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Through painting, Catonsville artist reflects on Relay childhood

Catonsville woman portrays childhood home in Arbutus library exhibit

Marty Keech Spence grew up with her brother and three sisters a 65-acre family farm in Relay.

She cherishes her childhood memories, working with the animals — horses, cows, pigs and chickens — and jumping from the hay loft at the barn.

The property included a large home, two barns, a blacksmith shop, a double car garage, chicken coops, a swimming pool and triple-tiered gardens. It was a frequent spot for family and friends to visit.

Now she has shared a piece of her childhood and a slice of Relay's history in a collection of oil paintings on display at the Arbutus branch at the Baltimore County Public Library.

Relay, a historic district halfway between Baltimore and Ellicott City, was the first stop out of the city on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the country's first passenger railway.

The exhibit, "5156 Viaduct Avenue," is named after the farm's address. The exhibit, on display through the end of August, is on the left wall inside the main doors.

Spence's family bought the land in 1947 and owned it until 2004. It has since been abandoned, she said. While some of the structures still stand, the barns are about to fall, she said.

Much of the house, which was built in 1860, and its contents were destroyed by fire in 1978.

But as she notes in her artist's reflections that accompany the paintings, she is believer that if stories and memories aren't recorded, they can be forever lost.

With that in mind, she decided to paint.

She began recreating the buildings and animals, and ended up producing 14 paintings over the course of the last year and a half. A dozen are on display.

"I wanted to capture it somehow," she said. "It came together as a tribute."

Now retired after 42 years in the health-care field, Spence, 69, hadn't picked up a drawing pencil until she was 50. It was then when she and a friend took an drawing course at what was Catonsville Community College.

When she wanted to take the next course in the sequence, she was told there were no more and she'd have to go to Maryland Institute College of Art. That's what she did, continuing her art education.

Now, her art is on display through the Baltimore County Arts Guild's Art on Tour program. The nonprofit guild promotes area art and artists.

While the guild has a gallery space for its 150 members near Arbutus, the program is another avenue for artists to get exposure, countywide. About four artists have work on display throughout the county at different businesses and community gathering spots, according to executive director Trisha Chason.

The program provides several purposes for the artists, Chason said, whether it be to sell works of art, work on building a portfolio or to develop credibility for bigger opportunities or venues.

Spence, of Catonsville, wanted to show her story to the public for a few reasons. In addition to the logic that an artist wants his or work to be seen, known and understood may be obvious, she wanted the community to see her work because for some, the paintings bring back memories, she said.

A bidding war for a giclée print — a replica using archival inks — of "The Corn Crib" a few years ago, when it was donated for an auction, took place not because the painting was outstanding, she said, but because the people who were there had fond memories of it.

The oil paintings, which are for sale, range from $200 to $600, depending on size, Spence said. Sales are independent of the library, she said.

"I think every artist would like to have their art known, understood and seen and this is local," she said. "There are a lot of people who remember this place."

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