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ART IN THE PARK As Baltimore County steps up development of park as arts center, neighbors are keeping a wary eye on their secret sanctuary

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Usually, Holt Memorial Park in Overlea is so quiet that you can hear the birds chitchatting in the trees and the bullfrogs plopping off the lily pads into the pond. If you listen closely, you can even make out the sound of squirrels scampering through the bushes.

But on this sunny afternoon, there was a new sound in the park. It was the buzzing sound of people engaged in a spirited discussion. What was it that had them so excited?

A box.

A single black box, open on top with a brass doorknob inside. Juanita Hartline, who has lived near the park for 35 years, had never seen anything like this box, which was part of an outdoor art display called Art in the Park.

"I was standing there trying to figure out what this was supposed to mean," says Ms. Hartline. "I discussed that box with about 20 people. Most of them were total strangers. I don't know if it's art or not, but it made me think and it really got a conversation going. I thought it [the box] was trying to say that in today's society, we have to lock ourselves in our homes."

Determined to solve the mystery, she found the artist who created the black box and asked him what it was supposed to be.

"He told me, 'It's there to figure out. It's whatever you think it is,' " Ms. Hartline says with a sigh.

Although frustrated in her attempt to glean the black box's exact meaning, she learned firsthand the subjectivity of modern-art appreciation. Just as the black box and modern art in general are open to the viewer's interpretation, Holt Memorial Park itself is an abstract work, enigmatic and lacking clear definition.

The park, like the black box, is whatever you think it is.

The 10-acre oasis is so well-hidden at the back of McCormick Avenue, a dead-end street, that some nearby residents don't even know it exists. It is shaded by tall pine trees and dappled throughout with the bright colors of marigolds, geraniums, rhododendrons and azaleas. A grassy knoll overlooks a pond. Sitting on a bench under a canopy of grape vines, it's hard to believe you're only a few blocks from the noise and traffic of Belair Road.

The grand white house at one end of the property was formerly the home of Thomas and Hattie McCormick; their daughter Lillian Holt later lived in one of the four log cabins on the property.

Lillian died in 1975 at age 84. Four years earlier she had deeded the entire property to Baltimore County. One of the conditions of Lillian's will was that the property be preserved for relaxation, meditation, art and nature studies.

There's broad room for interpretation within Lillian's request. The park is many things to many people. It's a place for the local gardening club to turn a shovel. It's a quiet spot for a stroll in the woods. It's a pristine venue for outdoor concerts. It's home to the McCormick-Holt Center for the Arts, a gallery and studio for working artists. It's a secret sanctuary that neighbors who know of it enjoy as they would their own back yard.

What the park will become is less clear. Because it's an unfinished work, there are many spaces left on the canvas. And there are differing opinions about how they should be filled.

Lillian's gift to Baltimore County, while generous, has left county officials in a quandary. How will the park be developed, maintained and used? Just how much activity should be encouraged there? What audience is the park serving? And in a tight fiscal climate, how much money should be spent on the park?

Modern art meets the working class

Residents who live near the park have differing opinions on how it should be used. Some, who have lived in the working-class neighborhood for decades, like the park all to themselves. But others prefer to have a large number of people using the park because it discourages teen-agers and vandals from hanging out there. And not everyone is pleased with the modern direction that the art gallery has taken under the new artist-in-residence, Joel Fiser, whom the county hired in March to oversee the McCormick-Holt Center for the Arts.

Mr. Fiser, 35, lives alone in one of the cabins on the property, where he works on his assemblages -- three-dimensional collages made of rubber, metal and various other objects such as nails, plumbing hardware and tire valves. The black box that spurred the lively debate at Art in the Park Day was his creation.

Mr. Fiser sees tremendous potential for the park to become a thriving arts community and to draw a wide audience.

An exhibition of artwork by county adult-education students in the arts center this summer was attended by a variety of people, ranging from thirtysomethings wearing sandals and T-shirts to retirees in button-downed shirts and khaki pants.

"I feel like a missionary," Mr. Fiser explains. "My mission is to make contemporary art palatable to everyone. It's a slow educational process, but I think it's worth it. It's worth it when people come up to me to ask how I did something, or what something means."

Some nearby residents, however, aren't rushing to find out what contemporary art means.

"He's in the wrong neighborhood for modern art," says Earl Snyder, a retired construction superintendent for Baltimore City who's lived next to the site for 40 years. "This is the older generation around here. I don't like modern art; it's not my style."

Mr. Snyder was at Art in the Park Day and saw the black box. He wasn't impressed.

"I don't know what that was. And I don't care," he says.

Ray Scheve, a retired Bethlehem Steel electrician, suspects the modern art will attract undesirable people to the park.

"The new man [Mr. Fiser] seems to be real nice, but they're bringing in artists that aren't the best type of people," says Mr. Scheve, who's lived all of his 70 years on McCormick Avenue near the park. "You can tell the type of people that are coming to these affairs. They're not local people; they're more the hippie type."

But other residents consider artists to be good neighbors and support the county's efforts to increase the art programming in the park.

"I feel like the park is sacred territory," says Fran Burkhead, who's lived all of her 57 years near the site. "I walked my kids and now I walk my grandkids through the park. And I think it's nice, the things they are doing in the park, the art and the concerts."

Some other residents declined to be interviewed because they feel publicity will attract more people and traffic to the park, spoiling its bucolic atmosphere.

The collision between modern art and an older residential community was apparent during an indoor art exhibit in the park this summer. A painting of a woman nude from the waist up so offended one woman that she called Amy Di Angelo, art coordinator for Baltimore County, to lodge a complaint.

Ms. Di Angelo says she went to the gallery to see the painting, and decided that it should remain on display.

"Censorship is my biggest fear," says Ms. Di Angelo. "I don't know where to draw the line. Anything of an explicit nature, you try to rule out. A simple nude would not be offensive. The person eventually decided the painting was not so bad, and the complaint was dropped. It takes every kind. This park is for Baltimore County and the people of the Baltimore area and the entire state. We don't have to cater only to the surrounding community. We are encouraging a broad variety of styles to attract a broad clientele of people."

But some residents insist that the use of the park should be compatible with the surrounding community. "Modern art is one thing, but there are mostly older religious people around here," says Mr. Scheve. "You don't want to force things too quick on people."

The benefactor's background

Overlea was rustic when Lillian Holt was a little girl growing up in the big white house at 106 McCormick Ave., the only child of Thomas and Hattie McCormick. Thomas was a ship carpenter, and his extended family owned several hundred acres in Baltimore County at the turn of the century.

The McCormicks kept many farm animals on their property, including chickens and bees. A horse farm was nearby. There was no public water or street lights in the Overlea area until after 1904, when the streetcar line was extended out Belair Road, bringing much new development.

From an early age, Lillian showed a strong inclination toward religion. According to a 1982 article in the Parkville Reporter, Lillian joined Gatch Methodist Church as a 12-year-old, and later earned a degree in religious education from Boston University. She became an educator with the interdenominational Maryland Council of Churches, and traveled throughout Maryland conducting conferences and workshops for Sunday school teachers. She was granted a preacher's license in 1925, which was unusual for a woman at the time. The language on her license used only masculine pronouns.

In the 1930s, Thomas McCormick, with the help of friends and neighbors, built four log cabins on the property. Lillian lived in one of them and the others she rented as a source of income.

In those days, the McCormick property was a huge outdoor paradise for neighborhood children. Ray Scheve says he and other children used to skate on the McCormicks' pond wearing wooden ice skates. They would also fish and hunt squirrels in the woods on the McCormick property, all with the blessings of Thomas, who also sometimes let Gypsies and vagabonds camp on his property.

"Mr. McCormick was a nice man," Mr. Scheve remembers. "He must have let us climb every tree in those woods. The place hasn't changed much. It's the only spot in this area that a bulldozer hasn't touched yet."

But he doesn't have fond memories of Lillian.

"She was hardheaded; she was always telling me what to do," he remembers.

Lillian founded the Baltimore Story League in 1935, an organization dedicated to preserving the folk art of storytelling. She held league meetings in her cabin. One of the fireplaces in the building is made of stones that she collected in her travels throughout the state. Each is labeled with its county of origin.

She also used to sit on her porch and paint the landscape, although none of her paintings has been located, Mr. Fiser says.

At the age of 55, she married John Holt, a Methodist minister, in a ceremony in front of her cabin. Marking the spot is a small stone embedded in the ground, engraved with entwined hearts, John and Lillian's names and the year 1945.

After her parents passed away, Lillian became less tolerant of people coming onto her property, neighbors say.

"She was a loner, very grouchy and grumpy," says Ms. Hartline. "One day some of her mail was misdelivered to my house. I decided to be nice and walk the mail over to her house. She opens the door, reaches out, grabs the mail and grunts at me. Then she slammed the door in my face."

Other neighbors remember Lillian Holt as a stern, spendthrift woman who didn't hesitate to admonish neighbors if something wasn't to her liking.

She never had any children and there were no surviving relatives when she died. Still, her donation of her land to the county surprised some of her neighbors. They think it's ironic that the property is a public park now, pointing out that Lillian and John Holt would sometimes chase children off their land with shotguns.

Now children can run free on the park property, which is open every day during daylight hours. A nature trail winds through the tall woods at the back of the property and along the pond, which is home to many varieties of fish and frogs.

There's a plain stone in the park on a spot overlooking the pond. It marks Lillian's burial place and it reads simply: "When Day Is Done."

Developing the park

Shortly after Lillian Holt died, there were grand plans to convert her cabin into a Bicentennial museum and to open a senior citizens' center in the park. Those plans never materialized because of a lack of funding.

The grounds were named Holt Memorial Park in 1976 but the site remained largely unused for years, and became a favorite nighttime hangout of teen-agers, some of whom drank and used drugs on the property. In 1981, the county hired John Marron to live in one of the cabins and act as the park's caretaker.

Mr. Marron, who's still on the job, says that when he was first hired he sometimes saw people walking down to the woods with kegs of beer on their backs. But his presence discouraged many of the after-hours visitors, and eventually the drinking problem was largely eliminated from the park. There is still vandalism along the nature trail in the park; someone has spray-painted and set fire to several of the footbridges.

In 1988, the county decided to develop an arts center in Holt Memorial Park, loosely modeling it after Montpelier Cultural Arts Center in Laurel, which offers art classes and houses professional resident artists. The badly decaying buildings were painted, and new siding, windows and roofs were installed. A greenhouse was built next to the main house.

The first artist-in-residence was hired in 1990, and then the county began renting studio space to artists. At most, there were five working artists in the park -- a potter, a graphic artist, a landscape artist and two portrait painters. The artists rented the space for less than $100 a month, and agreed to keep their studios open to the public at least 15 hours a week so people could observe them working.

Without much promotion, however, the studio-artist program gradually dwindled to nothing, and the artist-in-residence left after several years.

One of the former studio artists was Christa Light, a graphic designer who worked in a studio on the second floor of one of the cabins. She fell so madly in love with the park that she persuaded her husband and family to leave their brand-new house in Perry Hall and move into a dilapidated house on Elmont Avenue overlooking the park.

"I was walking around the park one day, and I said to this man, 'It's so quiet and beautiful, I'd love to live here,' " Ms. Light remembers. "He told me the house next to his was for sale, and it was right next to the park."

She and her husband, Bob, spent several years and thousands of dollars repairing the decaying house. But it's all been worthwhile, she says.

"When I go into the park, I step back in time to when I was a little girl at my grandma's house. She had a big yard with pine trees and flowers and a pond, and as a little girl I felt safe and protected there. It was like a fantasy land. Now in the park, I get the same feeling. It's a place to go to daydream, to lie on your back and look at the clouds. You know, kid stuff."

"It's another world back here," she adds. "There's no reason to go anywhere to get away from it all. We're already away from it all."

Bob and Christa Light are volunteer coordinators for the park. There are no paid employees; Mr. Fiser lives in a cabin rent-free as compensation for his work. The buildings and grounds are maintained by the county.

The first floor of the McCormick house is an art gallery and the upstairs rooms and a nearby cabin are art studios. County officials are trying to revive the studio-artists program and attract up to six artists to rent studio space for between $60 and $75 a month. In exchange for the bucolic working quarters, artists would agree to display their art in shows, have their studios open to the public at times, and participate in classes and special events at the park.

The money from rental of the studios would go into the county's general fund -- the arts center must rely on donations to cover expenses for art materials and special events. Mr. Fiser hopes to get donations from nearby businesses and organizations and is exploring grant opportunities.

The county also is planning to expand programming at the park, Ms. Di Angelo says, "to use the space to accomplish the most we can."

In the last few years, a series of outdoor summer concerts attracted up to 250 people per show to the amphitheater in the park. There are art exhibits showcasing a variety of styles. Some events are more successful than others. Mr. Fiser offered five art classes at the park this year, but received enough enrollment for only one class. The Sunday-night coffeehouse/open gallery is a big hit, however, and regularly attracts about 25 people to discuss art and other topics.

Broadening horizons

Because of Holt Memorial Park's location in the middle of a conservative, working-class neighborhood, the debate over the best use of the park is likely to continue. Ms. Hartline, who was so taken by Mr. Fiser's black box, puts it this way:

"We've got some prudish people around here; they're mostly older people that feel that way. But I think that art in the park is good. It makes you think. It broadens your horizons. That black box brought conversation between strangers, and that doesn't happen too often these days."

Pictures at the park

The public is invited to a reception at the McCormick-Holt Arts Center on Sunday, Nov. 5. The event marks the opening of an exhibit of photography by Ron Naveen of Baltimore. The photos, which will remain on display through November, are of the landscape and wildlife of Antarctica. Mr. Naveen will also present a lecture and slide show at the Overlea center, which is situated at the end of Elmont Avenue. Hours are 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Call (410) 668-6859 for more information.

PHILIP HOSMER'S last piece for Sun Magazine was on graduating high school students.

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