Larry Scott’s Baltimore
Five years after the artist’s death, an acolyte recalls the universe he created
Published: November 7, 2012
It was the day after Thanksgiving in 2007 when writer Barry Michael Cooper called to tell me that our friend, artist Larry Scott, was dead. For a moment, I was silent, trying to figure out if what I heard was what was really said. “Yeah, man,” he said in a deep voice and sighed. “Larry was walking home from the coffee shop and he had a heart attack. He sat down on some steps and that’s where he was found the following morning.”
Trying to process what Cooper was saying, I closed my eyes and imagined Larry Scott, a hulking artist with a bushy mustache and laid-back demeanor, leaving his beloved Xando Coffee and Bar, formerly located at 3003 N. Charles St., for the last time on that chilly Wednesday night.
More than likely carrying a portfolio case containing his otherworldly sketches and drawings, he was perhaps humming a John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” as he strolled up the block on his final walk.
While Larry Scott was a husband, a father, a karate champion, and a friend to many, I will always remember him as a powerful artist whose dangerous visions were expressed in an expansive body of work that included pen-and-inks, collages, oil paintings, and watercolors.
“As a thing of art, nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself,” Edgar Allan Poe, another genius who died alone on the streets of Baltimore, once wrote. This was very much the case when looking at Larry Scott’s work, although the man himself was quite admirable as well.
Today, 3003 N. Charles St. is a FedEx office, but when I first met Scott in 2003, the spacious shop was the unofficial Left Bank of Baltimore, a gathering spot where a group of artists, writers, and filmmakers gathered daily to talk about music, books, women, movies, philosophy, Blackness, and, of course, art.
Spearheaded by Larry, who relocated to Baltimore in 1991 from Newark, N.J., the regular crew consisted of Eugene Coles, Mark Cottman, Barry Michael Cooper, Jeffrey Kent, and Don Griffin. “When I first met Larry, we used to hang out at a different coffee shop, but somehow we gravitated to Xando’s,” Griffin, an abstract artist, recalls.
“Larry would sit outside and do sketches, just being prolific as usual, filling the books,” he said. “Eventually, one of the managers made him the art curator and we all showed our work there.”
Like painter Romare Bearden’s art collective, Spiral (“moves outward, embracing all directions, yet constantly upward”), during the 1960s, the soul brothers who were part of the Xando’s scene were an eclectic bunch, each minding his own personal style yet bonding over mutual creativity.
Initially connecting over their love for jazz, Griffin considered Larry, with whom he also collaborated, to be one of his best friends. “His wife, Desirre, called me that morning and said, ‘Larry’s gone.’ At first I didn’t know what she was talking about, but then it hit me like a gut-punch in the belly. That was a very painful day. The following month, Xando’s closed as well.”
I lived in New York at the time, but returning to Baltimore for the Christmas holiday, I went over to the shuttered cafe to pay my respects to the spirit of Larry Scott. Standing in front of the deserted shop, I looked through the windows as though expecting to see him sitting at the counter, sipping a double espresso, his haunting paintings still hanging on the walls.
Barry Michael Cooper—the screenwriter of New Jack City, who also directed Scott’s film debut, Blood on the Wall$ (2005)—was the first person who schooled me about the Xando’s scene. It was during the same season in 2003 when I first ventured into the cafe.
In the front of the store, four of Larry’s pictures, disturbing portraits, were hung. While influenced by Gustav Klimt and Klimt’s former protoge, Egon Schiele, there was nothing derivative about the work. Staring at the eerie figures, these melancholy men seemed trapped within the dreamscape of the images.
Glancing at the bottom of the pictures, the name Scott was scrawled in the corners. I was attracted to the freeness of the figures, the rawness of the technique. Much love, beauty, and agony went into each piece.
I inquired about where I might find the artist, and the counterperson directed me to an adjoining dining area, where Larry sat alone, drawing on a pad, dressed in paint-stained khakis, a brown beret, and a thick sweater. I introduced myself. Though not unfriendly, he looked at me as though I were a narc.
I found it difficult to contain my excitement about his work, and Larry eventually warmed up. For the next three hours, we talked as though we had known each other since childhood. Before we split, Larry gave me a gorgeous original drawing of a jazz trumpeter.
“I was 36 years old when I moved here from Newark,” Larry explained during our first conversation. “I needed a change a pace, man. My wife, Desirre, was originally from here. We met when she was living in my apartment building in Jersey, but the cost of living up there was so crazy, I couldn’t even afford to buy a house. Well, maybe I could’ve afforded [it] if I had two jobs and never saw my wife and kids.”
I never met Larry’s wife, with whom he had three daughters and a son, but he spoke about her lovingly. “Once, I did a painting that I was going to trash, but she made me save it because she thought it was beautiful. She told me, ‘If you paint over that picture, it’s a sin.’ One day, I had a show and I took that picture, and everybody went nuts over it. Desirre is always honest with me.”
Later, after we got to know one another better, I commented on his initial gruffness. “That’s how I survived when I lived in Newark, because you have to be a chameleon when you’re out in the street,” he said. “Newark is no joke, man.”
Moving to Baltimore in 1991, Larry embraced the city and made it his own. “In order to function as an artist, you have to be in the proper environment, one that will enhance you and free you up from a whole lot of nonsense. I had to get used to how segregated this town can be, but the plus side is that, in Baltimore, I could afford to be an artist.”
Normal’s Bookstore co-owner Rupert Wondolowski, who has Scott originals hanging inside his East 31st Street store, remembers meeting Larry a few months after the artist moved to the city. At the time, while working for a box company, his art was still something Scott kept mostly to himself.
“In those early years, he would come into the store to buy and trade jazz albums,” Wondolowski says. “He turned me on to quite a few artists, including Lee Morgan and Horace Silver.”
Scott’s buddy Don Griffin also remembers how the two of them bonded over bop, talking for hours about great recordings and performers. “We were both total jazz nuts,” he says. “I was surprised because so few people actually listen closely to the music. Larry was into John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and Miles Davis. We used to exchange CDs and [alto saxophonist] Jackie McLean was somebody he turned me on to too.”
Griffin remembers a found lampshade that led to his first collaboration with Scott in 2002. “Larry took that lampshade and covered it with a bunch of sketches of jazz musicians,” he says. “It was so beautiful that somebody walking down the street tried to buy that lampshade before we were even finished.”
Fired-up after our meeting, I returned to Brooklyn determined to write a feature story about the cool artists I’d met at the coffee shop. In 2003, an image of Baltimore informed by David Simon’s drugged-out Dickensian nightmare The Wire, which debuted in 2002, was crystallizing in the minds of many New Yorkers.
While I’d personally had a love/hate relationship with the brutal HBO show, it was beginning to get boring that, each time Baltimore was mentioned, people thought about nodding hop-heads on Monroe Street instead of the complex writers, poets, musicians, and artists I’d encountered.
At the time, I was a senior writer for the now-defunct magazine America, whose editor-in-chief Smokey Fontaine was a former Baltimore schoolteacher. I passionately explained that I wanted to pen a piece called “Beyond The Wire,” a story about creative folks who weren’t named Bubbles, Barksdale, or Bodie Broadus.
Ironically, though I didn’t know it at the time, Wire actor Clarke Peters, who played Lester, was also a friend of Larry’s. “To me, Larry was Baltimore,” Peters told Baltimore magazine in a recent story. “He’s the cat that let me know there was culture in this town.”
Making my case with my editor, I explained, “I want to make this artist dude Larry Scott the centerpiece of the story.” Although my speech was as hot-blooded as Al Pacino’s crazed lawyer in the Barry Levinson-penned Baltimore flick . . . And Justice For All, I was actually surprised when Fontaine said yes.
Calling Larry that night, I told him I’d be taking the Peter Pan bus back to Bmore the following week to interview him for the story. Over the next several days, I spent much of my time interviewing and chilling out with Larry: eating Chinese food on St. Paul Street; sitting in the freezing art studio, which reminded me of something out of Francis Bacon’s nightmares; drinking coffee at Xando’s and taking endless walks through darkened downtown streets.
“All I do besides draw is walk around the city,” Larry told me once during one of our journeys, where, at the time, bizarre signs encouraging people to BELIEVE were posted throughout the town. “I watch people, and everything I see influences my art.
“Since I’ve been in Baltimore, I’ve met some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve traveled all over the world and even though New York is my favorite city in the world, there is something special about Baltimore.”
Without a doubt, some of the blight and pain, as well as joy and love that one sees on the blocks of Baltimore were expressed vividly in Scott’s work. “My paintings are like mirrors and when you look at the work, you see the recorded history inside you that takes you somewhere: childhood, bad relationships, love lost, and friendship. The image is designed to take you someplace.”
Author James Baldwin, whom Larry once met in an airport in Belgium when he was traveling with the U.S. Karate Team, told the Paris Review, “Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”
While Larry was fond of telling the Baldwin story, he didn’t talk much about his years as a karate champion. “He told me he was a black belt, but he never told me why he stopped,” Don Griffin says.
Once, I asked him if being a karate expert affected his life as an artist. “Karate affected me as a human being, but discipline is discipline, no matter where it comes from.”
America folded before I finished reporting the story, but after Larry’s death in 2007, I vowed to revisit those tapes and transcribe my friend’s interview. In the beginning, just hearing his voice was difficult. But, inspiration is a word I heard a lot when folks talked about Larry Scott, and during that period, as well as now, five years after his death, that is the feeling I am left with.
As an adult, Larry Scott never took any formal art classes, but he fondly remembered the Sunday morning his father taught him how to draw.
“On Sunday mornings, my dad would be in the kitchen, listening to Dinah Washington while sitting at the table, doodling cowboy scenes on paper bags,” he said. “I used to lean against the table and watch him, then bug him to draw pictures for me. One morning, he took my little hand inside his hand and showed me how to outline a cowboy.
“I got so excited, because I knew something was happening, I just didn’t know what it was. Once I had that outline perfected, I started looking at comic books, drawing cartoon characters. I didn’t go to many museums or galleries back then, but a teacher at school gave me a few pamphlets on Vincent van Gogh, so he was the first artist I was familiar with.”
Although there were a few asides before Larry could commit to art full-time, in the late 1990s he quit his job at a local box company to devote himself to developing his craft.
Joking that art was part of his middle-age crisis, Larry said, “You go through this thing when you reach your 40s, when you start looking back, and you realize that the little boy you once were is still inside you.”
Normal’s Bookstore has one of his earliest pieces, “Birdman,” a cubist-inspired portrait of a neighbor who cared for pigeons. “When Larry first started doing his art, he would come in and buy books on Picasso. He loved his work,” Rupert Wondolowski recalls.
“He used to come by every day carrying his portfolio case. He showed me his new work often, and his transformation was incredible. Sometimes you hear people saying they want to be artists, and it’s easy to be weary and cynical, but Larry grew so much within the first two years. His work was on the highest level.”
Experimenting with various styles and mediums, Scott slowly began developing a unique visual voice. “There is no secret,” explained Larry. It was February 2004. Larry and I were sitting in his messy studio, where it was colder than an iceberg and the radio was blaring.
“I just constantly worked and, within that, an evolution began to happen. The freer I became, the more I took myself out of the work, the more I put my ego in check and got rid of things like envy and jealousy. I began to grow as an artist.”
Yet, unlike an artist who constantly bores into the same style in each painting, Larry constantly changed. “Style is like death,” he said. “Style is absolute. Take an artist like Jackson Pollack—once he did the drips, that’s all people wanted to see.”
Having studied Zen Buddhism, Larry always had a calming persona, one that he also applied to his work. “A lot of artists paint for their own egos and pleasure, but when I paint, I try to take myself out of it as much as I can.”
While Scott participated in many group and solo shows, it was the show at the Sub-Basement Artist Studios in 2005, titled Evolution of Depression, that was the highlight of his career. The show, consisting of 200 India ink drawings that Larry completed in two weeks, visually documenting his own rough bout with depression, was well-reviewed. At the time, City Paper wrote, “Scott’s masterful paintings and drawings evoke wildly different associations as you move from piece to piece—Matisse, Picasso, Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall, Ralph Steadman.”
According to Don Griffin, “The show was wonderful, but, truthfully, nothing much changed for Larry. More people might have recognized him from the reviews, but in terms of money or moving to a bigger gallery, nothing changed.”
The cosmic joke that the Baltimore Museum of Art was directly across the street from Xando’s wasn’t lost on Larry Scott. “All the brilliant artists I know, and none of us will ever have a show in there,” Scott said, more amused than bitter. “The galleries on Charles Street [would] rather bring in artists from overseas than work with us.
“As far as race is concerned, the art world is the last frontier,” he said. “They let a few black artists in, but the doors are being held very tight.”
Though I’m sure Larry Scott would’ve liked being a part of the national arts dialogue along with Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall, he didn’t seem to sweat becoming famous. “If being on top of the art world is your motivation [for] being an artist, you should go out and do something else—because your art is not real, it’s plastic. You have to do what you do from the heart.”
Speculating on where Scott’s art was headed, Don Griffin says, “In terms of art and artist, Larry was beginning to merge into abstraction just before his final days. There were certain signs, like a change in attitude about Rauschenberg. I recall Larry making a statement early on wherein he didn’t feel Rauschenberg was legit. I always defended him.
“If Larry were still around today, I believe he would have been producing works in the abstract realm and doing it well,” says Griffin.
After Larry Scott’s death, on Nov. 7, 2007, a memorial service was held on the 15th at the Sub-Basement. “When Larry passed, the bottom fell out of our small art world, because he was the glue that held us together,” Griffin says. “Then, when Xando’s closed, that was the end of the Larry Scott era.”
> Email Michael Gonzales