Sondheim winner delves into spirituality, culture via alter ego

Renee Stout of Washington, whose work depicts her alter ego, Fatima Mayfield, is the winner of the 2012 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize.
Renee Stout of Washington, whose work depicts her alter ego, Fatima Mayfield, is the winner of the 2012 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize. (Photo courtesy of Renee Stout)

Renee Stout is the winner of the 2012 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, but a look at her photos, prints and other creations gives a glimpse of another woman — Fatima Mayfield.

The woman is an alter ego Stout created, pulling her name from those of a poor, friendly elderly neighbor named Fatima and a vendor of mystical and spiritual supplies in Washington known as Miss Mayfield. Stout said she began using the character nearly two decades ago to overcome her own shyness about making observations about culture and spirituality.

"How does she perceive herself in this culture that focuses on youth?" Stout said. "She faces the world for me. She can do things I couldn't do myself."

Stout, of Washington, is the seventh winner of the Sondheim prize, and the second who is based in the D.C. area. The $30,000 award will carry her over to a major show she is planning for 2013 at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

This was the first year Stout, 54, applied for the Sondheim prize because she had previously assumed it was for emerging artists. Stout has been showcasing her work in the Baltimore-Washington area since the 1990s. But she learned it is open to all artists in Maryland, Washington and parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania, and joined the more than 300 who apply each year.

Included in her showcase for the Sondheim finalists' gallery is "The Rootworker's Worktable," an installation with glass jars and perfume bottles scattered across an antique television cabinet in front of a chalkboard listing ingredients and instructions like "Things I'll need for the seduction of Sterling Rochambeau." African-American art and New Orleans hoodoo spirituality heavily influence the work, Stout said.

In other pieces, Stout, as Fatima Mayfield, is pictured in photographs surrounded by books, African art and candles. The images are the inspiration for a short film Stout plans to create depicting Mayfield.

A print called "The Return" presents a diary entry of Mayfield's that reads, "I wanted to go back to New Orleans, but couldn't bring myself to. My fear was that Katrina had washed away all the spirits. But the spirits started to call again."

Stout likened herself to an actress creating a character. Pieces like "The Rootworker's Worktable" are stored in a room in her Washington row house that "is almost like a stage set," she said.

The local art community has responded well to the point of view the device creates.

"Her work really takes people to different places through this powerful narrative," said Kristen Hileman, a curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the six Sondheim prize finalists' work is being displayed through July 29. "There's a lot of layers in Renee's work. It stamps it as unique."

Stout has received many awards for her work in the past, including from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and Washington's Mayor's Art Awards. But the Sondheim award was unique in bringing the competing artists together to see one another's work and learn from one another. The finalists were announced in April and met at receptions previewing their work and then announcing the winner.

"The contestants start to bond as the process goes on and on, but you all know there can be only one winner," Stout joked.

The panel of jurors that chose semifinalists, finalists and the winner included Carlos Basualdo, curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Jane Hait, co-owner and director of Wallspace gallery in New York; and Shinique Smith, a multimedia artist in Brooklyn, N.Y., who is a Baltimore native and Maryland Institute College of Art graduate.

The organizers of Artscape, billed as the nation's largest free arts festival, choose jurors from outside the region to give local artists national exposure, said Kim Domanski, public art coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. Five past winners have been Baltimore-based artists; 2010 winner Ryan Hackett is based in Kensington.

Stout said she retains a strong connection to the Baltimore arts community, frequently visiting Area 405, a gallery in Station North, and New Beginnings, a barber shop near Hollins Market where owner Troy Staton collects and showcases art. And she lauded the city's commitment to public art.

"I always get mad at D.C. because I feel like as the capital of the country, they should be doing more for the local artists and showcasing art in the streets," Stout said. "Baltimore has been doing a better job of it, especially when it comes to creating artist studios."



If you go

The works of the six Sondheim Artscape Prize finalists are on display through July 29 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The semifinalists' works are being shown Thursday through Aug. 5 at the Meyerhoff & Decker Galleries in the Fox Building at Maryland Institute College of Art.

Both exhibitions are free.

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