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Aliens, abductions and Artscape: taking exuberant riffs on theme of space exploration

The tent was made of fabric the green color of army fatigues, and a sign on the outside mysteriously read, "Alien Encounters. Government Secrets Revealed."

Venture inside Moloch's Institute for Extranormal Research on the Artscape Midway this weekend at your own peril — or at least, at the peril of your funny bone.

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Inside are dioramas "proving" that aliens, and not Hurricane Agnes, destroyed the town of Daniels in 1972. Twirl the knob on another exhibit to move a flying saucer across the sky, then press the red button, and you can abduct your very own terrified earthling.

In another corner, perfectly sane adults — the type who wear business suits and carry briefcases during the week — made hooting alien sounds as they watched footage of supposed UFOs, while their teenage children rolled their eyes.

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"Some people come in here and they really believe it," said Chuck Nesci, who co-created the art exhibit with several friends.

"They're like, 'Do you guys know the truth?' There aren't too many, but you can kind of see it in their eyes when they walk in."

If only the conspiracy theorists had met the 9-year-old twins Emma and Morgan Bradley or their 6-year-old sister, Tegan, the girls would have set them straight.

"I wasn't scared," Emma said, "but other people were screaming. I think they were afraid it would happen to them."

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Whoever said that artists and scientists come from two different planets?

Organizers of Artscape, which is billed as the nation's largest free outdoor art festival, would beg to differ. That's why they chose space as the theme of the 35th annual event, which is expected to attract more than 350,000 visitors through Sunday night.

"Given the year we've had, we wanted a theme that looked toward the future, said Kathy Hornig, festivals director for the Baltimore Office of Promotions and the Arts. "I'm proud to work on something that brings everyone together for a moment of celebration on the streets of Baltimore."

More than 150 exhibitors and artists took exuberant and highly individual riffs on the different types of space exploration.

In the parking lot across the street from the Charles Theatre, artist Miki Flores-Amper built "The Crater" — a curved, plywood bowl featuring a geodesic dome that resembles the cavity that might result from a close encounter with a meteorite.

"The Crater" serves as both stage and seating for the audience. On Saturday, about five dozen people assembled for a showing of "Carl Sagan: The Musical" performed by an all-local cast.

Accompanied by a banjo, ukuleles, a keyboard and synthesizer, the backup chorus crooned: "Carl Sagan! He's amazin'! He's a Sagittarius! He's just the best there is!"

Amid the intentional silliness, Stephanie Wallace's script, which borrowed heavily from Sagan's real-life quotes, managed to slip in an ecologically friendly message about protecting the planet.

"The Earth is all we have," the performers sang. "We have nowhere else to go. It's time we realized we're on this blue planet, the only home we'll ever know."

A few blocks over, artists Olu Butterfly, Superfly Safiyatou and Jason Harris have transformed Pearlstone Park into The Mothership Connection, a visual cornucopia of Afro-futurism.

A clump of turquoise, lime and melon-colored umbrellas suspended in midair each dangled a stylized, cardboard "star person."

Nearby, a modern African mask, the face made from the same bark as the tree on which it hangs, watches over passersby like a benevolent spirit.

Strips of brightly colored fabric attached to long clotheslines sway in the breeze, bringing to mind both the rags used in car wash culture and a collection of African flags.

Life-sized mannequins sit on a stone, are propped up against a tree, or reach toward pedestrians, claw-like hands distended.

Patsy Cannon, who was visiting Artscape with her sister and three grandsons, stopped in front of a life-sized warrior maiden with a long, curving tail and spikes on her spine.

"That's what the Republicans are trying to keep out," she said, and then reconsidered her own characterization.

"She's really friendly," Cannon said, gesturing toward the statue created by the artist Christina McCleary.

"You just have to get to know her. She's wearing a lovely pendant, and her hands are open in welcome. She's like, 'This is who I am. I'm gorgeous. Welcome to my garden.'"

Wandering among the alien hordes in the 90-degree heat, Butterfly, who is pregnant, wondered aloud if she might be about to welcome her very own star child right there on the Pearlstone Park lawn.

"It could happen," she said. "I was supposed to give birth last week."

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