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BmoreArt Releases New Full Length Book: City of Artists

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“I’ll never forget the time someone in Mexico City pulled down their pants in the middle of a restaurant to proudly show me their Divine tattoo, upon hearing that I was from Baltimore,” recalls Michael Anthony Farley, a contributing editor at BmoreArt and City of Artists essayist. “What is it about this city that we export so much culture?”

He’s not wrong, although Baltimore’s reputation does not necessarily align with this vision. Why do so many globally respected writers, novelists, journalists, poets, and screenwriters call Baltimore home? Why do so many visual artists with New York galleries and museum exhibits across the country live here? What is it about Baltimore that attracts and retains so many artists? And why does this remain Baltimore’s best-kept secret? The answer: it’s complicated.

Baltimore tends to resist simple labels and attempts at branding. It’s layered and contradictory, nuanced and multifaceted. This is one of the reasons why we love this city, but also why it’s so hard to change the national discourse around Baltimore’s reputation.

Although it’s not widely known, Baltimore is truly a “city of artists.” It’s a place where independent, innovative people can live and work in community with one another–and succeed professionally, even if most of the market for their work and its infrastructure–the galleries, art fairs, literary agents, and publishing houses–is located elsewhere.

This is why BmoreArt decided to theme its first-ever coffee table book around contemporary cultural production in Baltimore, to take a step back from the space we all inhabit and pay close attention to the movers and shakers in the art and literary worlds who call this place home.

More than anything, City of Artists considers WHY Baltimore offers such a rich context for contemporary art and culture, and does so from not one but multiple voices, perspectives, and viewpoints.

 

Our goal was to identify and celebrate all the reasons why Baltimore is an inspiring place to make world-caliber art.
Ed Berlin

“I don’t want anyone to think this book was a fast or easy project to accomplish,” says Cara Ober, Editor and Publisher. “This book started as a passionate idea, as most things do, and had it not been created in partnership with Ed Berlin [former owner of the Ivy Bookshop] from the very beginning, it would not exist.”

In 2020, after months of discussion, Berlin identified twelve or so literary writers he had come to know through Ivy Bookshop lectures, events, and book sales. These were largely authors who had published multiple books, or written for national news outlets, and, after creating a ‘wish list’ of names and a modest budget, Berlin and Ober began meeting with each potential contributor on Zoom, one at a time.

“All of the writers in this book are professionals, with their own books and their work is on a national stage,” says Berlin. “In most cases, they’re writing from the perspective of a city resident. Our goal was to identify and celebrate all the reasons why Baltimore is an inspiring place to make world-caliber art. They have all chosen to remain here, to be a part of the local community, and in a variety of different ways this book explains why.”

With each writer, Ober and Berlin pitched the idea of a beautiful book that incorporated some of the best visual art being made in Baltimore right now–the art of our place and time–combined with personal essays. Rather than an expository piece, they asked each author, including Laura Lippman, celeste doaks, Madison Smartt Bell, D. Watkins, Kondwani Fidel, and Scott Shane, to consider a specific event set in Baltimore, that helped to make them the artists they are today.

What is it about Baltimore that inspires you? they asked. What is it about this city, that has given you a certain viewpoint or sensitivity that makes you a better writer?

The result: a multi-faceted and diverse collection of highly readable essays, each steeped in the vernacular of place, full of the sights and sounds, neighborhoods and restaurants, history and landscape that each knows intimately.

Each author centered their story around a specific place in Baltimore City and no two spots were the same, but the subject was expansive enough to highlight the unique storytelling gifts that each poet, essayist, and journalist brought to the task.

In many cases, the writer had been thinking about the idea for many years, wanting a reason to create these stories, and for some others, the prompt inspired new thinking. What Ober and Berlin received were surprising, thoughtful, and challenging–but all the essays illuminated the ways a place impacts the art being made there.

“I believe that all art is site-specific,” says Ober. “But the influence of place can be difficult to pinpoint, especially when art is consumed from outside. What we wanted to offer in this book is a heightened sense of context, of shared experience, so that a collective picture of our city could emerge to challenge the accepted narratives we all know aren’t accurate.”

 

The book expanded to include a few art historians: Doreen Bolger, Lori Johnson, and Stan Mazaroff–and two writers from BmoreArt’s own staff, Chelsea Lemon Fetzer and Michael Anthony Farley, who played key roles in editing these essays to be as consistent as possible while preserving each author’s distinct voice. And then it was time to select the visual artists, one to “match,” but not illustrate, each written chapter.

The team, including Creative Director Raquel Castedo and Project Manager and Curator Ines Sanchez de Lozada, felt strongly that they wanted to work with a variety of artists who had achieved an equal level of professional success as the writers, but who also shared an aesthetic or conceptual tie to each essay.

They did not have a budget or time to commission original works of art, but instead considered existing bodies of work that were visually compelling, came from diverse artists, and specifically “spoke” to the theme of each individual essay, to function as a conceptual partner to it.

 

This book is unique because the design reflects the editorial decisions and the editorial decisions were informed by design.
Raquel Castedo

This was the point at which the project became huge and unwieldy, but Castedo, an experienced publication designer, created a structure to consider, vet, and select visual art and Ines Sanchez de Lozada, gallery coordinator and special projects manager, facilitated and organized this process.

Suddenly, the team had sixty artists that all felt passionate about, but could only select sixteen–to match the number of essays. “We were concerned that the relationship between selected artists and essays would not make sense to a reader,” says Ober. “And even many of the artists did not understand our concept of pairing them with personal essays. I honestly don’t know of another book that does this and I don’t know where we got the idea.” However it became important to the team at BmoreArt that each author and artist were given equal emphasis, and that each body of work was considered to be its own chapter, but paired to offer unique insights and contrast.

“It was important that we paired the artists and writers visually, but without creating a visual hierarchy,” explains Castedo. “This book is unique because the design reflects the editorial decisions and the editorial decisions were informed by design. We wanted to establish that the visual art and writing were equally important, so creating a title page for each and giving both a similar visual treatment helped to create cohesion between the writing and art. While the color treatments are beautiful, it was the strategy we chose as a team to make them feel paired and also, equal.”

After final selections were made and artists confirmed participation, Castedo created a series of colored text sections and title pages for each chapter to match each pair of author and artist, a design element that continues throughout the book.

The team was pleased that globally respected artists like John Waters, Joyce J. Scott, and Derrick Adams agreed to be a part of this project, but equally thrilled to work with many artists they have followed for years: Edgar Reyes, Jackie Milad, Jerrell Gibbs, some who have been featured in BmoreArt Magazine and the C+C Gallery, and others who have not.

 

It was challenging to gather all of the information from the artists including captioning, working within gallery contracts for some, in some cases having artwork photographed so that the quality of the image would be high.

In the case of John Waters, the BMA curatorial staff was helpful in sharing catalog images from his exhibition and then Marianne Boesky Gallery in NYC signed off. With Derrick Adams, they communicated with his studio team, signed contracts, and this project has entailed copious communications, myriad emails, updates, and the collection of so much information (see the list of works at the back of the book) that this project, in conjunction with producing biannual print journals and daily online content, gallery events and catalogs, and public lectures, was untenable, but the team managed anyway.

High quality printing was a priority and paper is at all-time expense. Castedo’s role as the publication designer included gathering quotes from printers across the country, and they ended up working with Ipsis, a publishing company she had worked with in the past in her home country of Brazil. Not only was the cost the most reasonable, despite shipping, Ipsis was able to provide custom aspects like silver foil text on the cover, a Smith-sewn binding, with the thread exposed in the spine and a soft cover with large flaps to create a collectible object.

“For Ipsis it was an honor to produce this book, using the quality refinements that we are accustomed to, the project was beautifully designed, the images are vibrant and alive, well treated, so on our side it is much easier to deliver a book with exuberant colors,” says Filipe Airoldi.

 

There were many ideas around what would go on the cover, but Castedo, who was not familiar with Adams’ work, made the decision. Not only does the subject of this portrait make eye contact with the viewer, the streets and three dimensional cars reference a cityscape. The colors, orange and purpley blue, are subtle but specifically reference Baltimore’s hometown teams. This image, graphic and bold, and depicting a possible artist or writer from Baltimore, felt right to the team, and Adams was quick to agree.

Now that the book is finished and the first shipment has arrived, the BmoreArt team is hard at work to distribute them locally through BmoreArt’s online shop, events at the Connect+Collect gallery space, with a large kick-off event on December 5 at the Enoch Pratt Library Central branch, quickly followed by a book talk at Greedy Reads Remington on December 9, followed by December 12 at Bird in Hand.

The book has been selected by D.A.P./Artbook for national distribution in 2024; this means that it will have a presence at booksellers and museum shops across the country, which was an initial goal in creating this publication.

While the BmoreArt print journal is gorgeous and of high quality, it is more relevant to a regional audience. Magazines tend to have a shorter shelf-life than books as well.

“City of Artists has the potential to represent Baltimore on a national stage and hopefully to help to elevate our city’s reputation as a place where globally relevant art and culture are produced,” says Ober. “We think Baltimore deserves more credit and attention, and that our creatives are bringing so much value to our city.”

 

City of Artists is now available at BmoreArt.com/shop. Quantities are limited.

Writers: Rafael Alvarez, Madison Smartt Bell, Doreen Bolger, Sheri Booker, celeste doaks, E. Doyle-Gillespie, Michael Anthony Farley, Kondwani Fidel, Lane Harlan, Lori Johnson, Chelsea Lemon Fetzer, Laura Lippman, Stanley Mazaroff, Scott Shane, Ron Tanner, D. Watkins

Visual Artists: Derrick Adams, Schroeder Cherry, Se Jong Cho, Alyssa Dennis, Oletha DeVane, Erin Fostel, Jerrell Gibbs, JM Giordano, Phaan Howng, Jeffrey Kent, Jackie Milad, Edgar Reyes, Joyce J. Scott, Jordan Tierney, René Treviño, John Waters

City of Artists Video

Preview

Book photos by Vivian Marie Doering

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