After years of struggle, Sondheim Prize winner celebrates

The morning after an independent filmmaker heard he's been given a $25,000 arts award, he tried to assess what the check would mean.

Matthew Porterfield, who walked away with the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize on Saturday, worked seven years as a waiter at the Chameleon Cafe in Northeast Baltimore to support himself as an artist who made films the way he wanted.

In his top-earning year, he once made $30,000 as a kindergarten teacher. Many years he made less than $12,000, despite high critical praise for his cinematic treatments involving the lives of people living in the Northeast Baltimore, where he was born and still resides.

"Frankly, we're pretty broke," he said to his partner, Amy Belk, who in turn replied, "But we woke up this morning and it wasn't a dream."

Porterfield, 33, is best known for his films "Hamilton" and "Putty Hill," which have been hailed by critics as "pure urban poetry." He entered the Sondheim competition with a wall of 72 photos he shot with a cellphone camera. Yet despite the fact that "Putty Hill" is being prepared for a prestigious release in Paris and throughout France this fall, he admits that his personal finances are modest.

He teaches film part-time at the Johns Hopkins University. "The films I make don't make me any money. We try to cover the costs," he said, adding he will use part of the Sondheim Prize to visit France for the "Putty Hill" screenings.

Porterfield resides in a Hamilton house on Louise Avenue, which he shares with his father, Gordon Porterfield, a retired Baltimore public schools teacher who has appeared in local theater.

While entering the competition, he stayed on a budget. It cost about $725 to have the 72 photos printed for exhibition. He used carpet tacks to install them on a gallery wall at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"I was thrilled to see the prize won by an artist who is so gracious and inclusive," said museum director Doreen Bolger. "He thanked everyone down to the people who helped him install the work. He has an authentic passion for art, the city he lives in and the world."

Porterfield said his photography exhibition, titled "Days are Golden Afterparty," is a departure for him. "I am used to making films for dark theaters," he said Sunday morning. While he shot many of the photos in Baltimore, others were taken in Santiago, Chile, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and on the beach at Coney Island, a place he grew to love while living in New York City for several years. He visited the other cities in conjunction with screenings of his films, which have won an international audience.

"Matthew took the cellphone photos over the past year or so, creating a chronicle of his daily life," said the BMA's Bolger. "He has chosen a broad range of subject here — intimate scenes of home, snatches of nature, travelogue, and seemingly random views caught as he passed quickly through the world around him."

She said his images "spoke volumes about the ever more rapid pace of life and our expanding ability to record its details." She called his exhibit a "daring departure" from Porterfield's films, which "flow gracefully across the screen at a rather stately pace."

Porterfield once thought about going into theater, but said, "I wasn't happy performing."

As a scholarship student at the Park School, he appeared in musicals, including "Into the Woods" and "The Threepenny Opera." He credits his tenor voice with making him the school's leading man of that era. He considered acting as a student at New York University, but found he was attracted to film.

"Baltimore is lucky to have so many excellent artists," said Stiles Tuttle Colwill, past board chair of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "At the Sondheim awards ceremony, you get to see how appreciative the artists are of getting a first-rate exhibition of their work. It's one of my favorite evenings of the year. The winner walks out on cloud nine."

Porterfield's photos will be on exhibit at the BMA through Aug. 7.