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Glimpses of culture through artist eyes

Street painter Michael Kirby wants to offer Marylanders a glimpse of their past that he hopes will last longer than the art he creates.

Kirby hopes to capture "Maryland culture" this weekend at Lakefest, the free, two-day portion of the Columbia Festival of the Arts that focuses on visual art.

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Lakefest will also feature a mural artist, a Saturday morning parade, interactive crafts booths and, on Friday, a "Come as Art Night," a competition in which people will turn themselves into pieces of living art for prizes.

While Kirby will draw figurative expressions of Maryland on the ground, Ellicott City artist Alice Webb will be on hand Saturday morning to help Lakefest participants draw on reality.

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Webb, an Annapolis native who lives in Columbia, will lead a workshop on "plein-air painting" to teach people how to make "strong statements" about their surroundings. She uses watercolors and paper to capture landscapes and city scenes.

Plein-air painting, which originated in France early in the last century, challenges an artist to capture the character of a physical space and his experience within it.

"It's about getting people to feel comfortable painting what they see instead of using photographs," said Webb, who has been teaching painting for more than 20 years.

"[Art] really is important, and it carries over to everything you do in your life," she said. "It slows you down, for one, to show you how to look at things."

Street painting - considered an ephemeral, or fleeting, art because it is gone with the next rain - straddles the line between visual and performance art. Kirby, a 28-year-old Baltimore native, said hundreds of people usually crowd around to watch him work, and that he keeps people interested by choosing themes to which his audience can relate.

"If I'm in Rome, I have to draw Romans. If I'm in Baltimore, I have to draw Baltimoreans," said Kirby, who studied film at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and learned to paint during a study trip to Florence, Italy, when he was 19. "I use these images so it's a common language."

Canvas artists have the luxury of permanence, he said, the knowledge that their work has years to be pored over and considered. But the street artist must gain an immediate rapport with his audience because the image could fade in a few hours.

"Ephemeral art is not so much about the artist himself, but how the artist is able to interpret the culture," said Kirby, who will be painting near the Columbia Town Center Lakefront.

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Kirby has painted on the streets of more than 40 countries. For the past few years, though, he has done much of his work in the United States, attempting to render the cultural differences between people living in different states.

"It's just fascinating how one person here who has never left the state can say he is a full-hearted American but not say he is a full-hearted Marylander," Kirby said. "What makes us unique?"

He said he could answer that question by depicting Maryland's history in layers. The top layer might show modern Marylanders in their cars looking down a spiral toward an older era, he said. Civil War soldiers would appear above Colonial settlers, who would be painted a rung above Native Americans.

When Kirby isn't street painting at festivals, he is usually working on a mural. He has painted murals for the Fells Point Maritime Museum and the Inn at Henderson's Wharf. He will begin his latest work, Past, Present and Future of Baltimore, along Key Highway in about a week.

Street painting will be a new event for Lakefest, which had been on a three-year hiatus because of funding difficulties.

"[Lakefest] is something we feel is really important, and we've made a point this year to get it back in style," said Betsy Brininger, the festival's executive director.

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Nichole Hickey, the festival's deputy director and artist-in-residence for Howard County Center for the Arts, said she hopes street painting will be an attractive new way to welcome the Lakefest back to Columbia.

"The fascinating part about this to me is to create something so absolutely astonishingly beautiful and it just washes away," Hickey said.


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