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2 Sowebo artists create outpost of the imagination


From the back porch of his Baltimore rowhouse, Daniel Van Allen can look across the alley to a corral and stable where ponies and horses rest after a hard day in the traces of a-rab produce carts.

A few chickens and a goat wander into view. "The animals are all quite tame," said Van Allen, who is on the board of the Arabber Preservation Society. "They're used to all the neighborhood kids petting them."

Van Allen, a furniture restorer and artist who shares two rowhouses with Spoon Popkin, a painter and seamstress, bought his first home in Sowebo (Southwest Baltimore) in 1980. "Coming from the Washington, D.C. area, I couldn't believe you could buy a home that was in good shape for $l0,000," he said of his 150-year-old abode, a stone's throw from the Hollins Market.

Five years later, he purchased the rowhouse next door for $11,000 and, just last year, he picked up an adjoining house for $12,000. It is being used as a rental property.

When Van Allen - who just completed a project refmishing the wood paneling on the balcony of the Senator Theatre - purchased the first house, the back yard was covered with weeds.

The solution was obvious. He invited a few of the a-rab ponies in to graze, but found the yard in front of the rental was paved with bricks.

A small garage on the property gives shelter to his wood canoes.

Today, the couple shares their yards with next-door neighbor artist Laddie Waters and his family. The yard of the house that Van Allen rents out also serves as a vegetable garden - tomatoes, sweet yellow peppers and serrano chilies thrive, as well as oregano, thyme, mint, basil and rosemary.

His back yards possess trees one would not expect to find in downtown Baltimore: sassafras, wild swamp magnolia, black walnut, mimosa, hickory, pussy willow, mulberry, silver maple and Osage orange, whose fruit Van Allen said reminds him of green brains."

When Van Alien purchased the first house, there was virtually nothing in the way of trees. Many of the trees he planted, while others are what he calls 'volunteers" - trees that seeded themselves.

At night, the yard glows with miniature cobalt blue bottles converted into electric lights. "One of the arabbers used to toss all his Harvey's Bristol Creme sherry bottles into the yard, so I made them into lights," Van Allen said.

The living room has an oak desk that his grandfather built, as well as Van Allen's collection of Haitian art and a voodoo altar. "I build lots of altars, some of which have been shown at Artscape," he said.

A cow's skeleton

In the living room is the skeleton of a cow that he found while Canoeing on the Eastern Share and Popkin's Oculus Orbus, a hanging spherical television with a Fresnel lens that distorts the broadcast image. "It has quite a spiritual quality to it," he said.

Van Allen collects other things, such as Art Deco playing cards - one of which, probably from the 1930s, lampoons Mussolini and Hitler. "I try to limit my collecting to pieces I can buy for $5 or less, but with the Mussolini cards, I went over budget by 5 bucks," he said.

A music cabinet holds his collection of pottery shards from Maryland beaches, as well as Indian flint arrowheads, Mayan shards from Mexico and pieces of pottery from Italy, where Van Allen studied restoration for two years. Popkin's painting of a character in the Federico Fellini film "Roma" hangs on the wall.

Also on the first floor is Popkin's office.

The kitchen, with its original fireplace, is in the basement where food could be kept cool before the days of refrigeration. He estimates that the stove and oven probably date back to the 1920s. A Hoosier cabinet, painted by Popkin in a watermelon motif, holds food staples. Adjacent is a utility room.

"The dining room, which we call the Hindu Room, holds all my Indian artifacts," Van Allen said. "Including a painting of Shiva, and a reverse glass painting of Kali, the goddess of time or destruction."

At the back of the second floor is the couple's bathroom, which is enveloped by the elm tree outside. Here also is a collection of carved and decorated coconut heads.

Just outside the bathroom is Van Allen's office and library. Toward the front of the house is the master bedroom, which is still being restored. The bedroom's central piece is a poplar armoire, left in the house when Van Allen purchased it. The piece has since been painted in an Egyptian motif by Van Allen and local artist Betsy Greenin.

Roommates Suite

The third floor's two rooms, which are rented and known as the "Roommate's Suite," are decorated in a birch bark scheme.

The adjoining house serves as studio space for Popkin and Van Allen. Here are tool rooms, work rooms and a spray varnish room, which originally was a summer kitchen.

The two painted the walls of Popkin's studio in classic Mayan designs. "Spoon used pigment that was ground up in beer and egg," Van Allen said. "The tin ceiling has a terra cotta glaze, and I installed a faux-jade slate mantel."

Popkin's second studio is on the third floor, its ceiling covered with two panels painted by the two artists and entitled "Malformation Highway," which were previously shown at Artscape.

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