Step backward. Chips of blue float above the city and above the yellow sky, a joyous sun and two figures dance wildly on the chimney.
A fish motif threads the four comers into a cohesive work of art.
Then turn away. One is again in Baltimore. A rusty swing set sits on a half acre of brittle, drought-stricken grass. Look further. Beyond the chain link periphery of the park is a neighborhood like so many in our city: struggling in its fight against those banal demons of poverty, violence, and drugs.
This is the mural project on the fieldhouse at ABC Park in Southwest Baltimore. It was initiated by the two bordering neighborhood associations (the Carrolton Ridge Community Association and the Mill Hill Improvement Community Associations), and assisted by the Neighborhood Design Center and Kathy Jones of the Samuel F.B. Morse Recreation Center. The project was funded through the city and state funded Hot Spots’ Latch Key .Program, with paint donated from Budekes Paints.
The Baltimore Museum of Art is installing a butterfly garden by the fieldhouse, as well.
The Hot Spots program funnels recourses into depressed areas with the purpose of detering crime. Using a bottom-up approach, the program allows the communities to decide what would be effective. Mill Hill and Carrolton Ridge residents knew all too well that ABC Park was a drug market—especially after a nearby housing project was razed—and they decided to take it nearby at the White House and BWI Airport. Cohen himself calls his method “editing, almost like film making,” which harkens to his former career. Before returning to his hometown of Baltimore to work for the Maryland Film Commission a decade ago, he had been a film producer in L.A.
Only this time it was done with the hands of thirty Black children.
Cohen took the kids’ artwork, and interpreted onto the fieldhouse walls. Then the children once again took over the painting. The mural is about halfway done, and the children are mixing their own paints and not splattering a bit. “They’ve become pros,” Cohen laughed, while removing his paint- splattered sunglasses. “If we all did one good thing, the world would turn around immediately.” He gestured toward the wall. “The kids did this, the story is the fieldhouse.”
Last Saturday afternoon, the day’s work was about done, and the children were flying back and fro on the rust swing set. Stephan Burks stopped long enough to show his work: those crazy sprites on the chimney. He didn’t mention that while up there he and others had painted their names in glimmering red onto the flat black roof. His sister Shamieka, and brothers Terrell and John, then clambered up to point to their work along the four walls.
Two friends and fellow artists assisted Cohen on the project. They were inspired by the experience to do another mural. Josh Wolf and Lawrence White are planning another new mural on the side of Zeskin’s Hardware, merely several blocks away. They will be using five of the children from the current project as models.
“These kids are great for my soul,” said White.
The new playground has been erected, and police surveillance in the area has been expanded. Deborah Edmonson of the state’s Division of Parole and Probation, a principal partner in Hot Spots, said that the area housed many of her department’s “clients,” and such projects would “help keep them straight.”
What takes this project from a progressive crime-fighting concept to the absolutely visionary is owed to the artist Jay Schlossburg-Cohen and the magic he drew out of neighborhood children, They now own the greatest splash of color for miles around. They now own their own vision of a perfect world. And they now own a point of joy amongst formstone facades.
“The kids will protect this mural,” said Kathy Jones.
Cohen called himself a vessel for the children, which to a point is true. The work was done in his distinctive style. His paintings are created, cut apart and reconfigured into new work, like nepotic collages.