Living With Art: Erin Fostel and Ryan Dorsey

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Being invited into a stranger’s home is such an alien act these days that, standing outside the home of Ryan Dorsey and Erin Fostel, I feel like a vampire waiting to cross some invisible threshold. However, Fostel greets me at their arched doorway with such warmth, and despite the masks and social distancing, I almost forget about our ongoing pandemic circumstances.

Fostel explains their house is in a state of flux. “In the past six months it’s had to serve us very differently,” she says. “Government is happening in the dining room, and then I’m either upstairs or in the basement working in my studio.”

Fostel is a visual artist known for her meticulous charcoal and graphite drawings of historic Baltimore architecture and, most recently, of women’s bedrooms. Dorsey, meanwhile, is the city councilperson for Baltimore’s 3rd District, which includes such northeast neighborhoods as Belair-Edison, Morgan Park, and Lauraville. He now attends City Council meetings on his laptop, propped up on a stack of records at the dining room table.

Left to Right: Melissa Webb, A Victorian Lady, 2018, found objects, hand-dyed cotton, wool; Annu Braxton, two untitled portraits, 2015, acrylic on canvas; Sejong Cho, Palm Trees, 2015, acrylic on canvas; Lukah Love, Stupider People Have Done It, 2014, embroidery on American flag

As he discusses ethics bills and policy proposals via virtual meetings, a drawing from Fostel’s Baltimore architecture series hangs behind his right shoulder. It depicts the bandshell in Clifton Park, just a five-minute drive from their Mayfield home, and somehow appears both inviting and daunting in Fostel’s high-contrast shades of gray. It feels appropriate that a local landmark, which may have seen better days, hangs in the background as Dorsey discusses problems and solutions in the city.

To the right of Fostel’s drawing is a mixed-media work by Jackie Milad, which Dorsey purchased at a local fund-raiser, Artists for Truth. Off-screen, a large self-portrait by Lydia Pettit hangs above their sofa. The figure stands nude and blushing in a flurry of muted grays. “It is a powerful piece, and Lydia almost didn’t sell it to us because she wanted to keep it,” Fostel says of the formerly Baltimore-based artist who recently earned an MA at the Royal College of Art in London. It was the first artwork that Fostel and Dorsey purchased together as a couple.

Left to Right: Destiny Belgrave, Venus at Rest, 2018, cut paper; Jackie Milad, Gold / Mouth, 2016, ink and flashe on paper; Stephanie Barber, animals as decoration, totem, 2018, viewfinder essay; Magnolia Laurie, for an object, these sort might take pattern, 2009, mixed media on paper; Lydia Pettit, Pivotal Shift, 2017, oil on canvas; Paul Rucker, sticker from Rewind exhibition, 2015; Kathryn Dorsey, untitled, 2005, acrylic on drywall

Collecting art can often seem out-of-reach for ordinary people, a hobby reserved for the ultra-wealthy. The language, too, can feel exclusionary. Curators and collectors connote a sterile white-wall gallery, divorced from the comforts of a home, but Fostel and Dorsey’s space feels welcoming and lived-in. The sunroom is packed with plants, and two bikes lean against the wall in the living room, evidence of a weekend ride. A floor-to-ceiling shelving unit—built by Dorsey and his friend, Jamie Thompson—stores Dorsey’s massive record collection. An earth-toned quilt, purchased by Fostel’s parents in the 1970s, hangs in the TV room upstairs, and “has been hanging in every house I have lived in since I was born,” Fostel says.

Downstairs, an old poster advertising a $2 house show is taped to the door casing between the living and dining room. The show’s location—Dorsey’s parents’ basement—is just a half-block from where Fostel and Dorsey live now, and the lineup boasts three of the four members that would eventually form Animal Collective. Their home exhibits individual histories as well as the history of their house. If you look closely upstairs, you can see a faint outline of the art that used to hang on the wall before they moved in. The previous owners—an actor and a doll-maker—were smokers, and the wallpaper in the stairway is still stained with their habit.

The couple sees their home as a work in progress, shifting with time. Recently, Fostel rearranged the art on their walls and framed a piece by Mequitta Ahuja, a painter and Joan Mitchell fellow, who gifted the work as a wedding present last year. With few exceptions, most of the artwork that Dorsey and Fostel own was created by friends, either traded in exchange for Fostel’s drawings, or purchased directly from the artist or via local galleries and fundraisers. “Everything in this house represents the person, so every piece of art is an intimate connection to that artist,” Fostel says. “Having their work on our walls constantly keeps them in mind.”

Left to Right: Heather Boaz, Sushi Lovers, 2015, archival inkjet print; Rosemary Liss, Last Land, 2015, oil on canvas with embroidery; Rachel Sitkin Marks, One of a Million Miles of Coastline, 2003, watercolor; Delaney Cate, untitled, 2014, Belgian linen and hand embroidery, Rachel Sitkin Marks, Appalachian Apocalypse, 2009, graphite on paper; Alexandra Harmel, Kikatsu River, 2015, print on paper; Milana Braslavsky, Still Life with Oranges, 2009, digital C-Print

The couple used to host dinner parties in their dining room instead of City Council meetings. Every Sunday, Fostel and Dorsey would invite friends and acquaintances over for hot dogs or tacos or chili—whatever could be made in large quantities to accommodate whoever wanted to come by. “It was basically an open call,” Fostel says. Artists like Bonnie Crawford, Regina Tumasella, and Eze Jackson would regularly dine with cultural leadership, like Doreen Bolger, the former director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the occasional government official. Ben Jealous made a stop one night when he was running for Governor and Senator Cory McCray has been a guest as well.

Fostel and Dorsey make a deliberate effort to bridge the social spheres they occupy and, while they haven’t been able to invite friends over during the pandemic, their community is present in the art that surrounds them. A black and white photograph by Joseph Hyde, the photographer who made these photos and a frequent guest at Sunday dinners, hangs in their dining room. Across the room is a screenprint by Edgar Reyes, which Fostel traded for one of her drawings, that includes a photograph of his mother. “I love that we have Edgar’s mom on our wall,” Fostel says. “That feeling of family intertwined with art is special.”

Their weekly dinners went on hold before the pandemic began because they wanted to open up their Sundays for other activities, but they miss welcoming friends into their home and introducing new people to each other. “Individuals who can bridge relationship gaps—there’s real power in that,” Dorsey says.

These days, Dorsey often goes for a bike ride on Sundays. He’s an avid cyclist and often leads “district ride-along” in which constituents are invited to bike with him around town and talk about issues facing the neighborhoods. On Election Day, he rode to all twenty-four polling locations in the city—nearly seventy miles—live-tweeting his stops and inviting others to join him.

Looking at the route he posted on Twitter makes me think about the lines that cross and connect the city, and the invisible thresholds that exist, pandemic or not. Baltimore is a small city, sometimes wonderfully so—Dorsey and Fostel were born in the same hospital, a day apart, then attended the same grade school: Saint Francis of Assisi, though they were in different grades and didn’t interact much. But the city’s smallness sits side-by-side with historic segregation and redlining, and social bubbles can sometimes feel hermetically sealed.

When I ask Dorsey how he sees the arts community in Baltimore connecting to the city at large, he responds, “Like Baltimore City itself, there is not an arts community, there are many arts communities,” and the disciplines don’t always mix. Visual artists attend gallery openings, theater artists attend performances, writers attend readings, and there isn’t enough collaboration between genres, says Dorsey.

He adds that the art scene is racially segregated as well. “As much as so many people really espouse to care about Black Lives Matter, you go to an exhibition of a group show with twenty artists at Eubie Blake, and they’re all Black artists, and there are two white people in the room,” he says. “The white arts community is not showing up to the Black arts community, and that doesn’t go two ways. The Black arts community shows up to white arts events.” Before the shutdown, he and Fostel made a point to attend as many art openings as possible throughout the city’s various spaces and neighborhoods.

Left to Right: Erin Fostel, plotter print copy of Untitled 5 drawing, 2005; Ryan Syrell, Laundry Basket, 2017, oil on panel

Dorsey and Fostel’s passion for connection and community is central to the work they each do. This summer Dorsey introduced a bill to rename the Columbus monument in Heinz Park to honor victims of police brutality, which passed in the city council, but was then vetoed by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. Another bill Dorsey introduced sets to establish an Office to End Homelessness and, as of press time, is now making its way through the legislative process. (Ed. note: Former Mayor Young did not sign the bill into law; Dorsey reintroduced the bill in January.) Fostel, meanwhile, is working on a series depicting women’s bedrooms, both in permanent and transitional housing, to explore the idea of empowerment through sacred and intimate spaces, and she was recently featured in a group exhibition at the museum at Carroll Mansion.

Her drawings there depict two identical scenes of Preston Gardens, which was once a thriving Black neighborhood before the city evicted residents to make way for the park. Beneath each drawing is a caption—one, from the Baltimore Sun, describes the area as being “disease-infected.” The other, from the Afro-American, describes a beautiful and lively community. The decision to make two identical drawings, Fostel says, was an attempt “to point out how perspective shapes what we see, and that the perspective of those in power literally shapes the landscape that we all inhabit.”

While Fostel and Dorsey consider power, urban planning, housing, and architecture in their professional work, they also see great potential in the connections forged and maintained in their everyday lives. “There’s a lot of people who have a position of power in their ability to connect people,” Fostel says. “People don’t really think about connection as a form of power.”

Dining Room featuring art by Alpha Massaquoi, Elliot Doughtie, Dick Turner, Stephanie Barber, Erin Fostel, Bonnie Crawford, Mequitta Ahuja, Stephanie Barber, Kate Stringer, Rebecca Juliette, Wormhole Workshop Lisa Dillin, Katie Feild, Steve Keene, Dave Iden, Jacob Ulrich

Dorsey particularly loves to use art as a connector and showcase homegrown talent. “It adds value to the art for me to plant that seed that ‘Hey, this is a Baltimore artist. You too can own work from this person and. . . even if you can’t, we would love for you to meet this person,’” he says. “Not because it’s about networking but because we’re surrounded by great people and I love for great people to meet other great people.”

Since 2015, Dorsey has hosted More Creative Power, a nearly annual campaign fundraiser for his election fund, that also integrates the scenes of art and politics. “The crowd that attends is not the typical art crowd,” says Fostel. “A lot of people who do not attend musical or theatrical performances are often being introduced to new folks.”

The event features a variety show and art auction, and tickets are sold on a sliding scale so that it can be accessible to as diverse an audience as possible. The fundraiser also offers an opportunity for artists to make money and build relationships with new collectors in the region. Visual artists donate a portion of their sales toward Dorsey’s campaign, but they select how much they want to donate. “A lot of the art that is sold goes to people who do not regularly visit galleries,” Fostel says. “Artists need access to people who are not within the arts community. That’s what helps build a sustainable art career.”

Fostel and Dorsey have also purchased work from artists featured at More Creative Power themselves, including pieces by Khadija Nia Adell, Stephanie Barber, and Jermaine Bell, accumulating a vast and diverse variety of media and styles, all evident on their walls. Often, a fundraiser or auction provides an opportunity to fall in love with a work of art, like the painting by Phaan Howng that Fostel purchased directly from the artist after an event concluded. At the time, Fostel felt like she couldn’t afford to buy new work since she was saving up money to transition to working on art full-time. But then, Howng mentioned that she needed a root canal.

“When I thought of how instead of just buying a piece of art I was helping an artist friend get needed health care, I didn’t hesitate at all and bought it,” Fostel says. “Buying art can often feel like a luxurious thing to do, but artists don’t often live luxurious lives. They need root canals and they don’t have dental insurance because we rarely even have good health care.”

Of course, the fundraiser couldn’t happen this year because of Covid-19, but Fostel and Dorsey continue to care about their communities while they’re at home, in their professional work, in the art they purchase, and in their hobbies. Dorsey has been gardening and growing oak and chestnut trees in pots in the backyard. Once they get larger, he plans to transplant them to other parts of the city. As for Sunday dinners, Fostel says, “As soon as we’re allowed to and it’s safe enough to hang out and have dinner together, I can’t wait to make everyone a big bowl of ramen.”


Header Image credit:

Left of doorway, top: May 2019 Grand Sumo Tournament Banzuke; Antique Japanese woodblock print; Alpha Massaquoi, Lonely Night, 2018, linocut on paper; Elliot Doughtie, Untitled (moon dwellers series), 2016, graphite on cut paper; Dick Turner, The Incredible Smile Machine, 1992, mixed media

left of doorway, bottom: Stephanie Barber, falling was fine enough, 2019, print; Erin Fostel, After 45 years, 2020, charcoal and graphite on paper; Bonnie Crawford, Untitled Diptych (Sunburn), 2017, digital print; Mequitta Ahuja, Dream Sequence: Sparrow’s Ayah, 2010, enamel, glitter, and watercolor on paper

Left of doorway, table: Stephanie Barber, animals as decoration, totem, 2018, viewfinder essay; Kate Stringer, Who Invited the Skeleton, 2018, ceramic; Rebecca Juliette, Untitled, 2020, woven fabric; Wormhole Workshop portrait, 2019, tintype; Lisa Dillin, Fallen Tree, 2015, painted PLA, glass case; Katie Feild, Yeti Crab, 2015, mixed media

Above doorway: Steve Keene, German Ruins, They call me the hunter, Driving in Hollywood, Led Zeppelin, Fall Sunset, Italian Garden, 2014, acrylic on panel

Right of doorway: Dave Iden, Triangle, 2016, inkjet print (photo to right of doorway); Jacob Ulrich, unknown, date unknown, wood, paint, and concrete


This story is from Issue 10: Power,

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