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Contemporary Art Commissions at the Redeveloped Lexington Market

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Lexington Market, the nation’s oldest continuously operating public market, has undergone change since its first inception. Originally, it wasn’t even called Lexington Market, but rather the Western Precincts Market. When it began in 1782, it was just a stretch of pastureland set aside for vendors. That land had been donated by John Eager Howard, a Revolutionary War general, and soon the market was renamed “Lexington” after the battle which began that war.

Since then, the market has taken many shapes. Buildings were erected in 1803 to accommodate the market’s ever-growing size. By the mid-19th century, Lexington Market had reached such a scale that Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “the gastronomic capital of the world.” In the mid-20th century, the market burned down and had to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Today, Lexington Market is undergoing yet another transformation. Starting in 2018, the City of Baltimore set about a massive renovation project. Anyone who’s been to the market recently has seen the new South Market building going up alongside the old East Market. A walking plaza is also being built where the old Arcade was taken down. These projects are being carried out by Seawall Development, the Baltimore-based company responsible, among other things, for R. House in Remington.

From the beginning of the renovation project, Baltimore City and Seawall envisioned a role for art and artists. They wanted to commission and display artworks from Baltimore-based artists that would make a significant contribution to the surrounding Bromo Arts District and signal the importance of local culture to the new space. Together with the Baltimore Municipal Arts Society, Seawall issued two public calls for “permanent, site-specific, integrated artworks” open to Maryland artists and those living in nearby states.

Oletha DeVane and Christopher Kojzar's design for Lexington Market commission

Oletha DeVane and her son Christopher Kojzar were selected to create one of the sculptural works. They have drawn inspiration from the public history initiative launched by Seawall and the City of Baltimore in conjunction with the new developments, specifically discoveries that historian Dean Krimmel from Johns Hopkins has uncovered in old photographs and newspaper clippings about the market.

One of Krimmel’s questions was what role, if any, Lexington Market played in the American chattel slavery system. Krimmel discovered one case of a person being sold in Lexington Market, a woman named Rosetta who was sold by the Baltimore city bailiff. He also found an ad for a runaway named Robert, who had lived on the plantation in what is now Howard County belonging to the county’s namesake, Governor George Howard.

DeVane and Kojzar’s piece, “Robert and Rosetta,” will depict these two people standing on either side of a swirling archway of wrought iron, a material that references Baltimore’s industries of the 19th century. DeVane wants the sculpture to enhance a sense of a “Black presence” in the market’s history. “There were no Black vendors when Robert and Rosetta were alive, so that part of the history is often invisible,” says DeVane. “This piece is about honoring these two people by making them known—making them visible.”

DeVane and Kojzar’s designs are being implemented by the metalworker Nicholas Ireys, who is also teaming up with Eric Smith and Reed Bmore on the plaza’s other sculptural work. Reed Bmore is an artist best known for the public wire sculptures he sometimes hangs from traffic line wires.

Reed Bmore’s background is in graffiti art, and his sculptures preserve the fast, colorful qualities of that medium. His piece for Lexington Market, “Food Play,” is no exception. The piece consists of long loops of colored wire, some twice the height of an adult, shaped into crabs, bananas, and other foods sold at the market. It is a lively homage to this “gastronomic capital of the world.”

In addition to the sculptural works, Seawall has commissioned two mural works for the new Lexington Market. Renowned artist Ernest Shaw will contribute four 16-foot murals to the plaza. Shaw has painted murals throughout Baltimore, from Graffiti Alley to Camden Yards, and he has always viewed murals as a means to connect the disparate parts of the city.

Reed Bmore's design for Lexington Market commission

Shaw grew up in West Baltimore and was admitted at a young age to a gifted school program and later graduated from the Baltimore School for the Arts. On his long bus rides, Shaw viewed murals out the window by artists like Pontella Mason. Now he hopes that his network of murals can create a foundation of shared experience for the people of Baltimore’s different worlds.

Shaw’s murals at Lexington Market will draw from his prior work, incorporating figures and African masks, to make the market into a node of this network of experience. “The designs that I’m working on are a culmination of my mural work over the past twenty years,” says Shaw. “I want to bring that symbolism and iconography to Lexington Market to pull together those different parts of the city.” Shaw will paint the four murals over a three-week period in July 2022.

The other mural work, which will be inside the new building, is by multimedia artist SHAN Wallace. “Outside of my childhood home, Lexington Market is the place where I have the most memories,” says Wallace. She recalls going to the market every day with her mother, who has since passed.

In 2015, when Wallace was just beginning as an artist, she started photographing Lexington Market with no particular outcome in mind. The project grew over the years, with Wallace photographing the market’s dance events in particular. These photos will form the basis of Wallace’s mural, titled “Our Ties to the Market.”

Given her strong attachments to Lexington Market, Wallace was initially nervous to hear that this place would be changing. “At first I was sad, and I was scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Wallace. “But now I’m optimistic about the new moments and memories people will contribute to this place.” She says she is grateful that images of the old market will be preserved on the new market’s walls.

Although the changes to Lexington Market will replace familiar settings, they also provide an opportunity for commemoration. Generations alive today have a special experience of the market, with unique memories and perspectives on its history. The new works of art allow a long, accumulated experience to coalesce into objects made by master artists that make history and the present visible, within the ongoing development of Lexington Market.

Featured image: Ernest Shaw mural design mockup for Lexington Market

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