Not all of the works of the late renowned Baltimore painter, Raoul Middleman, who died in October, are to be found in museums or private collections. In fact, a rather large Western-themed mural has decorated the wall of a Belvedere Square restaurant and bar since 2006.
Po Chang, the proprietor of Zen West Roadside Cantina, a Tex-Mex restaurant and bar, met Middleman, a Mount Vernon resident, through a mutual friend, and a friendship of years blossomed.
“He did this when we first opened and he did it as a friend,” recalled Chang the other day, whose establishment is filled with Western-themed artwork that also includes a large map of Route 66, once the legendary Depression-era artery that extended from Chicago to the West Coast, as well as a large collection of old license plates.
The large mural, located in a side room where bands and singers perform, is 38 feet long by 8 feet wide, and features horses in a variety of positions.
“I think it’s the biggest panel Raoul ever did. When he offered to do it, I said, ‘Do whatever you want,’” Chang said. “He always had an interest in the Old West that went back to when he was a kid, and he liked horses and horse racing.”
Middleman, who was on the faculty of the Maryland Institute College of Art from 1961 to 2019, had worked at Pimlico Race Course as a teenager.
“For a suburban Jewish kid, it was an escape,” he told Baltimore Magazine in a 2015 interview. “I had this whole other life at the stables, grooming horses and shoveling s--t.”
He also painted seven large murals that can be seen on the second-floor grandstand at Pimlico.
Middleman painted the Zen West mural on drywall with a variety of colors.
“He didn’t do a lot of horses,” Chang said. “He used the paint that we had here in the back room that we used to paint the place. It took him three hours to do the whole thing. He worked fast.”
Middleman’s signature on the mural isn’t visible as it lies beneath wood paneling that rises about 2 feet from the floor and obscures the length of the mural’s lower part.
Chang painted a clear coat over the work of art to discourage graffiti artists who desired to make their own additions, artistic or otherwise, to the existing work.
Recently, a miscreant did just that, and Kevin O’Malley, a local artist, children’s books author and illustrator who sometimes dabbles in art restoration, was busily cleaning off the offensive graffiti from the lower right side of the mural, without inflicting any damage and leaving Middleman’s work intact, just as he had painted it.
Recently, Doreen Bolger, a former Baltimore Museum of Art director, stopped by to take a look at it and offer Chang some suggestions regarding conservation.
“It’s incredible,” Bolger exclaimed. “I just love it.”
When the question of perhaps moving it to another venue came up for discussion, Bolger advised against it.
“Moving it would be very challenging and could damage it, and where would you move it?” she advised.
“Museums have space issues and you have the space for it,” she told Chang. “And then there are housing and security issues.”
Bolger advised Chang that the whole piece should be conserved, not just the top above the paneling. She also suggested perhaps removing the paneling and covering it with light-resistant glass.
“It wouldn’t be cheap, but preserving this work would be an investment,” she said.
She added: “There is so much interest in Raoul and horse racing, and I think people who are interested in murals would come here to see this.”