On the Baltimore Museum of Art’s first floor, there are relics from the United States’ southern border. A child’s abandoned pink sandal. A dirty toothbrush. Crushed plastic jugs that once held people’s water as they struggled to make their way into this country from Mexico.
Artist Erick Antonio Benitez collected the artifacts during trips to the 1,954-mile border and used them as part of his immersive art installation, which aims to draw attention to the plight migrants face on their journey to the United States. His work was recognized Saturday night with this year’s Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize.
“This work is very timely and important to me,” said Benitez, a 30-year-old Baltimore-based artist. “I wanted to create something that would highlight the true realities” faced by people crossing the border.
Benitez came away with a $25,000 prize, which he says will help fund more trips south as he continues to expand his piece. The other five finalists — Nakeya Brown, Sutton Demlong, Nate Larson, Eunice Park and Stephen Towns — received $2,500 each.
One of the judges, Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed, said Benitez’s work stood out for being beautiful in concept and in form.
Benitez’s installation re-creates part of a wall separating the U.S. and Mexico. The objects he collected are stuck in sand on either side of a tall fence post. A video projected on the wall behind the fence transports the viewer to the border. A TV on the opposite wall plays interviews with people whose lives have changed there.
Benitez was inspired by his mother’s journey to this country. Maria Benitez — one of 11 children in a family of poor farmers — fled a violent civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s and crossed the border while pregnant with her son, he said.
She couldn’t read or write in her native Spanish because her education ended at the third grade, when she began working on the farm, he said. But she learned English and navigated the process of getting her citizenship.
“Her having to come here as a pregnant woman into the States and going through such a crazy journey, I thought that was very inspiring,” Benitez said. “To me that proved the power of your soul. You can basically accomplish anything.”
Five paintings by such modern masters as Andy Warhol and Franz Kline were sold for $7.93 million at auction Wednesday and Thursday at Sotheby's in New York on behalf of the previous owner, the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The work of all six artists — which include paintings, sculptures and photographs — will remain on display at the museum through Aug. 5.
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh told the artists their work “elevated art once again in the city of Baltimore.” The prize announcement comes a week before Artscape, the city’s annual outdoors arts festival.
Donna Drew Sawyer, the new CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, which produces the exhibition, joked that Saturday night’s ceremony was her “coming-out party.” She praised the artists for their creativity and for their contributions to the city’s art scene.
“It is an act of courage to reveal yourself through your work to a legion of strangers,” she said.
After accepting his prize, Benitez thanked the city, the museum and his mother.