems with my hands.”

Each sculpture in the show poses a different physical problem, usually about balance. These abstract artworks also nod to centuries-old methods of crafting furniture with joinery techniques executed so precisely that no metal fasteners were required. It’s Demlong’s way of erasing the distinction between art for art’s sake and beautifully made furniture or tools.

“In the art world, ‘craft’ has become a bad word,” said Demlong, a 2016 graduate of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. “I’m trying to update the notion and make it fun.”