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It wasn't simply the presence of funnel cakes, smoothies and souvlaki -- and certainly not just the beer -- that stirred them to action.

It was the feeling that Artscape, Baltimore's prominent visual and performing arts showcase, was more about food than art in the first years after it began in 1982. It was the observation that art was taking a backseat when the hordes showed up each July, packing the pavement along Mount Royal Avenue at the eastern edge of Bolton Hill.

"They set up all these food booths out here and the art was sort of incidental to the fried dough," photographer Jim Burger says, gesturing to the Mount Royal strip where the 19th Artscape will be held this weekend. "All the artwork was sort of pushed back into these little galleries. You could hardly find it. But there was plenty to eat."

Out of that mild outrage, an idea was born. It was pitched during a "Drink and Draw" session in the early '80s, when a group of Baltimore artists would hire a model and get together for a little drawing and a little more drinking. Two painters, J. Kelly Lane and Ron Russell, had staged a joint art show of their own during Artscape and thought it would be fun to get other artists involved. They had a venue -- the Mount Royal Tavern, their usual watering hole -- and they had a purpose.

"You'd go in the galleries and there was no one there," Lane says of Artscape's initial years. "Very few people were looking at the art, but everybody was eating the food."

Food as art

Amidst the sketching and sipping, Lane pitched the idea to her friends. In 1984, the group began what would become an annual tradition, an art show they farcically dubbed Foodscape. In the same ironic vein, they decided the pieces in the show would have a theme of -- what else? -- food.

Today, Burger, Lane and Russell are gathered in the dark Mount Royal Tavern, where, over the years, pieces displayed on a rear wall have included an installation of a baby in a potato chip can, a three-dimensional work with food flying off a tray and Burger's photographic blends of nudity and food. "The Horrible Truth About Ronald McDonald," for example, depicts a naked woman with the famous clown's trademark hair and painted face, sitting on a bed with a KFC bucket in her lap. The detritus of fast-food cuisine litters the floor around her -- potato chips spilling out of bags, a soda cup, a Roy Rogers food box.

Burger says Artscape's irreverent cousin draws some who come to see the larger show and stumble upon the tavern, and others in search of an air-conditioned oasis away from the sweaty, crowded sidewalk.

"People come here to get out of the heat -- and then we own them," says Burger, Foodscape's wisecracking organizer.

"They're mesmerized," Russell says.

"Duped," Burger agrees.

Unlike the juried Artscape, Foodscape has no rules aside from the food theme requirement. Pieces submitted by a core group of about 9 artists are hung each opening day ("like Christmas," Lane says) and each year there is a guest artist or two. The exhibit's name has undergone several incarnations; it's been Regurgiscape, then The Show Formerly Known as Foodscape, before reverting back to the original moniker.

Some elements are constant, though. The tavern owners make their fabulous meatballs. No one ever refuses an invitation to participate. The show always draws a crowd, including a well-dressed woman Burger refers to as the Diner's Club, who shows up faithfully each year, loads up her considerable-sized handbag with food and departs.

"I really can't be angry -- she's my mother," Burger deadpans. There's a brief silence, then all three erupt into laughter.

The exhibit is held each year at the Mount Royal, a historic tavern reputed to be in business since before Prohibition, where regulars imbibe under a ceiling painted a la the Sistine Chapel. A tongue-in-cheek Burger will tell you they've had offers to move the show to New York or Paris, but even if that was true, you know they wouldn't.

The homey, character-filled tavern -- it could only rightfully be called a tavern -- is a favored haunt of students from the Maryland Institute, College of Art, a school most of the Foodscape artists attended. Burger, 39, a former Sun photographer in marketing, and Russell, 52, met in the tavern in 1978. Burger once had a tooth knocked out there in a fight over the pool table. Lane, who's 47, has been a Mount Royal faithful for almost 30 years.

"Hi, Kelly girl," the bartender greets Lane, while Russell and Burger sit on barstools, swigging from cans of National Bohemian.

Food in all shapes and styles

The trio share the rapport of old friends, trading playful jibes and cracking up at each other's jokes. Lane's piece in this year's show, which opened Sunday, reflects the relationship. An oil painting called "Beer Nuts," it shows Burger and Russell drinking on the front steps of the tavern.

Russell's contribution is an acrylic painting called "The Onion Picker," an antiquated baseball term for a third baseman or an outfielder. Burger, true to tradition, submitted a photograph merging what he calls "real Baltimore themes: another gratuitous nude, which is a Jim Burger theme, and crabs." The image depicts a woman standing in a black-and-white bathroom, holding a tray of crabs over her head.

Other pieces include a photo of a child wearing a Carmen Miranda-style hat; a watercolor and gouache abstract called "Curry in Panama"; a mixed-media take on apple pie; and a pastel portrait of a girl with her mouth sewn shut. ("It's very well done but it's very scary," Lane says. "It's right out of a nightmare.")

Lane says when Artscape started, fewer local musicians and artists were included, but that's changed.

"If you're going to showcase the arts and you have so many talented people in the city, include them in the mix, which they [Artscape organizers] have done. So we're not mad anymore," she says. "Our job is done."

Burger pipes up. "I think they've come up to par with us," he says. Another pause, then more laughter.

The creation of Foodscape artwork is serious business, but the tone of the show is anything but. It hasn't evolved into an uppity art event or strayed from its original theme. It is still, more than anything, a way for friends to get together, catch up on each other's lives and admire the embodiment of a shared passion.

And, as Kelly points out, it's a good excuse for a party -- "and not in one of our homes, where we'd have to clean up."

Foodscape takes place at the Mount Royal Tavern, 1204 W. Mount Royal Ave., during regular hours through July 30. Participating artists include Jim Burger, Michael Hamilton, Ann Haney, Terry Haney, Chris Hartlove, Joseph Kohl, J. Kelly Lane, Nick Moon, Ronald Russell, Laura Vernon Russell and Richard Roth.

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