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The Fabulous Baker Boys

Baker Award winners display work at the BMA

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David Knopp’s “Metamorphosis”

Next week, the Baltimore Museum of Art debuts the works of the winners of the Baker Artist Awards. In April, the top winners—Alexander Heilner, Nathan Bell, and David Knopp—received the prestigious Mary Sawyer Baker Prize, worth $25,000. The achievement caught them somewhat by surprise, due to the Baker awards’ innovative web site, a comprehensive, public platform that allows all applicants to see the competition and share their work, prize or no prize, with other members of the art community.

“I was using the Baker site since its inception,” Knopp, a sculptor, says. “It was an excellent way to network and interact with the art community . . . I never considered it a competitive site, so the thought of winning never actually occurred to me.”

Through the site, artists create an archive of their work in standardized slide format and are asked to nominate themselves for the awards. The archives are reviewed by a secret panel of judges but are also available to the public and remain online year-round.

In providing an equalizing platform for artists, the award has done something unique with its web site—and it is probably best represented through this year’s winners. Many artists who have won in the past years have been active members of the art community and have recognizable names with familiar work. This year, however, many of the artists who were selected have been living and working in the community for significant periods of time, without having exhibited frequently or having received much recognition. Artistry, craftsmanship, and dedication, regardless of exhibition history were aptly rewarded.

Like Knopp, Heilner, a photographer and associate dean of design and media at MICA, found the site to be a handy networking tool.

“Many people now know my work through the [Baker Award nomination] site, which is a new experience for me,” he says. “This year I was also recognized by Baltimore magazine as best photographer in their best-of issue. I am sure the Baker helped them to find my work.”

The works of nine other artists, who were awarded smaller b-grant awards—two received $1,500 and seven received $1,000—will also be on display at the BMA starting next week. Many of these artists also feel that the web site is a positive aspect of the Baker Awards, helping to generate new opportunities. Marcia Wolfson Ray, a sculptor and b-grant winner, used the Baker site as a personal web site up until recently. She felt it gave a sense of community to her otherwise solitary studio practice.

After getting over “the initial shock” of receiving a prize, Miranda Pfeiffer, another b-grant winner, “came to see the grant and the corresponding show at the BMA as a mandate to make my best work and share it with the community that inspired it.”

Pfeiffer used the award money to frame her enormous graphite drawings for the show. Her sentiment is practically unanimous among the award recipients: The award does not placate, but instead encourages serious artists to create new work. There is a sense of responsibility that the winners feel, a need to justify the award, and share the results with the community that supports them.

Since April, each recipient has had time to reflect on the award, apply the funds to new projects, and prepare for their second wave of accolades when the Baltimore Museum of Art exhibits their works, either as installations in the gallery or as performances in the museum’s auditorium.

The top-awarded musician, experimental banjo player Nathan Bell, will also be represented in the gallery. He opens the exhibition with a live performance. Employing bows and slides in addition to clawhammer, frailing, and fingerpicking, Bell’s work takes the banjo beyond the realm of the bluegrass and old-timey music with which it is traditionally associated. The award helped him to replace music equipment and to work on film-scoring, beginning with a documentary project called “Mysterious Prison” about homelessness in Washington, D.C.

With his award money, Heilner is planning to document new territory; he is heading to the Arctic over the next five years to document the change and expansion of cities as global warming opens northern trade routes and turns once-remote locations into industrial ports.

Heilner’s photographs depict the strange design and imprint of humans on the landscape. Capturing absurd and unnatural phenomena like the creation of the country-shaped islands in Dubai (pre-completion) or the exact, repetitive designs of neighborhoods and cul du sacs, Heilner’s images are mesmerizing and slightly repulsive. Often shot from an aerial perspective, his images abstract the landscape into bands of color, or are cropped to highlight certain shapes while commenting on the overt nature of the human presence within them.

The exhibition is Heilner’s most prominent museum show. As one of the top awardees, his work is featured at the front of the exhibition space. Likewise, many of the artists pushed themselves to shift scale or presentation methods for the BMA. Chris Bathgate, a b-grant-winning sculptor, says “The show at the BMA has provided me with an opportunity to make some larger work that I would not necessarily have pursued in other environments.”

David Knopp produces elegant wood sculptures, many of which seem functional. Using mostly laminated plywood for his creations, he notes that the award will impact his practice, allowing him to incorporate hardwoods and more costly materials into his finely honed craft.

The exhibition aims to drum up excitement before the web site reload and beginning of the 2013 campaign. While there were some grumblings about the top grants being awarded to three white men, the award seeks to recognize work in all media across gender and racial lines and celebrate the diversity in the city’s art scene.

The work of the three Mary Sawyer Baker prize winners will be on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art, along with those of b-grant winners, from Sept. 5-Oct. 7. an opening reception, featuring live performances by Nathan Bell and Smooth Kentucky, is on Sept. 7.

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