Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards at the BMA

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In an art world where the best museums are collecting and exhibiting the same twenty or so internationally-known artists, it’s a treat to encounter a purposefully curated exhibit of artists you’ve never heard of before.

Unlike global mega-artists intent on expanding a personal brand, it’s rare and extremely valuable to experience the work of artists that speak directly to the goût de terroir of a specific place as a site of cultural production. Especially viewed as a thoughtfully curated group,  this type of exhibit has the ability to radically expand one’s understanding of the complex history and present reality of a city, especially one with a fraught reputation like Baltimore. At the Baltimore Museum of Art and other regional museums, this kind of experience is thankfully becoming less rare and this is, at least anecdotally, cultivating excitement and foot traffic from a natural audience: the art community.

Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards at the BMA presents works by five recent awardees “who respond to the past, present, and imagined future of the city.” According to the museum, “Laura Amussen (interdisciplinary, 2020); David Page (visual arts, 2019); Ernest Shaw Jr. (visual arts, 2022); Susan Waters-Eller (visual arts, 2020); and Pamela Woolford (interdisciplinary, 2022) have each created works that speak to their geographic or social experiences in Baltimore. Some delve into the city’s complex histories and challenges, while others celebrate the city’s rich natural and intellectual resources, painting the future leaders of this American metropolis.”


Pamela Woolford, David Page, Susan Waters-Eller, Ernest Shaw, Jr., and Laura Amussen at the BMA
Guests at opening night at the BMA of Baltimore, Addressed

“The Baker Artist Awards celebrates and invests in the careers of artists working in the Baltimore region,” says Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance Executive Director Jeannie Howe, just after the opening night celebration on Friday, November 11, which recorded over 600 attendees. “In fourteen years, Baker Artists Awards has given $1.3 million in prizes to 150 artists. Thanks to the Baker Fund, this investment lets artists know that Baltimore is a place that embraces and supports creative people of all kinds.” Since the inception of these interdisciplinary art awards with an inclusive website for artist applications, the GBCA has facilitated this process, part of an ongoing partnership with The William G. Baker, Jr.  Memorial Fund, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Maryland Public Television.

To add context to this exhibit, this is the first time Baker award-winners have been installed in the third floor of the Contemporary Wing, and the third time in recent memory that the museum has mounted a significant exhibition of Baltimore-based artists in this particular space.

The first was a solo exhibit of beloved MICA professor and painter Jo Smail in 2020-21, and the second a survey of four women artists (Lauren Adams, Mequitta Ahuja, LaToya Hobbs, and Cindy Cheng) in 2021, who received Joan Mitchell grants, planned in conjunction with the traveling Joan Mitchell retrospective. In both cases, shows were expertly curated and featured large, ambitious works in the prominent spaces previously held by Rothko and Still and other modern masters with a permanent, site-specific Sarah Oppenheimer installation. In both cases, the exhibits successfully made the case that Baltimore-based artists are every bit as deserving as globally recognized artists.

Although the Baker Artist awards (as well as the Sondheim Prize) has historically mounted exhibitions celebrating their award winners at the BMA previous to the pandemic, this one feels different. In the past, these types of local prize-based displays have functioned as showcases for the awards, featuring a menagerie of visual and literary and sometimes musical work, and it’s worth noting that there has never been a curator’s name publicly attached. However, this one functions less like a prize-based intervention, and the placement in the Contemporary Wing as well as the curation by Brittany Luberda, the BMA Anne Stone Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts, has made a significant difference in its presentation.

The following conversation with Michael Anthony Farley was conducted after our initial visit to the show on opening night.


Laura Amussen's installation in the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Fall 2022, Photo courtesy of the BMA

Michael Anthony Farley: Unfortunately, I was out of town for a lot of the above exhibitions you mentioned. But I think this might be one of the best Baker Finalist Exhibitions I’ve seen, and that’s a testament not just to the individual artists’ work and curatorial prowess of the selection committee and BMA’s exhibition staff, but an unexpected cohesion between artists working across very different media, scale, and perspectives.

I almost wish the order of the solo shows was slightly tweaked, or that some of the pieces were hung in the same gallery spaces to further emphasize those connections. However, this is the first time I’ve seen a Baker show that felt like it really told a story about the city—the way the built environment and late capitalism shape culture and vice-versa, acts of personal resilience in the face of paradigms outside of an individual’s control.

Cara Ober: I agree! Although these five mini-solo exhibits might at first seem completely a-thematic and disparate, there’s actually a really interesting undercurrent of ideas and affinity happening. As you walk through each in a shotgun apartment style: Amussen, Page, Shaw, Waters-Eller, and Woolford, and then back in reverse, certain place-based ideas begin to gel and become coherent, and while I can’t say the theme is ‘environmental,’ each artist speaks passionately and succinctly about aspects of their lived experiences here in Baltimore, based upon their decades of working here, so there’s a lot to unpack.

A collective theme emerges, and it’s loose yet still specific. Amussen explores Baltimore’s often-hidden natural environments: the woods, parks, and hiking trails, Page elucidates the history and present state of labor in a previously wealthy industrial city grappling with poverty, Shaw’s sensitivity and empathy gained through experience as a teacher in Baltimore’s public schools manifests in metaphorical portraits, Waters-Eller explores her own outrage over political and social issues, and Woolford employs quintessential storytelling abilities to tease out a love story that unfolds in Baltimore’s convoluted landscape.


Amussen on opening night
detail from Laura Amussen's installation in the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Fall 2022, Photo courtesy of the BMA

MAF: Laura Amussen’s utopian fantasy forest—inspired by the healing properties of her pandemic lockdown hikes—in this context takes on an unexpected connotation, really dialoguing with the dystopian undercurrents of the show. When I first walked in I thought, “I want to live here,” and overheard someone else telling the artist, “I just picture myself sitting in a hot tub in the middle of your work.” But upon leaving, I thought of that seductive, playful escapism as a dissonant interval to some of the other works grounded in uglier realities—Amussen’s infectious optimism simultaneously balances and underscores depictions of life in a city that can be very lovely and very unjust at the same time.

CO: I like viewing each exhibit separately. In Amussen’s installation, the wealth of detail is overwhelming and immersive. Each individually sculpted mushroom is so charmingly detailed. Viewed collectively, they present this ideal green space teeming with life and you can see her photographic references, the actual mushrooms she encountered on her hikes, in a video slideshow hung across from the installation.

MAF: It wasn’t until later that I noticed the digital photographs were titled “Composters and Connectors,” and I thought that was such a good metaphor for Baltimore’s overlapping cultural rhizomes! This might sound cheesy, but I like the idea of the artists here breaking down what’s rotten, networking, and upcycling our fertile grounds to sprout up in unexpected places, like mycelia.


Artist David Page, with his installation in the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the BMA, photo by Anne Brown

CO: Moving into David Page’s space from Amussen’s is a complete sensory transformation. Green becomes white, natural becomes industrial. In classic Page style, antique metal sewing machines, the very objects Baltimore’s wealth was built upon as a center of garment production during the industrial revolution, are bound by ropes and hung, suspended mid-air. Like holy relics and also hostages, the sewing machines represent Baltimore’s historic past, built on the labor of garment workers, and a hamstrung potential future as a site for small-scale businesses and manufacturing of handmade goods.

MAF: Page’s work very succinctly speaks to the fetishization of labor. Tools become objects of display, and by extension, the idea of production has been supplanted by neoliberal consumption. Since seeing this show, I’ve noticed how many Baltimore restaurants use old sewing machine bases as table legs, how many former industrial spaces have become sites of commodified leisure, and how even the newest additions to the built environment try to masquerade as industrial patrimony.

How perverse is it that speculative real estate projects aimed at multinational investment firms and their managerial class mimic the “charming” aesthetics of the very factories they displaced to dismal sweatshop parks on the fringes of “developing” megacities—often on the same corporate-welfare subsidized waterfront sites that once housed the union jobs they deemed obsolete?


David Page installation in the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the BMA
David Page installation in the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' on opening night at the BMA

CO: Hearing the artists talk at the preview was enlightening and Page, a South African expat and longtime Baltimore-based sculptor and professor, talked about a remembered conversation between two conservative pundits on TV. They described factory garment workers as “unskilled,” and he explained how angry this slight made him.

Page is an artist who can expertly craft metal, leather, canvas, and wood, and his sewing prowess as well as his ability to carve and compose is evident in all of his sculptural work. In past installations, Page has enlisted teams of human volunteers who are suited up within some of his sculptures and held, by their own consent, prostrate and often mid-air, for extended periods of time. This exploration of bondage, physically and symbolically, infuses Page’s work with tension and drama, and sometimes it’s a little sinister, but in a sexy BDSM Tim Burton-esque way.


Ernest Shaw's paintings in the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the BMA

MAF: Moving on from David Page’s work to Ernest Shaw’s is one of those moments of curatorial alchemy I always appreciate as a viewer. The two artists couldn’t be more distinct visually or in terms of process—there’s a meticulous, almost claustrophobic sense of deliberate control in Page’s sculptures, and Shaw’s large, colorful figurative canvases with all their expressive mark-making are like a shock. Whereas Page’s work implies an eerie absence of humans—the machine without user, prosthesis without body—Shaw speaks to the opposite. What happens to the people without gainful, formal labor?

At the opening, Shaw talked about the controversy surrounding Baltimore’s squeegee workers. (For any non-Baltimorean readers: the ubiquitous, mostly school-age kids who offer to clean cars’ windshields at busy intersections for a handful of pocket change, and apparently strike terror in the pearl-clutching hearts of suburban commuters.) I came in a little late to Shaw’s talk, right when he was explaining that this informal labor was “their last bastion to maintain whatever dignity and humanity they have.”

That’s a line that’s stuck with me, because it’s one that’s been largely absent from the endless political debates about this “problem.” And the perspective in Shaw’s portraits like “Crossing Gods 2” and “Jamal” literally elevates the subjects—we’re looking up at them, as I roughly imagine someone seated in a car would. But here they’re rendered majestically, like an icon of importance, as if we’re crouching, rather than a figure “looming” from the side of a motorist’s instinctually threat-seeking peripheral vision.


Artist Ernest Shaw, with family, opening night at 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the BMA
Ernest Shaw, with a self-portrait in the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the BMA

CO: For me, it was such a delight to see Ernest Shaw’s large paintings fill the third gallery in this part of the museum because it’s a vast space and you get a dramatic long view. His work juggles scale and monumentality, layering delicate details over bold oversized portraits, so seeing them from a distance is so important in emphasizing their theatricality. Having the opportunity to cross the room, to allow yourself to be magnetically pulled in close and be rewarded by their intimate fine detail is such a gift.

Shaw is a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts – he was a student there when Jada Pinkett Smith and Tupac Shakur were there. He has this deep knowledge and affection for Baltimore’s artists and this is palpable in his work. After two decades as a Baltimore City Art teacher and muralist, and now as a full time artist, his career is dramatically blossoming and this exhibit just confirms it.

When you dig into the specific subject matter, Shaw’s portraits are of specific individuals, some are self-portraits, and they are based upon his lived experiences in Baltimore. They come from a place of empathy and also research, where African masks, patterns, and shapes are layered over his figures. In the gallery Shaw talked about one piece in particular, where a young subject wields a squeegee like a royal scepter and he spoke eloquently about this connection to historic labor, and how working gives us all a value and worth as human beings.

MAF: When speaking about his practice, Shaw mentioned “humanizing the dehumanized,” and I almost wish there were fewer paintings in the hang, because I think it would’ve encouraged viewers to spend a bit more time with each individually. Speaking from a strictly formal point of view, not each-and-every one of these is one of my personal favorite paintings in the world—but that’s an issue of individual taste rather than a critique of their merit, and I’m glad they’re getting recognition.

His mixed-media self-portrait “Me,” (2020) however, is probably one of the strongest pieces in the whole show, with a variety of surfaces and gestural marks that alternately imply confidence and questioning of identity. It’s both mask-like and visceral, with some areas deliberately “unfinished.” I like that idea of a self-portrait as something that’s a composite, and forever a work-in-progress.

“When I see squeegee kids, I see a younger manifestation of myself,” Shaw said, and that was a little heart-breaking, because—Cara, I believe you mentioned that Shaw said his father had never been to the BMA before?? What a sad commentary about the real and perceived barriers to institutional access in a city with so much to offer and so much inequality. So there’s a special kind of poetic justice that Ernest Shaw Sr.’s son should win one of the city’s biggest art awards in this space, representing himself and those most marginalized.


Mixed Media paintings by Susan Waters-Eller in the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the BMA

MAF: Entering the gallery with Susan Waters-Eller’s mixed-media paintings, I found myself wishing viewers could experience these first—because I see them as setting the stage for so many of the stories being told in the exhibition at large. For decades, Waters-Eller has made work about “trends in our world that need correcting,” as she explained, from environmental racism to the prison industrial complex. Having recently retired after a whopping 44 years as a MICA professor, it was really nice to see a spotlight shone on her work—which, crazily, I had never seen until this exhibition!

I view her practice as a conceptual lynchpin for the whole show. Why are the kids in Ernest Shaw’s paintings risking their lives on the corner of high-speed arterial roads? Because decades of racist, car-centric “urban renewal” paved over landscapes like those evoked by Laura Amussen’s installation to create the present-day dystopia depicted in works like Waters-Eller’s 2016 “City Planning.” The issues of labor and deindustrialization alluded to in David Page’s work are laid bare in Waters-Eller’s 2001 “The Production of a Free Workforce,” 1996 “Rapacity,” and 2002 “Avidity Redux.” She confronts the ongoing environmental and social justice disasters that have defined so much of America’s recent history with an unflinching gaze.

CO: In the gallery talk with the artists, Susan Waters-Eller was clear about the motivation for her work: outrage. From a distance, these mixed media paintings are subtle imaginary landscapes which rely on traditional applications of linear perspective into architectural forms. However, once you come in closer, you realize the artist has densely layered collage elements – newspaper text, images from public sources, and political commentary are all lurking beneath the surface of the landscape, creating a layer of dissonance and simmering rage.


Susan Waters-Eller at the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the BMA
Susan Waters-Eller with mixed media works at the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the BMA
Susan Waters-Eller’s “City Planning,” oil over collage on panels

MAF: I love details like the tiny George HW Bush holding up a bag of crack in the frieze above the privatized prison entrance depicted in “The Production of a Free Workforce.” The content of the newspaper clippings she collages and transfers to build up her surfaces function as the support for her dark landscapes both literally and figuratively.

I think “City Planning” might be one of my favorite paintings of Baltimore. The diptych places the viewer in the center of a highway, presumably the Jones Falls Expressway, in a place human bodies are typically not permitted to exist—it’s probably one of the most costly pieces of taxpayer-funded “public space” in the history of the city, but can only be experienced by those with access to thousands of dollars worth of private property, the prosthesis of the speeding car.

But I’m also drawn to her smaller, more-recent graphite-and-pastel drawings on duralar and paper. Here, her interest in layering takes on a more ambiguous role. Grids and diagrams evoking networks and flowcharts, like a programmer might render, are layered atop delicate pastel depictions of clouds. They speak to the futility of attempting to impose order on something you can’t control, or maybe even classify.

I see these as a quiet reflection—a coda, if you will—on a career spent screaming at systems too big for any one individual to fight. Are these diagrams attempting to identify which clouds are toxic fumes from the highway? Greenhouse gasses? Rare patches of blue sky through the smog? We can’t be sure, and by the time a gaseous phenomena can be identified and assessed, it will have blown away anyway.


Visitors engage with Pamela Woolford's narrative installation at the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the BMA

CO: Although it’s located in the very back space of the gallery, a multi-media installation by Pamela Woolford is immersive and inviting. An accomplished storyteller with a background in writing, video, and performance, Woolford tells the fictional love story of a photographer using her body and face as the model in a digital slideshow of intimate portraits coupled with the story told on audio via headphones. Across from the immersive audiovisual experience, the artist has arranged a number of historic sepia-toned photos in display cases of friends and family members, sharing the artist’s ancestral legacy of Black love.

MAF: Pamela Woolford described her multimedia narrative as “a new form of Afrofuturism,” and there’s a nonspecificity to the anachronistic setting that could place its protagonists in various time frames. I didn’t get to spend as much time with the piece as I would’ve liked to in a crowded gallery where headphones were a suddenly scarce commodity. But there’s a tenderness to the personal scale of Woolford’s work that feels healing and optimistic.


Artist Pamela Woolford's at the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' opening at the BMA
Visitors engage with Pamela Woolford's narrative installation at the 'Baltimore, Addressed: Baker Artist Awards' at the BMA

CO: For me, Woolford’s strength lies in her ability to marry historical research, personal narrative, and fiction in such a way that the viewer learns so much about the subjects she investigates, but through a personal lens that makes each story intimate and personal. You’re not sure if the characters in her stories are autobiographical, fictionalized versions, or completely invented, but this gives them the freedom and space to tell their story artfully.

Woolford is a powerful performer and uses her own voice, face, and body to animate her story, immersing you in a series of digital photographs that segue on a large screen, coupled with audio clips. The love story of a middle-aged Black woman and her boyfriend, the photographer who created the images in everyday, urban settings offers us a story that feels familiar and compelling, and also features Baltimore as a backdrop in an incisive and purposeful way.



MAF: At the very end of visiting the show, I was reminded of the most subtly bleak, overlooked line in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner: 2049, wherein a sex worker numbly remarks “I’ve never seen a real tree before. It’s pretty.”

The pastoral romanticism—or fantasy of proximity to nature—was one of the motivators that sold the idea of the suburbs a century ago. (Of course we can have it all!) Ironically, we paved over our rivers and valleys to speed suburban commuters to a manufactured simulacrum of Country Life™, on the petroleum-guzzling freeways of Susan Water-Eller’s landscapes, unimpeded by the squeegee kids in Ernest Shaw Jr’s portraits or the postindustrial displacement implied by David Page’s installation. Our plants are plastic, and of course they’re made in China.

CO: I think there are a lot of visitors to the museum who are not from Baltimore and perhaps, for them, there’s an expansion on this idea, that they’ve never seen the ‘real’ Baltimore before, or at least a version that is surprisingly pretty.

Although this exhibit offers extremely disparate, subjective views on what Baltimore is, it certainly posits it as a site of significant cultural production, a place where serious and ambitious art is made, and where artists’ lived experiences, research, and ideas impressions of the city offer a valid counter-point to leading narratives. We just need more opportunities like this one for artists to benefit from this kind of funding and support that allows them to realize their vision at a museum quality and scale.


Photos courtesy of GBCA; Public acknowledgement: Cara Ober is a board member of the GBCA

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