I thank a Baltimore Sun reader who goes by the pseudonym of Curious George for telling me about a certain work of art hanging in a gallery near Patterson Park. But I’m afraid it’s not as “controversial” as he might think.
“Is the artwork riddled with bullet holes a problem?” Curious George asked in an email with “controversy” in its subject line. Obviously wise to the notion that controversy provides superb material for newspapers, George suggested that I visit the Creative Alliance and have a look.
So I headed to that good gathering place on Saturday, driving and walking through the busy and thriving neighborhoods of a city that too many other correspondents believe to be hell on Earth — so dysfunctional, violent and corrupt as to make a trip here impossibly risky.
I made stops in Waverly, Charles Village and Johnston Square. I drove down Greenmount Avenue, along Monument Street, Ellwood Avenue, then through the sprawling and leafy park to Eastern Avenue. There were people on each of those streets — shoppers, strollers and dog walkers taking advantage of a relatively cool summer morning.
So much of the narrative about Baltimore is fed by televised images and storylines that never reflect the city’s normalcy — its ordinary daily rhythms and simple pleasures — and so the dominant story becomes one of tragic decline.
The realist who merely suggests there are many acres more to the story — Baltimore’s bedrock decency, quirkiness, earnestness and promise — is thought to be suffering from blind optimism, and so a stifling self-consciousness creeps in and the darker description dominates. Others feel no need to defend the city, believing that haters gonna hate, more so in a time of bitter politics.
And so I keep moving. I visit the Creative Alliance, founded in the 1990s and permanently providing an art and performance center in the old Patterson Theater since 2003.
Currently, the Big Show is underway, the 27th annual exhibition of works by alliance members. There are so many pieces — and obviously so many talented artists in Baltimore, across all media — that it’s a bit overwhelming.
The “controversial” piece that Curious George called to my attention immediately catches your eye, and not because of its position in the gallery or because it is backlighted, but because of what it instantly states: We — meaning, the nation and not just Baltimore — are in an epoch of gun violence.
The artist, Gard Jones, used an X-ray of a male midsection — pelvis, spine and ribs — and had another artist, David Bakker, fire five .32-caliber bullets into it, hitting and nicking the spine area. One shot appears to have reached the heart. The backlighting evokes the days when doctors examined X-rays on light boards.
Jones calls his piece “Baltimore Slap Back,” and it does that: Slaps you back to reality, assuming you had wandered away from it.
“I’m asking the viewer to relate to it and think about oneself in the piece,” Jones says. “You begin to sense the physicality. This is a real human being’s X-ray.”
“Baltimore Slap Back” is not controversial, as it might have been 20 or 30 years ago, because there’s nothing to argue about. The nation is drenched in guns. That we need to do something large, lasting and Australian-like to reign in gun violence should be obvious to every rational American. The problem is, we do not yet have enough rational Americans among those elected to lead and make laws.
“I’m just responding to the world,” says Jones, “and my world is Baltimore with an eye on the bigger picture. It’s the world we live in now.”
When a child depicts violence with crayons, we lament the world that child depicts but feel helpless to do much about it. When an artist in his 60s does it, my reaction is about the same now.
“All I’m seeing, every time I turn on the TV or pick up the newspaper, is somebody got shot with a gun, somebody got shot with a gun,” Jones says. “In 2012, my child was six years old. In 2012, you had the mass shooting of 20 six- and 7-year-olds in [Sandy Hook Elementary] school. That was a pivotal moment for me. I’m watching my kid in a Christmas pageant [at Roland Park Elementary School] and I’m thinking about all these parents whose children are dead now because they were all killed in their classroom.”
Six years later in Florida, there was Parkland, the nation’s deadliest high school shooting. After that horror, Jones took part in the student-led March For Our Lives. The experience gave him hope. “I thought, finally these kids are going to teach us and show us and fight the good fight,” he says. “And then there’s another shooting and another shooting and another shooting …”
That’s the undeniable story of Baltimore for going on eight years now. The violence caused by the wide and easy availability of guns is the dominant narrative.
“Baltimore Slap Back” is a way of sharing the pain, a hard slap, if such a slap was needed, that our fellow citizens keep dying violent deaths as we sleep, work and play, as we seek and savor the ordinary pleasures of life in our city.