The Baltimore Sun

Web designer Andres Zapata was cleaning out his home office late one January night when inspiration struck.

Zapata came across a zip-lock bag filled with pieces of credit cards he'd chopped up after consolidating his debt last year. Instead of throwing out the clippings, Zapata arranged them in the shape of a spindly hand grasping a credit card and snapped a photo of it. Called Plastic, the villainous-looking piece will be published in a book of recession-themed art later this year.

Plastic "reflects the fake power I was given to purchase things I didn't need and couldn't afford," Zapata said. "It's like facing my own demons."

With Plastic, Zapata joined a growing number of artists and musicians here and abroad who are using the economic meltdown as inspiration. They're creating songs, paintings and photos based on the downturn, and documenting the recession's effect on society.

Nashville-based country music singer John Rich rails against "big shots whining on my evening news" in his heart-wrenching song "Shuttin' Detroit Down." And photos of scathing street art based on bank bailouts and corrupt financier Bernie Madoff appear on the London-based blog Vandalog.

"Sometimes, we're at our best when circumstances are at their worst," said Tom Beck, chief curator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I would say that's true for art as well as every other realm. It seems like when we're most challenged, we rise to that challenge."

Throughout history, artists have used economic and social upheaval as a muse. Like the photos from the government-sponsored Farm Security Administration and Archibald J. Motley Jr.'s Depression-era paintings, some of the most striking art, music and photography came from turbulent times, Beck said.

In January, Zapata began Recession Nation - a book of art and poetry inspired by the crisis. He has since received 30 submissions from artists in Baltimore, New York, Chicago and even Savannah, Ga. He hopes the book will eventually include more than 100 pieces. Proceeds from Recession Nation will be donated to charity, Zapata said, so he can help people affected by the slump.

"In a nutshell, I got tried of hearing people complain about it and not do anything about it," said Zapata, 33, who lives in Charles Village. "I decided to do something about it."

It's important that artists and musicians catalog the fallout in the moment, Zapata said.

"Time changes history," Zapata said. "We will remember things differently. We will talk ourselves out of how bad it really was or how it really impacted us. It's important to document these things now as they're happening so you get closer representation."

That idea is why Baltimore-based photographer Andy Cook set out on a monthlong jaunt around the nation to take portraits of people affected by the recession. This year, Cook, a freelance photographer who lives in Remington, found himself out of work and itching to take a road trip. He began profiling Baltimoreans who had been laid off and wondered what, if anything, they had in common with unemployed people across the country.

In late February, Cook took his 1991 Toyota Camry on a roughly 7,000-mile journey, looking for potential subjects. He drove to Florida, headed west along the Gulf Coast to Austin, Texas, north to Minneapolis and east to New York before returning to Baltimore.

The trip cost Cook about $1,500. He slept at friends' houses whenever possible to cut down on costs. He brought cans of tuna fish and routinely "borrowed" packets of mayonnaise from fast-food restaurants to make tuna salad in his car. Along the way, he found colorful characters who had been affected - for good or ill - by the recession.

In Texas, Cook met Brad Kittel, a 53-year-old who founded a business called Tiny Texas Houses. True to their name, the houses he designs start at 200 square feet and range in price from $30,000 to $60,000.

Kittel "was envisioning his business as trying to fight against he American mentality of excess and consumption," Cook said. "He had a lot to say and was a classic Texan entrepreneur, all swagger and cowboy hat."

In each city Cook visited, he posted ads about his project on the classified advertising Web site Craigslist and set up shop in a coffeehouse with a wireless Internet connection.

"I figured coffee shops in the middle of the day were good places to find people who weren't working," he said.

All in all, Cook accumulated about 30 portraits with accompanying interviews. He dubbed the project Faces of the Recession and published it on a blog of the same name.

Cook said most of his subjects were hopeful that the economy would turn around in the near future, and that Americans would emerge from the recession with a healthy skepticism of corporate culture and material excess.

"There was a lot of gallows humor," Cook said. "An overall mood was one of uncertainty, obviously, with their own financial situations, but a generally positive feeling. It's causing people to reconsider their basic needs and maybe get back to simpler ideas they'd left behind."

Eventually, Cook hopes to get Faces of the Recession published in print. But he says he's not finished with the project yet.

"What I've got is a really good start," he said. "I want to continue to build it, continue to make it more focused."

Michael Nestor, singer/guitarist for the Baltimore-based indie rock group The Seldon Plan, has a recession story of his own. His wife, Kristin, is a senior associate at Merrill Lynch and he is a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health. His wife almost lost her job in the crash, and Nestor saw his grant money dry up. In the past, Nestor was wary of putting social and political commentary into his music. But because the downturn struck so close to home, he broke with tradition.

"It's been a rough six months," said Nestor, who recently bought a house in Catonsville. "Themes of losing so much stuff and trying to find meaning in life through physical and material things started creeping into all these songs."

As a result, The Seldon Plan's third record, Lost and Found and Lost, features songs based on the economy and President Barack Obama. The album's title is a reference to the ups and downs of the stock market, Nestor said. It's slated for release in late May or early June.

Nestor started writing Lost and Found and Lost as the stock market plummeted, Obama won office and the auto industry begged for bailout money. As a songwriter, he said he couldn't help but be influenced by the economic woes.

"Now you hear people talking about things like getting back to basics," Nestor said. "All these things were never gone. People just forgot about them for a while."

In Lost and Found and Lost's title track, Nestor looks at how the crumbling economy stunned the public: "We are lost at sea / With no sense of what went wrong." On the song "Lonely Bridgewater," he offers a mixed assessment of the near future: "We're the hopeful ones who want the springtime back / But the ground beneath our feet is falling fast / And the stars we reach for are out of grasp."

"These were the hardest lyrics I've ever had to write - ever," he said. "It took me a while to get them out, but now that they're out, I feel completely liberated, creatively. I feel really energized."

Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, sees the economic upheaval as an opportunity for artists and musicians to make lasting impressions in pop culture.

"In the long run, despite the hardships, this is a good thing for society - not a sad thing," Hoffberger wrote in an e-mail. "And the artists among us will most certainly be lighting the way with their gifts."

more on the web

"Recession Nation":: Go to recessionnationproject.com.

"Faces of the Recession":: Go to facesoftherecession.blogspot.com.

"Lost and Found and Lost":: To hear a track from The Seldon Plan, go to baltimoresun.com/arts. The band is at theseldonplan.com.

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