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Murals, sculptures and other forms of public art in Harford County create a sense of community

The patch of lawn outside the TD Bank at the intersection of Kenmore Avenue and Baltimore Pike is an unusual place for a door. This door is a sculpture crafted by artist James K. Hill from some type of metal. It is flanked by four Golden Rain Trees that by midsummer have spilled their green, lantern-like seed pods all over the soft grass. A metal dove rests on a metal jamb. The door is partly open, beckoning visitors to leave their old world behind and venture someplace new.

And it is Stacey Rebbert’s favorite public sculpture in Harford County.

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“It’s at a very busy intersection in a place where no one notices it,” Rebbert, 57, said recently as she and two other women took a stroll through downtown on a summer afternoon.

Sandi Linkous, from left, of Jarrettsville, Beth O'Rourke, of Detroit, and Stacey Rebbert, of Bel Air, look at Samara Bike Rack on Main Street, one of the pieces in the Bel Air Public Art Walk through the town's Arts and Entertainment District.
Sandi Linkous, from left, of Jarrettsville, Beth O'Rourke, of Detroit, and Stacey Rebbert, of Bel Air, look at Samara Bike Rack on Main Street, one of the pieces in the Bel Air Public Art Walk through the town's Arts and Entertainment District. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“It has a hidden, almost private message, and it doesn’t speak to you until you get close enough to see it. It says: ‘Look closer at the things in this world. You’re missing a lot.’”

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Throughout Harford County, visitors and residents like Rebbert (she lives in South Bel Air) are increasingly having personal experiences with public works of art. In the past decade, more than 80 outdoor paintings and sculptures have sprung up throughout the county like mushrooms after a rain.

There are painted bike racks in Havre de Grace. A series of wooden sculptures depicting the birds of the Chesapeake Bay will begin to be erected along that city’s waterfront in late summer, and construction has already begun on the Harmer’s Town Art Center, a regional art hub that will include an interactive art park.

Angela Robertson, Economic Development Coordinator for Bel Air at "The Door," outdoor sculpture by artist James Hill installed at Kenmore Avenue in 2010 is part of the town's growing collection of public art pieces.
Angela Robertson, Economic Development Coordinator for Bel Air at "The Door," outdoor sculpture by artist James Hill installed at Kenmore Avenue in 2010 is part of the town's growing collection of public art pieces. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Bel Air has a two-mile “art walk” that takes visitors past nearly two dozen sculptures and murals, including the gleaming metal “Samara Bike Rack.” The metal sculpture by artist Adrienne DeRan resembles seeds that drop from maple trees, spiraling like helicopters to the ground.

But while these two municipalities might have the most art, the county is full of visual surprises. For instance, the unincorporated community of Edgewood has a mural proclaiming “Diversity is Beautiful” in bold red, blue and yellow letters that stand out against a dramatic black background. The mural was created by students of Edgewood High School in 2019 and presented to the community as a gift.

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In addition, Visit Harford’s popular barn quilt trail and mural trail take visitors to all corners of the county, to Aberdeen and Pylesville, to Fallston and Joppa and Churchville.

“New art is literally going up all the time,” said Rebecca Jessop, executive director of the Havre de Grace Arts Collective. “You can feel the energy. Some people come just to see the art.”

Angela Robertson, Bel Air’s economic development coordinator, thinks the surge in public art resulted from the designation of two county municipalities as state arts districts: the city of Havre de Grace in 2008, and the Town of Bel Air three years later.

Art Works!, a 2016 mural by artist Jack Pabis at the Bel Air Armory is part of the Bel Air Public Art Walk through the town's Arts and Entertainment District.
Art Works!, a 2016 mural by artist Jack Pabis at the Bel Air Armory is part of the Bel Air Public Art Walk through the town's Arts and Entertainment District. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Initially, the arts districts were created to function as economic development tools. But as the districts began to take shape and as residents began to respond to the art on streets and in parks, the emphasis shifted.

“Now,” Robertson said, “we’re focusing on enhancing the landscape for the people who live here. Public art really does help to create a sense of community.”

The arts district designation confers practical advantages, such as tax credits for developers who built or renovated facilities for artists or the arts. Equally important, it also has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. An arts district has to have art, and lots of it.

The Bel Air and Havre de Grace districts increasingly reflect the characters of the distinctive municipalities where they’re located. As the county seat, Bel Air is the region’s legislative and business center, and the art conveys that; one mural on the exterior wall of a brewing company is called “Elements of Beer,” while “La Dolce Vita” honors the Italian family that founded a popular local restaurant.

Havre de Grace’s public art, in contrast, emphasizes its waterfront location and its history as Maryland’s second oldest municipality. One mural depicts a speak-easy, while another shows famed racehorse Seabiscuit running in the Havre de Grace Handicap in 1938.

Municipalities funded the first spate of projects. But it wasn’t long before local business owners liked what they saw and began commissioning their own works.

“I loved what the Town of Bel Air was doing to bring in more art and artists,” said Gretchen Amrein, owner of the Bel Air hair salon Willow and Waves.

The barn quilt at The Mill of Bel Air for Harford Magazine. Harford County Barn Quilt Trail celebrates the beauty, history, agriculture, and small business of the county
The barn quilt at The Mill of Bel Air for Harford Magazine. Harford County Barn Quilt Trail celebrates the beauty, history, agriculture, and small business of the county (Kenneth K. Lam)

“North Main Street is the forgotten corner of Bel Air. When we moved into our building, it had not been loved in a very long time. So I applied to put up a mural.”

In the early 2000s, Amrein’s high school classmate was Marshall Adams. Since graduation, Adams had made a career of painting murals. She looked him up on Facebook and the pair began exchanging messages.

The result is “Secret Garden,” a mural of giant lilies and chrysanthemums painted against a slate gray backdrop. The mural runs the entire length of the alley alongside Willow and Waves.

“Oh my God, it’s been so much fun,” Amrein said. “It’s a real attention-getter. We’ll come into work and find confetti all over the ground, and it’s because someone who was graduating or going to prom had their photos taken in front of our mural. I think that is awesome.”

Adams, who grew up in Bel Air, has created other murals for the town, including one of the side of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. The left side of the mural, in black and white, depicts Bel Air circa 1950, while the right side, in vibrant color, shows the town as it is today.

“The 1950s was the time when Bel Air really started to take off,” Adams said. “While I was painting the mural, people would watch me work for an hour or two. My grandparents stopped by. One guy brought photos of his first car. He wanted me to include it in the mural.”

County officials are heartened by the response and say these artworks are just the beginning.

Plans call for a historic marker trail, according to Greg Pizzuto, executive director of Visit Harford, and the man who in 2019 developed the barn quilt trail.

The barn quilt at Broom’s Bloom Dairy for Harford Magazine. Harford County Barn Quilt Trail celebrates the beauty, history, agriculture, and small business of the county
The barn quilt at Broom’s Bloom Dairy for Harford Magazine. Harford County Barn Quilt Trail celebrates the beauty, history, agriculture, and small business of the county (Kenneth K. Lam)

William Watson, chairman of the Havre de Grace Public Art Committee, envisions a sculpture trail through the city and along the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway that would involve the installation of 20 bases for sculpture. On those bases would be placed a changing array of works by local artists.

“Some of the sculptures would be permanent,” he said. “Some would rotate in and out. And some would be for sale.”

The Harmer’s Town Art Center will include an outdoor, landscaped area called “Graw Alley” with paved pathways, outdoor seating, sculptures and performance areas. There will be spaces for visitors to make their own artworks and eventually, Watson said, studios and housing for artists.

“This is something a lot of us have been dreaming about for at least 20 years,” he said.

Harford County resident Sandi Linkous recently paused to admire Adams’ mural, “Historic Downtown Bel Air.” She thinks an unexpected gift of the pandemic has been a renewed appreciation for public art that helps passersby experience the world in a fresh way.

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“We all stopped and began to really look at things again,” said Linkous, 53, of Jarrettsville. “Because of COVID-19, we now have a new appreciation for things that in the past we might have rushed by and taken for granted.”

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To view locations of public art in Harford County, visit the following websites:

The interactive map of the public art in Bel Air can be downloaded at storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/6214dc57c58b4a61b3875c2d8325fd71.

To learn more about public art in Havre de Grace, visit hdgartscollective.org

To learn more about the proposed Harmer’s Town Art Center, visit harmerstown.org

To check out the Barn Quilts of Harford County trail, visit visitharford.com/barn-quilts-of-harford-county/.

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