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Meet the movers and shakers of Harford County's arts scene

MaryJane Blasi, gallery director at The Liriodendron Foundation, sits outside the historic Liriodendron mansion.
MaryJane Blasi, gallery director at The Liriodendron Foundation, sits outside the historic Liriodendron mansion. (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Take a peek backstage or around the corner at an art show, and you'll find them: unseen forces who are shaping the arts scene in Harford County.

Whether they’re directing an art gallery, promoting concerts, securing the next big act or awarding money to local artists, these influential leaders ensure art is a growing part of residents’ lives.

MaryJane Blasi
Gallery director at the Liriodendron Mansion

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As a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher, MaryJane Blasi witnessed the impact that art had on children.

In her classroom hung posters of famous paintings, including “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai. Students spent hours examining the rowboats filled with people and the giant wave cresting over them, Blasi says.
“The kids were drawn to it,” she says. “I was amazed at the conversations we would have.”
Blasi continues to expose children and adults across Harford County to the arts as gallery director at the Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air.
Blasi, an Abingdon resident, began volunteering as a docent at the historic mansion in 2011. She studied and shared with visitors its origins as a summer home for the family of Dr. Howard Kelly, a surgeon and founding member of what is now Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and his wife, Laetitia. She became director of the gallery in 2013, overseeing the four art gallery rooms on the second floor.
“Dr. Kelly’s wish was that this be used by the community. To me, this is the perfect place to have children do things,” says Blasi, who co-wrote a children’s book on art that uses poems to describe 15 famous paintings and their creators.
In March, Blasi helped launch the gallery’s Young Artists Showcase, featuring more than 70 paintings, drawings and sculptures from 45 county schools and the Exploration Art School in Bel Air. More than 300 people attended the opening.
“When we opened those double doors, it was like the flood gates opened,” Blasi says.
In addition to children’s art, the gallery hosts a range of arts events and exhibits, including nautical paintings by artist Nate Ostrow, a Department of Defense illustrator and Aberdeen Proving Ground employee (read more about Ostrow on page 38), and plein air paintings by John Sauers of Bel Air. It’s all part of making the gallery more community oriented and family friendly, Blasi says.
“MaryJane is fully dedicated to this,” Sauers says. “She puts her heart and soul into it.”
It’s easy to put your heart into a job and community you love, Blasi says.

Craig Ward & Bob Mumby
Founders of Slate Ridge Entertainment

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Bob Mumby and Craig Ward of Slate Ridge Entertainment. They bring many acts to the Bel Air Armory and other Harford County venues.
Bob Mumby and Craig Ward of Slate Ridge Entertainment. They bring many acts to the Bel Air Armory and other Harford County venues. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

What happens when the former president of a civil engineering and architecture firm and the owner of a management consulting firm join forces? Nationally known musicians start performing in Harford County.

Bel Air residents Craig Ward and Bob Mumby launched Slate Ridge Entertainment in 2014 to promote “world-class” concerts in the county with an “intimate, quality experience,” Ward says.
Ward got the idea after attending concerts at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis and the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills.
“I thought, ‘Every once in a while, wouldn’t it be great to have one of those bands play in Harford County?’ “ he says.
Mumby agreed, becoming the company’s co-founder.
“We realized we were both the biggest music lovers the other knew,” he says.
In January, Slate Ridge hosted its first concert: David Lindley, a singer and songwriter who has worked with Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne, play a sold-out show at Harford Community College’s Chesapeake Theater.
Since then, Slate Ridge has produced several more concerts, including Bumper Jacksons, a Washington D.C.-based country swing and jazz band, at the Bel Air Armory.
“They’re joyful people wanting to share great art and music with their community, and that comes across loud and clear in their work,” Bumper Jacksons member Jess Myhre says of Ward and Mumby.
By partnering with local nonprofit organizations like the Harford Community College Foundation and the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, of which Ward is president, Slate Ridge hopes to promote six to eight local shows a year. They want to make live jazz, blues, Americana and bluegrass music accessible to county residents, Mumby says.
They also started a “Live Music in Harford County” Facebook page to encourage the community to posts live music occurring anywhere in the county.
“This is the community we want and the kind of dialogue and subject matter we like to see in the county,” Mumby says.

Susan Nicolaides
Director of cultural events and performing arts at Harford Community College

Susan Nicolaides, Director for Cultural Events and Performing Arts at Harford Community College, at the school's Chesapeake Theater on Tuesday, May 17.
Susan Nicolaides, Director for Cultural Events and Performing Arts at Harford Community College, at the school's Chesapeake Theater on Tuesday, May 17. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Despite a lifelong passion for the arts, Susan Nicolaides says she prefers working behind the stage instead of on it.

Her roles have varied through the years. As a graduate student at University of Maryland College Park, Nicolaides oversaw costuming for two of the college’s theater performances. In 1987, she became a part-time costume designer for Harford County-based Phoenix Festival Theatre before becoming manager of the Harford Dance Theatre in the early 1990s. By 1998, she was coordinating cultural events and performing arts at Harford Community College.
Now director, Nicolaides oversees performances at the college’s 908-seat Amoss Center and 340-seat Chesapeake Theater. The venues have hosted everything from children’s performances like “Sid the Science Kid” to nationally known acts like Straight No Chaser, the Washington Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“It’s a huge advantage because I wore all of the hats of the areas I now oversee,” the Bel Air resident says.
Nicolaides attends almost all of the 70 events she coordinates each year, overseeing ticket sales and ushers and ensuring artists have what they need to put on a good show.
“It’s important for me to be there, see the event and evaluate the quality of it,” she says.
After the shows, she garners feedback from the audiences. And she’s always searching for acts that can draw in new demographics, she says.
In March, the Amoss Center hosted Fly Dance Company’s “The Gentleman of Hip-Hop,” its first ever hip-hop dance performance.
“During the intermission and after the show, kids were out in the lobby dancing hip hop,” she says. “Although we didn’t have a huge audience, I deemed it a success.”
Her efforts are respected across the county, says Gregory Pizzuto, executive director of Visit Harford, the county’s tourism group.
“Susan understands her audiences, young and old, and builds an annual roster of events blending performances that cross generations,” he says.

Todd Mion
Chairman of the Harford County Cultural Arts Board

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Todd Mion produces lighting and sound for a dance show at C. Milton Wright High School on Saturday, May 14.
Todd Mion produces lighting and sound for a dance show at C. Milton Wright High School on Saturday, May 14. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Todd Mion isn't a huge fan of museums, but it's not because of what's in them.

“Obviously they need to exist,” says the chairman of the Harford County Cultural Arts Board. “But I believe art should be out in the community.”
Mion, a Bel Air resident, supports art in public places, such as the “Daybreak” sculpture located off the Ma & Pa Trail. The piece represents a barn structure and the trail’s railroad history.
“In 10 years, I’d like to cover the county with art,” he says. “When [residents] start seeing it and it becomes more accessible to them, they’ll think, ‘I’m glad we have this.’”
As chairman of the Harford County Cultural Arts Board for the past seven years, Mion and his fellow board members are working to make that happen. Each year, the board awards nearly 40 grants to more than 30 local groups, including the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, the Phoenix Festival Theater and even Harford County Public Schools, which uses the money to fund artists in residence or visiting performers. This year, groups received more than $77,500.
“As we see it, our role is to support and advocate for the arts in Harford County and Harford County artists,” Mion says.
Mion’s involvement in the arts also extends beyond the cultural arts board. As production manager of the dance department at Goucher College in Towson, Mion oversees all lighting during dance performances. He also started a dance company, The Danse Macabre, with his choreographer wife, Lisa Mion, and choreographer Shana O’Brien.
Local arts leaders say they appreciate Mion and the board’s efforts to nurture and support the arts in Harford County.
“Most of our personnel in the orchestra are unpaid volunteers,” says Mark Grotke, president of the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra.“Many of us have businesses or other work that occupies our time during the day.Because of that we don’t always have the opportunity to attend meetings or make the important connections that it takes to secure arts funding, promote arts organizations and iron out problems related to arts endeavors.”
Year after year, the Harford County Cultural Arts Board accomplishes all this and more, he says.
“For that we are indebted,” Grotke says.
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