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The Baltimore Sun

It is as important to cultivate your silence power as your word power," novelist Henry James once wrote. Beth Barbush knows the feeling.

For the past three years, Barbush, a 1999 Goucher College graduate, has helped create programs for Art on Purpose, a nonprofit that brings art projects to Baltimore neighborhoods. Among other things, the projects aim to spark conversation about social issues the residents see as important. The conversations can become part of the art - and inspire still more.

Barbush's latest project, "Speaking of Silence," touches on James' theme. How, she has been asking Baltimoreans, does silence play a part in their lives?

Conducting interviews, taking pictures and eliciting artwork from members of diverse communities, Barbush, the program's director, has helped generate three exhibits of art-cum-oral history.

She started gathering materials for a book and found herself leading a wider conversation on the subject of "voice" in Baltimore.The first exhibit, in April 2007, blended sound collages, photographs and performance art.

The second, in January, juxtaposed interviews of recovering addicts, a community organizer and other people with photos and other art.

The third concludes today with three plays at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.

Speaking of Silence started as a project, Barbush says, but now it's a program, with no end in sight.

She discussed it with The Sun.

How did Speaking of Silence begin?

We do exhibits based around themes, and Gina Braden, a [local] performance artist, came to us with the idea of exploring the theme of silence - how it plays a role in people's lives.

What can be beneficial in silence?

What can be harmful?

Why do people not listen to each other?

We thought it had potential to go in different directions.

Where did it go for your first exhibit?

We had community and professional artists come together to explore the theme of silence. We asked a sound installation artist to explore it; we asked contemporary painters. The professional artists develop the ideas of community members.

We also do arts workshops in schools year round. We had two ... schools focus on silence in their artwork.

My part in all this was to engage community residents. I interviewed lots of diverse people - from age 8 to senior citizen, from private high school students to West Baltimore inner-city kids, from musicians to professors and artists - on how silence played a role in their lives. I talked to about 60 people in the first round.

I did photos as well, if [interviewees] wanted to be photographed. They could choose to face the camera or not; I saw that as a process of speaking or not speaking. We shared all this in the exhibit.

What came out in the interviews?

[Several] themes. One was communication: "Someone's not talking to me. I don't want to talk to somebody." Or, "I'm afraid to say something to somebody."

Another was spirituality - the role of silence in finding one's center. That was a kind of positive silence.

Many of the young people talked about feeling that they're not being heard, feeling afraid to speak.

You say one stage of the project spawned another. What came next?

We always look for ways to bring the work we do into the community, so we took CD players and our audio portraits to 27 different places around Baltimore City - libraries, community centers, a methadone clinic, a college - and played them. We called these "listening stations."

We invited anybody to come, but we targeted parents, teachers and youth. We had them listen, then asked questions. What makes you more uncomfortable, someone who doesn't stop talking or someone who doesn't say anything, and why? Do you think your parents understand when you have something to say? Why?

In some cases, it was like having group therapy. [People] said very personal things, then spoke back and forth. Then we invited them to be interviewed, to make art or write about the subject. Many did. We reached more than 300 people this way.

Why, in their view, are some people voiceless?

One man, Wallace Farmer, who lives in West Baltimore, may have had the best answer. ... He used the term "invisible people." He talked about how some people aren't seen or aren't heard, and in his audio portrait, he connected that closely with class - how there's a whole underclass of people that are not heard, that are overlooked, that are not given the time to actually speak.

That's where it really lies - giving a group or a person the attention they need to be heard.

Certain groups are so used to not speaking or being heard that they're not at the forefront of things. Then they get into the habit of not being the ones to ask questions, not going out to get what they want.

Which other speakers stood out?

I met one woman, Annette Foster, at a homeless shelter. The second time I met her, she was out of the shelter, living with her sister. The third time, she was working two jobs.

She told me she was going to New York to speak at a public event about her [life] experiences.

At our first exhibit, she'd been overwhelmed at how she sounded. She has a very powerful voice, but she didn't know that until she sat down and listened to herself. It was quite emotional.

[Another] was Allen Vessells. He lives in Remington. He's like a 40-year-old in a 13-year-old's body. He wants to be a preacher; he gets up in front of his church and gives speeches and sings.

He's interested in expressing his opinions on issues, but he's upset because people won't listen to him because he's 13. He's a real character.

Two of the three exhibits are over. Where does the project stand now?

The finale ... happens this weekend, when Gina Braden comes back in. The Run of the Mill Theater Company [from Baltimore] and Gina will perform three plays on the subject of silence.

[As of today], the exhibition mind-set is over. Now, we're using the model of interviewing and listening in order to highlight one particular issue, and that's what is happening in Middle East Baltimore [the neighborhood just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital]. That community is being relocated right now because Hopkins is putting in a biotech park.

This story has been told, but only in statistical terms, not human ones: "This many people have been moved to such-and-such a place," not "This particular man, who has lived in this neighborhood for 80 years, was relocated, and now he doesn't see his family and friends because he doesn't drive and can't get back there."

We're putting together a book that combines images and edited audio. It will share these stories from the residents' perspectives.

There will be an exhibit when the book is finished. We may eventually return to "listening stations." It could go in a lot of different directions.

Has Speaking of Silence become part of the surrounding community?

Other organizations have gotten interested. Two playwrights from Run of the Mill, Barbara Bryan and Christopher Graybill, wrote one of [today's plays], inspired by our audio. One methadone clinic where I'd done a "listening station," Man Alive, wants to use our audio pieces for group therapy sessions. ... When someone hears one person talking about something as difficult as addiction, it can open up someone else.

What's the purpose of community art in general, and of this program in particular?

If you section art off into only one kind of place, like galleries, it can become a class thing.

Outside the gallery, it becomes something anyone can understand, a language anyone can have a conversation in. People are drawn to it. It's magnetic.

I see us as translators, though I don't think we've completely reached that place yet.

Right now the purpose is to help give voice and visibility to those who have not had them.

That has been invigorating.

If you go


*Decoding Silence

*The Stronger


Where: The Creative Alliance at the Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave.

When: Today, 3 p.m.

Tickets: $10 ($8, Creative Alliance members, students, seniors)

Information: Call 410-276-1651 or visit

Listen online: Hear all the audio portraits at

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