Vicki McComas, an urban folk artist, traces her story from Martick’s to the Tavern to Dead Strippers
Published: September 4, 2013
Some people might say that Vicki McComas’ antique store, Saratoga Trunk, is part-Fells Point old school junk shop and part-grandma’s house. But that would only be true if grandma enjoys a good highball, sculpts demon-cow teapots, loves a good trickster, and was in a movie called Dead Strippers.
McComas, a clay artist, bought her Aliceanna Street fixer-upper in 1986 with her future husband, Dan Kuc, and set up the store downstairs in 1989.
“The store was, originally, a way to unload all the junk the previous owner left behind,” she recalls. “My friends tell me that Saratoga Trunk is what Fells Point used to be but isn’t anymore. I’m not exactly sure what that means.”
Every time the front door opens, a bell rings and McComas greets customers: “Welcome. Where are you all from? If you have any questions, just ask. I’m friendly. ” Today she adds: “Check out the $6 purse closet. Don’t mind Lulu [the cat] sleeping in the purses.”
In Baltimore rowhouse lingo, the shop’s “front room” is loaded with mid-century American kitchenware, art, glassware, and costume jewelry from the turn of the century up through the ’80s. Its “middle room” and “back room” have a hodgepodge of collectibles, like old printing plates. That’s also where McComas holds court with friends and displays her clay and jewelry pieces.
The bell rings again. This time, a neighborhood friend brings in shoes for a “shoe swap.”
McComas loves the social aspect of the store. Friends come in all day long. It’s good for her, she says. The rest of the week she teaches at the Potter’s Guild of Baltimore and takes a continuing ed class at MICA.
A new customer comes in. “Welcome. This is Fells Point, one of Baltimore’s best neighborhoods,” McComas tells her. “It’s still got a little grit left. I love Baltimore.”
McComas’ Baltimore pedigree goes way back.
“I was born in Baltimore, so was my mom, grandma, and great-grandma. Great-grandma Augusta Durham Stroebel—we called her Gussie—owned stables and a speakeasy in the 1930s,” she says. McComas’ mom, a classical singer, went to Peabody.
McComas herself was raised in New York state and Connecticut. “But I visited Gussie every summer. Gussie lived in Brooklyn [South Baltimore] and had a house on Bodkin Creek in Pasadena. She taught me how to fish and how to crab and how to pick crabs—all the good stuff. Between her and my dad, I was cleaning my own fish by the time I was 6,” she recalls.
McComas moved to Baltimore permanently in 1975 to attend MICA.
“I had flunked out of teachers college after partying for two semesters and was ready to take a job as an insurance adjuster. But my grandma had said if I got into MICA, she would pay for it. One day she called and said, ‘If you take the summer program, you can start in the fall,’” McComas says. “God, I was so happy. I would have done anything to get the hell out of Connecticut.”
At MICA she majored in graphic design, met Dan, and played Dottie in Dead Strippers, a B-movie produced by MICA students Michael Gentile and Brian Donegan (It was shown at Creative Alliance in 2004), and declined a role in John Waters’ Desperate Living.
“They wanted me to ride a pogo stick naked, but I was worried I’d fall and break my wrist and not finish my portfolio,” she explains.
After graduating, she worked in Baltimore restaurants and bars to support her art. One of her oddest jobs was at Victory Tavern on Fort Avenue and Hanover Street.
“I was this ‘nice’ girl from Connecticut, and South Baltimore, in those days, was a different world. I’d open the bar at six in the morning and work until four, or start at four and close at two. The guys who worked at the shipyard would be lined up at 6 a.m. for pints of booze to take in to work,“ she says.
“Weird shit happened at Victory all the time,” she adds.
There was the time a woman almost got shot by her mother-in-law.
“A female customer had slept with her husband’s brother. The husband finds out, beats the crap out of his brother and gets locked up. Their mother, in Kentucky or Tennessee—South Baltimore used to be very hillbilly—finds out, gets to Baltimore, and comes into the bar with a shotgun, looking for the wife. The mother screams, ‘You bitch!,’ and goes after her, but the mother’s got these super-thick eyeglasses and can’t shoot for shit. She misses the wife, hits the ceiling, and chases the wife down Hanover Street,” she recounts.
“Now here’s the weird part. By 3 p.m., the two are back at the bar, drinking beer and tomato juice and saying that the sons are both assholes.”
In spite of the hard-living patrons, McComas looks back on Victory fondly. (If you ever see Vicki, ask her to tell you the story about the red setter who drank shots.)
“I love the absurd. The owner and barmaids were good to me. Neighborhood guys who hunted would bring in squirrels and sell them to me for 50 cents—squirrel is good. I’d cook them up like smothered chicken. And after the bar closed, I’d hang out with the neighbors, who’d be drinking beers or sodas on their stoops, and we’d have foot races up and down Charles Street.”
McComas also worked at the Mount Royal Tavern, John Steven Ltd., and Bertha’s, to name a few employers, but some of her most unforgettable years in the kitchen were at Martick’s—the now-closed but legendary French restaurant at 214 W. Mulberry St.
“All the stories you hear about Morris Martick are true. He interviewed me for the job at Martick’s bar in dirty BVDs. He did not have a car but somehow had an airplane he kept at Martin State Airport. One day he was flying the thing and was running out of gas, and so he radios Andrews Air Force Base for an emergency landing. He was fine with it. He said, ‘My taxes paid for it. Why shouldn’t I land there?’
“That was Morris. A great cook, a bad flyer, and a whack job,” she says.
McComas also worked in her field, teaching clay at the city Rec and Parks Clayworks Partnership—“until Reagan dried up all the funding,” she says—and at Maryland Display Inc., a graphic art and signage company, from 1986 to 1992. “I made banners. I loved that job.”
McComas characterizes herself as an urban folk artist. Her work takes the form of useful objects (like teapots), large sculptures, and statues, predominantly of animals, from deities to deceased pets.
Her art, she says, is influenced by her “personal mythology,” a mixture of world religions, myths, and archetypes, as well as the world around her.
“As a kid, I read Bulfinch’s Mythology, the original Grimm’s, early manga, and sci-fi. I’m interested in gods who have the foibles of man, the trickster who transforms, the bawdy troublemaker who brings us light, and the humanity of Jesus in the New Testament,” she says.
While her influences are academic, her work is decidedly unabstract.
“Every piece I make is for a reason, and every piece has a story,” she says.
Take McComas’ Baltimore rowhouse sculptures. The rowhouses have imagined histories. They have cats. They have curtains on the windows and crucifixes on the bedroom walls. One is next door to a church.
“The rowhouse sculptures are shrines because people’s houses are shrines to their everyday lives,” she says. “And since I live in Baltimore, I thought I should make some.”
“Basically, I build the things that I see every day and that I love.”
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