On a mission to preserve Baltimore’s tradition of public art
Published: February 19, 2014
When you ask Linda DePalma about her favorite piece of public art in Baltimore, you expect her answer to be something abstract, something contemporary— something befitting a sculptor who was director of education at the Creative Alliance for 13 years.
But her choice couldn’t be more traditional, or more Baltimore-centric.
“The Francis Scott Key sculpture on Eutaw Place,” she says. “It is glorious.” “The Key Monument,” as it is called, at Lanvale Street, was made by French sculptor Marius Jean Antonin Mercie and installed in 1911.
“The monument is a round fountain and Francis Scott Key is standing in a boat in the fountain with a boatman and two oars. There are sculptured waves and columns, and on top of them is a gold figure of Columbia with an American flag,” she says. “It’s a layer cake of a sculpture.”
The monument is more than 100 years old, but it has a contemporary feel to it, she says, and it goes against stereotypes, too. “It’s a pastiche, and Francis Scott Key is not the one on the pedestal. Look at him. He’s standing in a boat. He’s not elevated. Columbia, the female embodiment of America, is.”
It’s also an enduring image for Baltimore City, says DePalma, who lived on Eutaw Street, about a block away from the monument, after graduating from MICA in 1976. A New Jersey native, she had planned to go to New York after grad school, but met her future husband, sculptor Paul Daniel, instead.
“Paul taught me how to weld. And we found this great 19,000-square-foot space for $250 a month and got 10 artists to go in on it. The bank rented it to us cheap so their insurance would be lower! It needed inhabitants. The place was so big you could ride your bike in it,” she recalls. Then, DePalma got a job as the first executive director of School 33, an arts center, and the couple made Baltimore their home, eventually settling in Bolton Hill (Daniel is a kinetic sculptor), where DePalma launched her career as a public artist.
“I love the idea of a work that lives in the real world,” she says. “You’re seduced to go toward it.” DePalma has been producing public art (installations, exhibit design, visual merchandising) for about 30 years. Locally, her works include the colorful metal arches (the “Redwood Arch” at Redwood and Paca streets), and the “Ground Play” sculpture of the girl and the ball at the Old Court Metro Subway station. During most of those years, she was also working in arts education or administration.
In 2005, she won a commission to make the three ornamental metal grates that cover the fountains at City Hall Plaza. The grates’ design incorporates images from the dogwood flowers on the doors of the War Memorial Building across the street, as well as curved images inspired by the water.
“The fountain and grates are uplifting, as public art in front of City Hall should be,” she says.
Public art becomes part of its community, she adds. “The public takes ownership of it and interacts with it — sometimes even becoming a part of it.”
DePalma gives an example. A few summers ago, a photographer was shooting pictures of her grates when along comes a guy who jumps in the fountain. He’s wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt, a black-and-gold hoodie tied around his waist, and a ball cap on sideways —and for some unknown reason, the guy’s got two pointy white sticks in his hands. The photographer keeps taking pictures. The guy doesn’t care. The water is spraying all over his body. In one of the photos, a parked car in the background blurs with the guy’s ball cap, transforming it, visually, into a Samurai-like helmet. The photograph looks like a black-and-gold Samurai warrior—cooling off in the fountain. In front of City Hall.
“He was just a random guy. He may have been a homeless. I don’t know,” she says. DePalma doesn’t know the deal with the sticks either. “He was doing some sort of movement thing in the water,” she says. ”You can’t plan that kind of stuff.” The photo was added to her images of the fountain grates.
One reason Baltimore has an abundance of public art, DePalma says, is because of “the one percent law,” which she says allows up to 1 percent of the budget for newly constructed city buildings to be used for art. (This is why so many older city schools have sculptures).
The idea behind the one percent law was a good one, she says, but as the older schools get renovated, their public art is sometimes forgotten. “Let’s just say it’s not always being conserved,” says DePalma, who is part of a group called Friends of Public Art, which is trying to remedy that. The list of pieces that need conservation is a long one, she adds. “We’re trying to raise money and work on about five a year.”
Right now, DePalma is wrapping up a multi-year public art project. She was commissioned by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to create a two-door gate for the Maryland Public Health Laboratory being built on Ashland Avenue near the Hopkins East Baltimore campus.
The 21-by-11-foot gate, featuring cell geometry from molecular structures she researched, is now at Clipper Mill in Paul’s studio. When it’s finished, it will be located on the street side of the Maryland Public Health Lab Building. The doors of the gate are thematically linked together by a double helix.
DePalma tried to include Rosalind Franklin—the British molecular biologist whose work helped lead to Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA—in the gate in some way. She learned about Franklin while doing research for the gate.
“We’ll never know Rosalind’s whole story, ” she says. “What I do know is that she didn’t get a lot of credit. That happens to women sometimes.”
DePalma was even thinking of naming the gate, “Gate for Rosalind,” but she changed her mind.
“In my private time, though, perhaps I will dedicate it to her.”
> Email Danielle Sweeney