THE WAY I've always seen her - and the way Charlie Newton painted her, acrylic on canvas, 1980 - Margie The Blonde isn't looking for company. She's just there, between sips of white wine in a Fells Point bar, trying to forget about all the sales that didn't happen, or the boring memos she had to write, or that guy who said he'd call. She's come to Fells Point to drink and to be surrounded by people who won't bother her.
Lost in happy hour, the real-life Margie might never have noticed the flinty and squinty-eyed guy several feet to her right - an artist in a Portuguese fisherman's cap sketching her profile madly but discreetly between sips of Natty Boh and drags on a Doral. Knowing Charlie Newton, he also might have painted this scene, titled After Work, from memory, after he'd left the bar (the former Tugboat, now the Greene Turtle) and gone back to his rowhouse studio. He was capable of that. Charlie had a phenomenal visual memory. He could describe sunrises from long-gone Baltimore mornings the way some guys can describe the exact circumstances of a long-gone Eddie Murray home run.
I hope those sunrises were sliding through Charlie's mind Tuesday afternoon when I saw him, connected to oxygen and medicated with morphine, at a hospice in Reisterstown. Charlie's eyes never opened and he never spoke a word while we were there. He died, at the age of 74, a few hours after our visit.
Charlie was a modest but enterprising artist of the Baltimore Barroom School, an adventurer and storyteller who had painted and enlivened the Baltimore scene since McKeldin was mayor. He was curmudgeonly and charming, opinionated and funny, and he touched a million lives with his brushes and his pencils.
His paintings and sketches told stories of Baltimore in the last five decades - the piers and pilings of the old industrial ramparts, working boats and working stiffs, the great good places where people gathered for a beer and a song, a whiskey and a lie. Charlie had a broad canvas - from big sky on the Chesapeake to rainy nights in Fells Point, from pristine Eastern Shore landscapes to rotting wharves of the mighty Patapsco.
"He was able to pull beauty out of the mess," said his daughter, Linda Card. "I see it in all kinds of paintings, Charlie's ability to see what's beautiful, colorful. He might be painting a dirty, old bar but there's a guy in the scene with a bright red shirt, or maybe there's a pretty blonde sitting there."
C.T. Newton slipped into the bohemian life 50 years ago, a Beat Generation artist who haunted cafes and bars from here to San Francisco, and locally we're talking about Martick's Lower Tyson Street, No Fish Today, the Congress Hotel and, after the emergence of Fells Point as a revelers destination in the early 1970s, Turkey Joe's, the Dead End, the John Stevens and the Whistling Oyster. Later, viewers of NBC's Homicide saw numerous Newton paintings in the background of scenes in the Waterfront Hotel. You'll find his sketches on matchbooks, menus and place mats. His son, Bill, reminds us of a wonderful mural in the long-gone No Fish, and countless sketches, watercolors, ink drawings and oil paintings of city scenes and Eastern Shore vistas.
One time Charlie set up his easel and camp seat on a small point of land on the Bird River and started painting. After a couple of hours, he left his easel and walked to his car for a sandwich and a drink. While chewing on his lunch, Charlie took a fancy to the way his half-finished painting appeared from a distance - against the backdrop of the very scene, the Bird, represented on canvas. So he set up another easel and painted a painting of his painting in progress, with the artist's camp seat empty. "That way," I remember Charlie confiding, "a collector has to buy the pair of pictures as a set or miss telling a good story."
And that's almost exactly what happened. (For the rest of the details, you'll have to buy me a beer.)
We'll miss Charlie. Baltimore has lost one of its great storytellers. He was angry that he didn't get more time to paint more pictures. So I'm praying that, wherever he is now, there's a bar with a pretty blonde to catch his eye.