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Artscape's '10,000 brushes' project makes artists of everyone

About a half-dozen people at a time pitched in Saturday to help Baltimore artist Wilson Kemp complete a mural during Artscape. They crouched near the bottom of the canvas, perched on a step stool or squeezed in somewhere in the middle, ignoring the heat as they gripped paint brushes and zeroed in on their own small corners of a bigger picture.

At the 32nd annual Baltimore festival, it was community art in progress. The grassy park across from the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall became home to the first ever "10,000 brushes" project, billed as a "mural experience" during the event that calls itself America's biggest free arts festival.

Anyone who came into the exhibit area at Preston and Cathedral streets to help out was given one of the 10,000 sable hair paint brushes donated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

People came and went throughout the afternoon to work on Kemp's mural and nine other mini-murals destined to become "pop-up" displays around the city. As they painted and chatted and tried to stay in the lines the artists had sketched in black, color began spreading across the canvases, bringing the artists' visions into view.

"Everyone should paint very day – it's therapeutic," said Kemp, a self-described visual artist, musician and dog walker who lives on downtown's west side and said his abstract design showed "the power of creating space through imagination."

Helping him was Kamilah Tadlock of Severn, who will be a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I really love art, but I'm not that good at it," Tadlock said. "But the idea of a bunch of people coming together to paint one thing – I really love that."

At times it was hard to tell who was more thrilled to see the preliminary sketches being transformed, the artists or the volunteers.

"I think it's done," joked Dave Christianson, of Fairfax, Va., obviously pleased with his patch of a mural designed by artist Kelly Bjorn Alm — a butterfly wing on which he and friend Adria Holder had collaborated. "I like the aspect of community coming together to work on different projects."

The project's curators, Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn, said they invited 10 artists to participate, asking them only to come up with a design for an 8-by-8-foot mural using this year's festival theme of "No Passport Required." While each mural used a similar palette of colors to maintain consistency from painting to painting, each artist had a different interpretation.

Bjorn Alm, who works as a city park ranger, said she scrapped her original design for one that just came to her about two weeks before Artscape. Her mural shows the link between animal and human migration, with images of the migration of Mexican corn farmers and of monarch butterflies moving through the Sierra Madre mountains, with the outline of butterfly wings representing the border between US and Mexico.

"People have been excited to participate and get their hands dirty," she said.

Jordan Jones, one of the artists and a 2012 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Arts, had a more literal interpretation. His mural portrayed passports being discarded, to show their lack of importance, he said. Helping him was Henry Bell of Northwest Baltimore, who said he has worked on similar community art projects. Bell said he was walking through the festival when he was intrigued by the "10,000 Brushes" exhibit and Jones' work and stopped in, helping to fill in one pink section with careful strokes.

"I'm happy people are engaged in my art, and happy people are helping to create it," Jones said.

Murals, seen as an accessible form of community art, have become popular ways to bring communities together and brighten neighborhoods, said Ryan Patterson, the public art administrator for the city's Office of Promotion and The Arts,.

"It's a pretty inexpensive way to provide powerful and fun imagery," Patterson said. "It's a fun way to get people exposed to the arts."

The completed murals will be displayed around the city, though officials are still completing those details, Patterson said. Some possibilities could include Charles Plaza and the Inner Harbor downtown, or festivals in Baltimore or elsewhere, such as in Atlantic City, he said.

The city's promotion and arts office plans to give out any remaining brushes through arts programs in city schools.

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