What makes an artist assemble 193,000 toothpicks?" Pete Hilsee, spokesman for the American Visionary Art Museum, mused the other day.
The Baltimore museum boasts a 16-foot scale model of the ocean liner Lusitania made with something the uninspired masses use to pry poppy seeds from teeth. Hilsee invoked that piece as he was pondering another, featuring child-like choo-choo crayon drawings with mathematical calculations on the bottom.
Is it art? Is it mental illness? Either way, it's the latest exhibit at the museum of "self-taught and intuitive artistry."
The murals are the work of Frank Calloway, an Alabama psych patient said to be 112 years old. (There's no birth certificate, but when he was deemed "disoriented" and institutionalized 56 years ago, his age was recorded as 56.)
The artist's bio on the museum gallery wall reads like a HIPAA violation: "He rocks back and forth, spontaneously reciting his 18-times table, multiplying the number with three-digit figures (18 x 111 is 1,998, 18 x 112 is 2,016 ...) like an incantation deeply comforting to him."
Decades into Calloway's institutionalization, art therapy was introduced, and the former laborer with a third-grade education draws six or seven hours a day at his Tuscaloosa, Ala., psychiatric nursing home.
His work was first displayed seven years ago, when Alabama's mental health department held a show. Two years ago, the Kentuck Museum in Northport, Ala. exhibited his murals. A psychiatrist who'd spotted his work there brought it to the attention of the Baltimore museum.
Calloway made the trip from Tuscaloosa for Friday's AVAM opening. He traveled with an entourage that included a nurse and the head of his nursing home. It was his first plane ride.
As he was rolled around the gallery in his wheelchair Friday morning, Calloway was asked all sorts of questions. About the ride. About how it felt to hit the museum big-time. To be honest, I couldn't understand a word he said, but he seemed to be enjoying himself. He didn't look a day over 90.
The museum will display his work for the next year. Calloway, however, should be back in Tuscaloosa today. The artist only had a 72-hour pass.
Sorry, didn't catch the name
I reported the other day that 23-year-old Michael Phelps was turned away from a Baltimore bar because he wasn't carrying his ID. Now comes news of another Charm City celeb meeting a similar fate. Someone who, like Phelps, once made headlines for under-age drinking but is over 21 now.
"I did the same thing to Jenna Bush," said Sean Harrington, bartender at - I'm not making this up - No Way Jose Cafe.
Not long after Bush moved to South Baltimore last summer - OK, I admit it, it took a long time for me to get wind of this one, but any tale involving Bush twins and drinking has a long shelf life - a young blonde came into the Federal Hill Tex-Mexery, joining a friend whom Harrington had already carded.
"I said, 'Hey, what can I get you? And do you have an ID on you?' " the bartender recalled.
"She said, 'I'm 25.'
"I said, 'I'm sure you are but I can't serve you without ID. For all I know, you could be an undercover police officer.' "
Or the president of the United States' daughter, for that matter.
You'd think there'd be a Secret Service agent at the ready for just this sort of emergency, standing by to vouch for her fitness to imbibe. But no.
Harrington walked away. Then two regulars who'd recognized Bush clued the bartender in.
Of course, just because you're a First Twin doesn't mean you're of age. Unsure of what to do, Harrington phoned the restaurant's owner, who, luckily, was up on the legal status of presidential offspring.
"'I know who she is," Harrington said the owner replied. "I just read People magazine with her on the cover for her 25th birthday."
In other words: Yes to that Stoli Vanilla and soda order.
"I went over and nicely apologized," Harrington said. "I said, 'I don't really keep up with current events, and what can I get you to drink?"
Connect the dots
Phelps, led to Olympic glory by Lil' Wayne, will surely appreciate the "Michael Phelps Jam." Fox45 meteorologist Vytas Reid performed it on the morning news last week. Best line: "Six foot four, thin as a needle / Only man I'll watch in a Speedo." ... Leonard Slatkin will celebrate Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday next month by conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in his own composition, The Raven. Set to several of Poe's poems, it will be narrated by John Astin, the Baltimore native who played Gomez on The Addams Family.