Countrified but still connected

The Baltimore Sun

At a former Civil War-era schoolhouse in middle-of-nowhere Kent County, a glitzy international trade show was taking shape. An icy rain fell on the darkened fields of little Locust Grove as Joe Karlik sat designing a set in 3D for a springtime event that his client, MTV, plans for that sunny coastal paradise, the French Riviera.

"There it is," Karlik said. He referred to the outline of a virtual 105-inch plasma television he was dragging electronically onto the mockup emerging on his computer screen. In April a real version of that TV will entertain an assemblage of European broadcasters. "We're making it MTV cool," he said.

On the far side of Karlik's half-acre property, a former general store that also dates to the 1860s provided the setting for a different creative pursuit: illustrations for children. Karlik's wife, Nicole in den Bosch, is revising her sketches for a how-to crafts guide that will show kids clever ways to work with beads.

The two Maryland Institute College of Art grads make up what they call Locust Grove Studios, named after a hamlet north of Chestertown too small to deserve its own post office. Right between the individual studios, the couple lives with their 3-year-old son, Cy, in a 19th-century house they've painstakingly restored.

Jealous yet? How about this: The artists have transformed the house and each of their studios into a cozy attractiveness worthy of a magazine spread. Not that they're bragging, or looking for publicity. In fact, Karlik, who is 34 and has a bushy goatee, seems to enjoy the relative anonymity of living off the beaten path yet still very much on the grid.

"We're two crazy artists," he said with a shrug, "hiding in Kent County doing crazy stuff."

What began in 2001 as a quest for affordable space - to paint, to sculpt, to draw, to breathe - is a vivid example of the reach and ease of modern telecommuting. Have broadband, can travel.

She zings big files of drawings to a Minneapolis publisher with the click of a mouse. He remotely transfers intricate set designs to a software program so that crews anywhere can build them down to the inch. After nearly eight years in Locust Grove, they still need the FedEx delivery guy, but less so since the arrival of high-speed Internet.

To stave off isolation, the family takes frequent trips across the Bay Bridge to Washington, where they visit galleries and museums. Periodically they drive over to Baltimore or up to New York.

"If this ideal setting was in Montana or West Virginia, where it would have been miles and miles to go somewhere, we couldn't have done it as well," said in den Bosch, who is 39 and wears her blond hair in a ponytail.

At the same time, they have put down roots in Locust Grove. They're friendly with their few neighbors. One is a landscaper; another is a waterman, a disappearing breed in these parts. In summer they eat vegetables from their backyard garden.

For in den Bosch, the road to Locust Grove crisscrossed the globe. The daughter of teachers (her father was Dutch), she grew up in the African countries of Ethiopia and Tanzania and spent her high school years in Malaysia. Karlik has a less exotic background. He's from Houston.

The two met after art school in Baltimore through a common friend. She worked for the Becker Group designing mall Christmas displays before becoming a freelance illustrator. Karlik, a sculpture major, joined Hargrove Inc., a Prince George's County exhibits designer whose current big job is next week's presidential inauguration.

Over the years Karlik honed his sculpture skills online. He went solo with Locust Grove Studios in 2001, the year he and his wife moved to the Eastern Shore from Annapolis and gave up their warehouse space at Baltimore's Clipper Mill. They paid $117,000 for this fixer-upper, consolidating their life and work in Kent County.

Karlik teams up with exhibit producers such as Maryland-based Red Giant Studio. He'll get the gist of the event - a pharmaceutical maker is launching a drug for some malady, say, or Pepsi is having a shindig for regional bottlers - and some sense of the desired atmosphere.

Then his job is essentially to design a set, including the stage and background display, to convey the mood. That extends to coming up with video and lighting. Because he can "see" his designs in 3D on the screen, he knows how it will look in Las Vegas or Cannes or wherever.

Sometimes he has to juggle disparate jobs. Last year, a company named Show Call hired him to help design the altar for Pope Benedict XVI's stop at Nationals Park in Washington. At the same time he was working on a 10th birthday blowout for the sea-dwelling cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.

One minute he was trying to make the stadium feel "sacred" for the papal Mass; the next he was pondering a giant bubble machine for SpongeBob.

Karlik thrives on that variety, he says. Ditto the pressure to generate ideas fast. He usually has only a few days, which suits him fine. "My attention span," he said with some pride, "is one week, max."

Since Cy's birth in 2005, in den Bosch has cut back her workload a bit. But she still illustrates books and draws for the children's magazines Ladybug, Babybug and Highlights. And she has branched out into kids' bedroom art, dismayed by the omnipresence of Disney gear.

Lately, Karlik has been crossing the bay for a project about which he cannot say a word. And well-paying jobs like the MTV show keep coming his way.

After dinner Tuesday, he retreated to the schoolhouse. The space soars with its 17-foot ceiling and high, art-covered walls. A wood-burning stove and comfy sofas give the room a sense of intimacy.

At one end, Karlik works from a loft he calls his "adult fort." In this perch, he labored until after midnight, intent on channeling MTV cool.

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