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PRINTS OF THE CITY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OCEAN CITY -- So you've sunk a car in the Atlantic Ocean. You've filmed a TV commercial of yourself riding a bicycle off a rooftop. You've had your praises sung by William Donald Schaefer and Marty Bass.

On top of that, you have the most clicked-on Webcam in Ocean City; the most photographed building, perhaps, in the state of Maryland; and you've sold more art - highbrow, lowbrow and in between - than, quite possibly, anyone on the East Coast.

What do you do for an encore?

If you're Joseph Leonard Kro-Art - a man who carries a hyphen in his last name and an exclamation point in his soul - that's an easy decision.

"I want to drive a car off the pier!" said Kro-Art, owner of Ocean Gallery, easily the most gawked-at, talked- about, constantly changing building on Ocean City's boardwalk - one whose exterior has had so many disharmonious items slapped on it (planks, signs, hardware, small appliances, motor vehicles) there's almost a harmony to it.

Outlandish? Sure. Overboard? Absolutely. Desperately seeking attention? That's the building. And that, too, is the man - a Baltimore-born-and-raised artist, who, 40 years ago during a break from college, filled his car with his paintings and headed to the beach with one goal: to survive the summer.

Since then, the man and his store have evolved, or spun madly out of control, depending on your point of view. But Kro-Art's mission - the motive behind the madness - has crystallized, at least to him: It's to take the obstacles that exist between people and art and loudly smash them into itty-bitty pieces.

"We do a lot of wild, fun things," Kro-Art said, wearing his trademark tuxedo jacket. "My whole concept is that fine art is fun, it should be enjoyed. It shouldn't be up on a pedestal. Sometimes people are intimidated by art; they shouldn't be."

To that end, Kro-Art, who never met a gimmick he didn't like, plots publicity stunts - like the planned pier plunge. His overstuffed gallery caters to all tastes - from Three Stooges movie posters to original works by Virginia painter Paul McGehee. And he produces and stars in the kind of zany television ads more often associated with carpet and car salesmen than art dealers.

In one ad that has become a local favorite - bar crowds reportedly go silent and line up to watch - Kro-Art appears to be riding a bicycle that plunges off the roof of the gallery and lands on the boardwalk with a sickening head-first thud.

"We got it perfectly on the first take," Kro-Art said of the taping, which made use of a dummy. "But it was so much fun we did it three more times."

He's completing a new TV ad, in which he assumes the persona of movie character Napoleon Dynamite, shouting what has become an Ocean Gallery slogan: "Art Sale, Baby!"

He's also drawn attention with his art cars, all produced primarily with recycled materials - a cow car that moos instead of honks; a "Neon Man" car; two Batmobiles; and a Titanic car, which he got permission to sink in the Atlantic Ocean to become part of the Ocean City reef.

Kro-Art, who was born on Chester Street in Baltimore, grew up near Memorial Stadium and lives on a farm in Monkton when he's not in Ocean City, has been called the P.T. Barnum of fine art - several times. He doesn't object to being compared to the legendary circus showman and consummate shyster; if anything, he relishes it.

"He was 6-foot-3, my height. He was 210 pounds, my weight. He had an 18-acre farm. I have an 18-acre farm. He had three kids. I have three kids. As with him, there's a touch of fantasy to everything I do," Kro-Art said.

While Barnum had a three-ring circus, Kro-Art has a three-floor art gallery. And like Barnum, Kro-Art has been known to pull a few fast ones.

There are seven "Webcams" attached to his gallery, for instance, but six of them are fake.

"People come and stand in front of the fake ones and wave and dance around, thinking they are live on the Internet," he said. Once they're let in on the joke, they generally stand around and wait for the next victim.

Ocean Gallery's real Webcam (oceangallery.com) is inside the store, behind a window. It reached its peak of popularity during Tropical Storm Isabel, when many used it to watch the storm pass through.

And contrary to the myth his Web site promotes, Kro-Art did not actually dine on houseflies during his early years in Ocean City; that was thrown into the written history of the gallery as a joke by his son, Joey Kroart, who works in the store (but doesn't hyphenate his name).

It's not far from the truth, though. Kro-Art barely made ends meet his first year in Ocean City, where he arrived with little more than a carload of paintings and an idea.

"Everybody said I was crazy - that people at the beach just want to buy T-shirts. But my thinking was that people in their regular lives don't have much time for art. ... When they're on vacation, away from all the hectic stuff, they're willing to take the time to look at something and enjoy it."

In the summer of '65, Kro-Art found an empty store whose owner agreed to rent to him in exchange for 20 percent of everything he sold. Kro-Art slept in the building, and painted there, too - mostly pictures of people's dogs at that point.

The next summer, he returned, and began selling other artists' works as well from the porch of the old Colonial Hotel. He would move his inventory out everyday, back in at night.

By 1970, he had a storefront at the hotel, but a fire that year left the Colonial in ruins. Kro-Art stayed another summer, selling art from the charred remains, before moving to his current location, less than a block away.

Taking time off from his job as a science and art teacher in Baltimore schools, he added two floors to the building, formerly the Beachway Apartments, doing much of the work with recycled materials, including nails and beams from the hotel. It opened in 1972.

Work for sale

A painter and photographer, Kro-Art was the only child of a photoengraver and his wife. His elementary school teachers singled him out at age 8 for a scholarship at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He hated it - not MICA, he said, but the structure of it all.

"It was too sterile, too formal," said Kro-Art. It didn't turn him off to art, though - only its rules.

Kro-Art doesn't spotlight his own work in the gallery, but it is there, among the chaotic mix of about 30,000 pieces - from dogs playing poker and celebrities posing to original oil paintings and limited-edition prints. The works hang from the walls, stair rails, ceiling rafters and the ceiling itself. Pictures even hang from other pictures.

"I don't push anything down anybody's throat," he said. "I just put it out, like a buffet."

While there are original works selling for $50,000 or more, most of what he sells is bought as decoration, whether it be for an oceanfront condo, a young couple's first home or a college dorm room.

Kro-Art also has two outlets in Rehoboth Beach and one in Fenwick Island.

The boardwalk store, though, is his overindulged baby. It is covered with superlative-laden signs. "Astounding," reads one. "Voted No. 1 Best in the USA," says another. "Johnny Unitas Shopped Here."

"On the boardwalk, the goal is to get somebody's attention," Kro-Art said. "I decided I wanted running lights around the name of the store. My father said it would be going too far - that it would look like a theater marquee, or The Block. But I wanted to knock people over."

In the summer, he often puts a small desk in front of the gallery and invites children to sit and paint. Then he hangs their work in the gallery and, if it sells, passes the profits on to them.

"We had one girl who stayed six hours. Her parents were trying to get her to go, but she refused. If everybody had the attitude of a child about art, it would be a better world."

'Appealing and fun'

Kro-Art stuck the hyphen in his last name mainly so it wouldn't be mispronounced as "Krort" or "Krote," but it also serves to emphasize the "art" in his name.

A frequent guest of WJZ-TV's Morning Edition with Don Scott and Marty Bass, Kro-Art for two years did a live weather broadcast for a Baltimore radio station - describing what weather was like at the beach.

"We have our fun side, but underneath it all is sincerity and professionalism," Kro-Art said. If his showmanship leads to him being taken less seriously as an artist, he says, "I don't care."

"A lot of people are frightened of art; he makes it appealing and fun," said Paul McGehee, who credits Kro-Art with helping his career. "He took a chance on a kid with a few prints."

Kro-Art was nominated this year for a Governor's Arts Award by, among others, state Comptroller Schaefer, who praised him for furthering "the pursuit of artistic expression by young people and adults alike."

Kro-Art didn't get an award, but then again, he said, he doesn't fit too neatly into any of the categories. "I guess I'm really an outsider. I'm even more outside than the outsiders."

Fame and fortune don't matter, he said. What does is ushering people into a new world - at whatever level they want to enter it - and getting them to smile along the way, which brings him back to the pier ...

"This isn't like the bicycle ad. This is real. I learned how to do it. Either you get out of the car at once when it hits, or you wait until it fills up with water and goes to the bottom.

"I had the idea four years ago. The town council has had meetings about it, but they're slow in making decisions. We could do it in October, when the water is still warm. ... We'd make it an annual festival, with high school bands! ... And each year, we'd have a bigger ramp and the car would go higher! And ... "

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

Joseph Leonard Kro-Art

Born: Feb. 18, 1941, on Chester Street in Baltimore

Schooling: Montebello Elementary School, Polytechnic Institute, Towson University, with graduate work at Morgan State University and the University of Maryland

First job: At age 11, started his own door-to-door business, selling and installing gate latches on fences in his neighborhood

Opened first gallery: 1965, in Ocean City

Biggest accomplishment: "Finding and marrying a spectacular girl"

Wife: (of 38 years) Adele

Children: Three, Joey, 35, Mike, 33, and Laura, 16, all of whom have worked at the gallery

Quote: "Everybody's an artist; you've just got to open the door."

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