Art museum guards don't, as a rule, call much attention to themselves.
The unobtrusive men and women in uniform who ensure the safety of what's on the walls and floors are expected to issue do-not-touch reminders as needed. They'll also direct you to a gallery where you can find works in your favorite genre. And, of course, they can be counted on to point the way to the nearest restrooms.
What you might not suspect is that many of the guards create their own art.
"Guardists," an exhibit opening Friday at the Towson Arts Collective, brings together painting, drawings, photography and more created by security personnel at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"When you're a guard, you're the most visible person in the museum, but people don't really know you at all," said Linda Smith, a five-year BMA guard and organizer of the show. "I hope this opens up their perception of us. I think people might be surprised that there are all these artists here."
Smith got the idea for the exhibit after reading about a show at a New York gallery last year featuring work by about three dozen guards at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; those guards also started their own arts journal.
"It's amazing how many people who work at museums are themselves practicing artists," said BMA director Doreen Bolger.
The intimate Towson Arts Collective welcomed Smith's proposal for a Baltimore version.
"It's the first time I've organized a show," said Smith, a 56-year-old Baltimore native who has also sung in local bands. "There is a lot of DIY curating these days. Artists are taking more control of sharing their work, and there are more opportunities. I am hoping we can do this again in a bigger venue."
Although the Towson Arts Collective put out a call for entries to anyone in the area earning a living by guarding artwork, only BMA guards responded — 13 from a security staff of about 40.
"We have annual staff exhibitions in-house for ourselves, our trustees and volunteers to see," Bolger said, "and every year it has been pretty incredible. A lot of the guards are really talented people."
Some of them have displayed art in area galleries, but the Towson venture marks the first time the public can take in an all-guard show.
The shadowy pieces Smith submitted for the "Guardists" exhibit have in common window imagery, and the windows have moody muntins.
Moody also describes paintings by Jeff Valluzzi, 38, a supervisor on the BMA guard force. He specializes in figurative painting.
Among his works in the show is a vivid portrait of actor Chris Farley. Another portrait reveals a seated male figure painted in black and white; the effect is at once eerie and wry.
"He's a friend of mine," Valluzzi said. "That's him after getting drunk on two beers. I call it 'The Teetotaler.'"
In common with those works, a large, striking self-portrait of Valluzzi reveals a nod to German expressionism. He is depicted at a desk, the look in the eyes suggesting boredom, maybe annoyance. The skin tones are boldly orange and yellow, providing a visual jolt.
"That was done when I was a security guard at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston," said Valluzzi, who studied painting at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. "When I came to Baltimore almost a year ago, I had security experience and art experience, so a guard job at the BMA seemed like a good fit."
It became an even tighter fit when he learned more about his colleagues on the security staff.
"With everyone being artists, writers or musicians, we spur each other on," said Valluzzi, who also plays drums in a Baltimore band called Northern Spy.
Leo Hussey, 31, a Maine native who works a night shift at the museum, echoes that sentiment.
"Being here has motivated me a little more as an artist," he said.
Hussey's entries in "Guardists" include intricate, abstract wooden sculptures, with bits of paper glued to the surface providing richly textured effects. They're like 3-D pieces of some strange cosmic puzzle.
The artist, who studied art in Cleveland, didn't set out to be a guard.
"I never met someone who makes his living solely on art," Hussey said. "I've always enjoyed working. I needed a job when I moved here. I'm an artist, and a security guard at an art museum is kind of related," he added with a shy smile.
Delaware-born Christopher Reuther, whose ink drawings reflect a keen interest in horror stories, takes a similar view.
"My goal is to become a full-time artist," said Reuther, 23, a Towson University grad. "I'll admit I was looking for a job where I could work on art on the side. I wasn't expecting a security guard job to be a viable option, but why not? I didn't expect to find a lot of other guards who were artists."
Art with a somewhat unsettling streak runs through the exhibit. The darkest entry comes from Baltimore-born Nick Clasing.
"I went to Frostburg [State University] and majored in philosophy," said Clasing, 26, "but I've always been into the arts, particularly filmmaking. I got more serious about it after I graduated. For the 'Guardist' show, I submitted a film about three men who assault a homeless man. It was shot in Baltimore like a home video, but it was staged."
The result, "A Spiritual Look at the Life of Marlon Harris," is a six-minute cinema-verite experience, loaded with F-bombs and assorted other obscenities.
When they're on duty at the BMA, the guards find plenty of fresh mental stimulation for their creative pursuits. "There are times when I'm sorely tempted to take a notebook out and start drawing," Reuther said.
Added Smith: "If a particular work is up, like a painting by Jennifer Bartlett, it gives you something to think about that day. I like the museum at night particularly, in its quiet state, the way no one else sees it. When the light is dim, it creates interesting images inside," she said.
For the next several weeks, Smith will spend a lot of her off-hours with the images displayed at the Towson Arts Collective, where she and other guards plan to take turns guarding their own work.
"No one," Valluzzi said with a laugh, "is getting close to anything."
If you go
"Guardists" opens Friday with a reception from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Towson Arts Collective, 406 York Road in Towson. Starting Aug. 29, the exhibit will be open noon to 5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays through Oct. 14. Free. Call 410-916-6340 or go to towsonartscollective.org.