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The Public Art Chronicles, Vol. II: Michelle Santos’ 2011 Mural “Historic Druid Heights”

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Let’s start in the middle. A giant orb, comprising concentric circles, pulls my eye from the outermost, fire-red circle through the rosy-colored ring nested within it, on through a smaller peachy orange one, and finally into a sunshiny yellow disc in the very middle of the huge sphere. The transitions from color to color are smooth, not jolting. The effect is hypnotic. 

This arrangement appears at the center of Michelle Santos’s mural at the corner of Druid Hill Avenue and Presstman Street in the Druid Heights neighborhood of Baltimore. Crossing over the colorful set of concentric circles are two right hands, one reaching inward from what would be 10 o’clock if the set of circles were a clock, the other at 4 o’clock. The hands reach toward each other, fingertips appearing to touch at the circles’ bright yellow center. The Black skin on parts of the fingers glows, suggesting the vibrant ball has the power to illuminate all that comes within its range. Also superimposed on the sphere are what at first appear to be silhouettes of thin, naked tree branches, but are actually traces of vines that periodically attach themselves to the wall. Given the imagined power of this glowing orb, the linear patterns could just as well be a visualization of electrical currents. And so begins my journey of story-finding embedded in and exuding from another piece of Baltimore’s enormously rich spread of public art.

 

It takes a minute to wrench myself out of the cosmic nerve center of this 40-foot wide, 20-foot-tall mural, which Santos created in 2011, and move on to clues and cues that will help piece together the narratives that figurative murals promise to offer up. Whatever culminating set of stories I might come up with, its overarching title is indisputable. It’s painted in large letters along the top curve of the outermost, red ring: Historic Druid Heights. Prompted by this cue, I begin to search for its meaning. 

I scan from left to right, first seeing two arms reaching inward from the mural’s left side toward its center, ending in cupped hands carefully holding dark, rich-looking soil, out of which rises a green plant. Anyone who read my first column in BmoreArt’s Public Art Chronicles will understand when I say: Santos had me at … DIRT. Seriously, the thought of nestling cool, moist dirt in finger-tight cupped hands right now, instead of tapping my curved fingers on my ABS computer keys (ABS being the acronym for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, the material out of which my computer keys are made … and yes, I had to look that up), instills an almost inescapable desire to head for the fertile hills. But staying in place and on topic, it’s clear from gazing around and beyond the image of soil-filled hands–at the foliage painted below and above them, at the greenery painted across the top of the mural and ending with the tree that frames the mural’s right side, and at the flowers springing up along the base of the mural—that growth, nurturing, and regeneration are the vital concepts that will be tying together the pieces of the stories my mind is beginning to spin. 

Hints that these concepts will not be exclusively about nature, but as much about the material world, are present in the references to architecture in the mural. Of course, most murals are interlocked with architecture by way of the structures on which they appear–walls outside or inside buildings, roadway underpasses, public transportation platform walls and ceilings, and more. This quality makes murals unique in the arena of public art, insisting from the get-go that we attend to the place where they appear, as well as to our own place in relation to that. In other words, murals enact the practice of placemaking. Some murals are very specific about this act. Santos’s is a prime example. Painted along the bottom left of the mural are the upper stories of buildings that resemble residences and businesses in the Druid Heights neighborhood, and peeking up from the tops of the letters of the arching title, as well as below them, are facades of nearby buildings. 

It’s at this point in my visual journey that my eyes rest on the peripheries of the central sphere. Here, I begin to understand that the history in the titular “Historic” will be inextricably linked to the identities of the two figures who occupy those peripheral spaces. These two figures likely hold the key, I surmise, to how nature (soil, plants, trees, flowers) intersects with material culture (architecture) to make history. So, who are these women?

Jacquelyn Cornish
Maggie Quille

In a much-appreciated phone call with Santos, she identified them as Maggie Quille on the right and Jacquelyn Cornish on the left, and shared some biographical details gleaned from meetings she and community members held during the mural planning process. Following up on our conversation, my research confirmed that Maggie Quille had founded and was later president of the Druid Heights Community Association, which preceded the creation of the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation (DHCDC), for which Jacquelyn Cornish was CEO and Executive Director from 1987 to 2007. Digging a bit deeper, I discovered the magnitude of these two individuals’ impact on the neighborhood, if not the City at large. It was far from the peripheries of anything, I quickly learned, that these women stood in everyday life. 

Maggie Quille had moved to Baltimore in 1933, after graduating from Tuskegee University in Alabama, to attend the nursing program at Provident Hospital, “the city’s only hospital that trained African-American nurses and doctors, and one of few that treated black patients,” according to a 1999 Baltimore Sun article covering Quille’s and many others’ grief over the closing of that facility (known, at that point in time, as Liberty Hospital). Beyond nursing, she helped organize a mental health outreach center and many youth programs, while working on “revitalizing neighborhoods by encouraging rehabbing of older homes and construction of new homes, ensuring that residents had access to low-income housing,” according to walking-tour notes provided by DHCDC online. These notes also indicate that “Mrs. Quille” was known as the “Mayor of Druid Heights,” her service having included the “renovation of three parks, including one at Presstman and Etting Street which was named after her late husband Rev. L. N. Quille.” The notes conclude: “Her legacy can be seen throughout the community in the new homes that have been built in Druid Heights and the green spaces throughout the community.” There it is: material culture (the architecture of homes) meets nature (green spaces).

Jacquelyn Cornish’s contribution to these same community endeavors played out beyond her two decades at the DHCDC to include another decade of work for the Baltimore Department of Housing & Community Development, and then the Baltimore County Department of Planning. Her stance in the mural, speaking from a lectern composed of the rooftops of buildings related to her work, while holding a flower in her left hand, speaks again to the powerful juncture of nature and material culture required to generate a thriving community.

Given these spectacular biographies, which include, in part, attention to youth, it’s not surprising to see children depicted in the mural: one stands at the left, staring upward at Jacquelyn Cornish with an expression of awe; the other, on the right, has their back to the viewer and appears to be in motion with the goal of placing their forehead on Mrs. Quille’s shoulder. These children seem to stand for all youth who have benefited–and can continue to benefit–from their elders’ leadership and actions by carefully watching how they lead, and by leaning on their histories. 

Maggie Quille lived at 1920 Druid Hill Avenue, ten doors down from the mural as it was being painted. Sadly, she passed in 2012, just one year after its completion, at the age of 99. She didn’t live to see the day that Santos’s mural was on the front page of the New York Times on July 30, 2019, an appearance that would likely have pleased her, despite its outrageous context. Above and alongside the photo are articles about Trump’s notorious attacks on the Rev. Al Sharpton and on Representative Elijah E. Cummings, whose district Trump had called, in a tweet a few days earlier, a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” and referring to Baltimore as a “very dangerous & filthy place.” The caption under the front-page news photo of the mural directs readers to an article on page A18, titled “Baltimore to Trump: You Lost Your Authority to Criticize.” I believe Mrs. Quille would have found this title apt. (Interestingly, Santos did not know her mural was on the cover of the New York Times until her son who lives in New York City called to tell her.)

Santos’ Mural on NYT Front Page-30 July 2019

Back to the middle of the mural: In wondering about my fascination with the central vibrating orb, I found designer and visual culture theorist Manuel Lima’s 2017 The Book of Circles: Visualizing Spheres of Knowledge, of interest. He hypothesizes that the “allure of the circle might be rooted in our own visual cognitive apparatus.” Human eyes, he argues, are “spherical orbs [that] abound with circularity, their most noticeable elements being the iris and pupil…. [S]uch spheres create a natural circular frame for our visual field, which on its own could substantiate an innate preference for matching geometric shapes.” This thought could also account for what I experienced as an urge to keep circling around all elements of the mural, from left to right, up and down, following that path again and again, eventually taking in edges and corners. 

I was glad to have poked into the latter, because it was in the lower right corner that I found: the artist’s signature (written as Santos-Graves, the second name, the artist informed me, being that of her husband, who often assists her); the year (2011); and a tribute line (“with help from K. Fernstrom”). I tracked this abbreviated name to Dr. Katharine Fernstrom, an anthropologist “exploring the unified history of American murals including Baltimore City,” according to her biography on Towson University’s website. Dr. Fernstrom told me that out of her research-driven interest in the process and materials used in creating murals, she’d volunteered to assist through Baltimore Office of Promotion of the Arts (BOPA), which, along with the DHCDC, had commissioned the Druid Heights project.

The circulatory visual urge I experienced may have been reinforced by the pattern of the background, which is made up of hundreds of small spiraling forms, which could be construed as the tracks of dilating pupils, painted in dark blue upon a lighter blue plane. Could it be that my “own visual cognitive apparatus” was keeping me fixated on repeatedly replicating circular paths around and across all the figurative and natural forms as I searched for the story paths that would ultimately join together in a culminating narrative about Historic Druid Heights? Maybe. But these Lima-related thoughts, for all their explanatory academic merit, are not as satisfying as the stories themselves–the stories of two powerful women and the ways in which they built community by honoring the intersection of nature and material culture. 

It’s at the other intersection–where the two Black hands reach toward each other across the red-rose-peach-yellow central sphere–that power is generated, a power strong enough to last for the younger generations that the children in the mural represent. It seems poignant that nature’s real-life contribution to this story is the spread of vines that periodically cling to the wall of the building on which the mural is painted. Having found myself imagining those vines as electrical currents, as mentioned earlier, perhaps even providing a power surge for the hands to move closer together, Santos’s actual reason for highlighting hands is even more poignant. When I asked her about this focus in so many of her murals (almost all of her 13 murals across Baltimore feature her signature depiction of hands), she offered this poetic quote: “Hands express how we communicate, how we love, how we create, how we interact with each other, how we interact with the world, how we heal each other.”

Again, as in my first column, I am learning that public art viewing is as much about story-making as it is about story-finding, with one or the other being more or less reflective of fact. In the case of Historic Druid Heights, in particular when it comes to hands, I feel fortunate to have found the artist and her story. It balances out, and is much better than, the one I made up.

It was only as I was concluding this month’s column that I realized Women’s History Month was just beginning–an appropriate moment to shine a light on the already illumined figures of Maggie Quille, Jacqueyln Cornish, and Michelle Santos. Here’s to you three powerful, fierce, creative women!

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