Saba Hamidi to Bring Color to Maryland Avenue Bridge

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If you went to Artscape last fall, you may have seen, somewhere along the Charles Street corridor, Saba Hamidi’s vibrant vinyl-wrapped electrical boxes featuring colorful squiggles, swirls, and smiles, among other playful shapes and symbols. Or maybe you’ve seen her lightly shaded mural inside Mount Vernon’s Mera Kitchen Collective, combining the delicate outline of a tree with polygon patterns inspired by the textiles and artifacts of the countries whose cuisine the restaurant serves.

Or perhaps her “Growth is evolution is progress” mural at Lexington Market is the one that caught your eye; those words arranged over a sprouting sapling and large rainbow-colored leaves in a mimetic circle so that you can begin the sentence anywhere. 

Hamidi, founder of the visual storytelling studio MadeBySaba, painted this mural with the fellow co-founders of Brush Mural Fest, a mural festival that seeks to open doors for up-and-coming muralists in Baltimore. Brush Mural Fest will officially become an annual traditionthat is, return for a second yearin September. 

But before then, by mid-July, if all goes as planned, there should be another one of Hamidi’s creations to behold. It will be one of the longest artworks in the city: a 500-foot mural along both walls of the Maryland Avenue bridge between Lanvale and Oliver Streets midtown. 

The mural is a key element of the Midtown Community Benefits District’s Falls Gateway Master Plan, which aims to reimagine (and even realign) the Jones Falls Trail through art, public space improvements, and other upgrades to the nearby alleys, streets, and underpasses. The location is notorious for graffiti, but Hamidi and her teamshe is hiring at least four other muralists to assist herwill figure out how to deal with any issues that arise.

Spanning the Jones Falls Expressway, the Maryland Avenue Bridge was built in the mid-1890s by the Pennsylvania Steel Company to carry electric street railroad cars. Right now, Hamidi sees the vehicular bridge as a blank canvas. Soon, it should be, at the very least, an Instagrammable moment. “There’s no real reason, if you’re a pedestrian, to look up from your phone and look at your surroundings,” she says. “I want to create a beautiful, exciting, colorful, playful space that draws people in, together.”

Photo by Peter Hoblitzell
Photo by Peter Hoblitzell
Photo by Peter Hoblitzell
I want to create a beautiful, exciting, colorful, playful space that draws people in, together.
Saba Hamidi

Hamidi said that the project, “1000% the result of community work,” has already brought people together: groups like Midtown Baltimore, the Central Baltimore Partnership, the Friends of the Jones Falls, and the Goldseker Foundation, as well as consultants from Bloom Arts Strategy, RK&K, and Mahan Rykiel Associates. The public has also had opportunities to contribute; Artscape attendees were able to share their thoughts on the design concept, and Midtown solicited community input at neighborhood association meetings and through its mailing list. “Everything about this project so far has been because there’s been a community of people that have been helping me,” Hamidi says. “And it’s going to continue to be that way.”

The resulting design is amorphous and dynamicand trippy. “That’s not my word, but everybody else’s,” Hamidi clarifies. Additionally, the mural will feature, throughout 7,243 square feet of wall surface, a variety of hidden surprisesHamidi’s signature movemeant to evoke Baltimore without being too on the nose. These include rats, a salt box, a lemon stick, Mr. Trash Wheel, and the Orioles’ O logo, and will help ensure that the bridge connects the Station North Arts District with Mount Vernonnay, with the rest of Baltimorein more than just a literal sense.

“One thing that is unique about this mural location is that the bridge doesn’t necessarily belong to a specific community at all,” Hamidi says. “That became a driving factor for a concept: The bridge doesn’t belong to anyoneor, it belongs to everyone.”

“By including those little Easter eggs,” Hamidi continues, “there’s a way to tie all different parts of Baltimore together while still creating art that’s really for everybody.” 

Photo by Noisy Tenants
Photo by Peter Hoblitzell
Photo by Peter Hoblitzell
There's a lot of ups and downs and surprises and a lot of having to think and problem solve on your feet, which is challenging, but also makes the job really fun.
Saba Hamidi

Hamidi will celebrate 12 years of living in Baltimore the same month the mural is slated for completion. She moved to the city for a job in landscape architecture, which she studied at the University of Maryland. At first, she planned to major in architecture (she grew up not thinking a career as an artist was possible, but still wanted to have “one foot in the art world” while earning a steady paycheck), but was waitlisted from the School of Architecture, leading her to take an introductory landscape architecture course. So, she pivoted.

She worked in that field for seven years, doing graphics, concept drawings, and renderings for a landscape architecture, urban design, and planning firm. During the final year and a half, she knew she wanted to leave the firm, but was scared. She knew she was interested in illustration, and at the same time met artists and creatives, including Jess Langley (the founder of the design studio White Coffee Creative), who hired her to help with a mural project, leading Hamidi to dive into becoming a muralist.

In 2019, she left her job. Soon, the COVID-19 pandemic fell; one silver lining was that it gave Hamidi some time to figure things out. She realized she’d never be ready to take the leap to muraling full-time. “But you can never be fully ready,” she says.

And that’s true of the profession. It’s hard to predict, for instance, how various paints and brushes will interact with various surfaces. You’ll need four more coats than you thought, or the color will differ from what you’d anticipate. “After a while, you just sort of have to learn to expect the unexpected,” Hamidi says. 

As a result, she adds, “there’s a lot of ups and downs and surprises and a lot of having to think and problem solve on your feet, which is challenging, but also makes the job really fun.”

She also enjoys not sitting at a desk and being in new locations and environments for every project. Every day is different. And, when working with fellow muralists, it can be fun to bounce ideas off of others. Or “if you’re painting super high,” Hamidi adds, “it can be kind of scary up there, so it’s nice to have another person to talk through your fears, to know you’re gonna be okay.” 

Hamidi has enjoyed the collaborative nature of Baltimore’s creative community. “‘Collaboration over competition’ is something that I hear a lot and see a lot of people acting on, which I really appreciate,” she says. “I believe wholeheartedly that being in Baltimore specifically is the reason why I’ve been able to work for myself for the last five years and have a successful experience with it so far.”

Photo by Peter Hoblitzell

Photos courtesy of Saba Hamidi

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