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Baltimore artists look for light in the darkness of the pandemic | COMMENTARY

Artist Raoul Middleman, shown here in his studio in 2018, has been working from his 19th floor condominium in midtown Baltimore during the pandemic, painting cityscapes every day and posting them on Instagram.
Artist Raoul Middleman, shown here in his studio in 2018, has been working from his 19th floor condominium in midtown Baltimore during the pandemic, painting cityscapes every day and posting them on Instagram. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

The view from 19 stories above St. Paul Street in midtown Baltimore affords the 85-year-old artist Raoul Middleman plenty of subject matter for his daily paintings in watercolor and gouache: The harbor and Francis Scott Key Bridge, Canton and Clinton Street, cargo cranes and railroad tracks, the Belvedere Hotel, Green Mount Cemetery, City Hall and the old city jail.

Six months into the pandemic, and he’s never become bored with the scenery.

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“Are you kidding? No,” Middleman says over the phone from the condominium where he lives with his wife, the painter and printmaker Ruth Channing. “The harbor and the skies. The Baltimore skies are fantastic. Summer storms, lightning, the sunsets. There’s always a surprise, and when you paint there’s always a discovery. Your identity is always shifting, and nature is always shifting, changing tangentially to a prism of varying insights.”

Middleman speaks the way he paints — impatiently. He’s always bursting with thoughts, quoting philosophers and dead poets, trying to put words to what he sees with his frantic, eager eyes. He calls himself an “impatientist” who practices “impatientality,” and you see that in his work, now available on Instagram. I think he’s producing some of his finest cityscapes right now. Being isolated 19 stories above St. Paul Street has not limited his energy or creativity at all.

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“I don’t mind being locked in,” he says. “I go with the light, at different times of the day. It’s always a discovery. The Baltimore harbor is really great. There’s a lot to see there, the way it winds in and out along the waterfront. It’s a journey.”

I contacted Middleman and other Baltimore artists to see how they had adapted to the pandemic, where they find inspiration in this strange and difficult time, how they manage to stay visible and market their work.

The talented illustrator and caricaturist Tom Chalkley has been tapping his archives and putting some great stuff online. He’s also put some new work out there; a recent depiction of U.S. Attorney General William Barr as a toadish toady is as good as any editorial cartoon about the Trump administration. But his in-person caricature business has fallen off with the pandemic; the graduation and post-prom parties, a staple of his spring and early-summer trade, did not happen this year but for one pool party in Harford County.

Over the years, Chalkley has produced some amazing city maps, chock full of caricatures of local celebrities and businesses. You might have seen his busy, Where’s Waldo?-style posters of Baltimore or those of specific neighborhoods: Charles Village, Fells Point and Hampden. The maps have been lucrative for the artist — a salesman hired him to create some for parishes in Louisiana — so Chalkley has been devoting time during the COVID-19 slowdown to promote them for small cities and towns in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

He would love to get back to the caricature business but with gatherings still problematic, Chalkley doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. “And doing caricatures by Zoom, that’s tough,” he says.

Recently, a neighbor in Arcadia commissioned a caricature of his adored Great Dane. Chalkley obliged with a whimsical depiction of the big dog sprawled on the neighbor’s couch. Canine caricatures have not been part of Chalkley’s repertoire, and he groaned when I suggested they could be. Later, in an email, he acknowledged that the idea might help pay the bills through the pandemic. “I should draw dogs,” he wrote. “It’s better than drawing unemployment.”

Thirty-two-year-old Jerrell Gibbs, who works from old photographs to create wonderfully colorful paintings of moments from 20th Century family life, built a studio in his garage in Pikesville, and continues to make art there. “The grind don’t stop, whether there’s a pandemic or not,” he says. “I can paint whenever I want. If I can’t sleep, I just go to the garage, build, stretch and paint.”

With several commissions lined up, Crystal Moll, who paints Baltimore street scenes en plein air, had a good start to the year. But when the virus hit, she had to close her Federal Hill gallery.

A couple of weeks ago, the gallery reopened for a show of the work of artists Jill Basham and Nancy Tankersley. “We encouraged folks to watch via Facebook at home,” Moll says. “We snail-mailed Crystal Moll Gallery wine glasses to about 70 clients, along with an invite to join us either virtually or in-person. We had a small but decent turnout and made some sales. I’m learning new tricks for presenting shows and reaching clients.”

Moll’s gallery usually stages a summer plein air exhibition. This year it will be replaced with a group show called, “Creating in Quarantine.” Artists can apply to be included, Moll says: “We, too, are interested to see what artists have been motivated to produce during this time.”

Monique Dove is a photographer, painter and poet. She sells her art, some of it printed on T-shirts, and food on street corners. It has been a tough year, she says, mentally exhausting, at times depressing. Social distancing from regular customers and being weary of new ones, she says, “brings sadness and strain to both the artist and consumer.”

But, Dove adds, being an artist, though often a struggle, has great advantages in a time like this. “Being an artist,” she says, “allows you to bend time, use imagination in times of pessimism and create light in the darkest of situations.”

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