By Tom Warner (Baltimore Or Less)
Friday night marked the opening reception for two must-see exhibitions at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Fox Building, both of which will run from December 13, 2013 through Sunday, March 16, 2014.
In MICA’s Decker Gallery, Johnny Eck Museum founder-curator Jeffrey Pratt Gordon (never to be confused with NASCAR race driver Jeff Gordon) presented “The Amazing Johnny Eck,” a never-before-seen exhibition of personal objects, artifacts and artworks (including some “naughty” drawings in a curtained back room) by one of Baltimore’s most famous native sons, Johnny Eck (1911-1991), the “Half Boy” sideshow performer, magician, and latter-day screen painter who starred in Tod Browning’s 1932 cult film Freaks and was called “The Most Remarkable Man Alive” by Robert “Believe It Or Not!” Ripley.
Fittingly, a sword swallower from Baltimore’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditorium (or was that Siegfried of Siegfried & Roy fame?) was on hand to entertain the teeming masses gathered outside the Decker Gallery, while many of Johnny Eck’s screen paintings were featured next door in the Meyerhoff Gallery, where another must-see exhibition, “Painted Windows…The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond,” opened to coincide with the Eck-sibition. Folklorist and Painted Screen Society of Baltimore founder Elaine Eff was in the Meyerhoff Gallery lobby, signing her exhaustively-researched and beautifully illustrated new book, The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed (University of Mississippi Press, 2013), at the Ivy Bookshop table. Eff’s book – which John Waters called “an un-ironic (thank God) treasure-trove of amazingly researched information that elevates the most Balto-centric one-time row house kitsch to its proper place in art history” – is also available at a number of area bookstores, including MICA’s College Store at 1200 Mount Royal Ave. (If you missed her Friday night, Eff returns to MICA at 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 15, for a talk and book signing in Falvey Hall of the adjacent Brown Center building.)
Though painted screens have long been perceived as an indigenous Baltimore folk art, the exhibit’s numerous early eighteenth-century English and European screens bear witness that it did not originate here, though it did flourish here under the stewardship of William Oktavec and his Czech immigrant family’s legacy in East Baltimore. (For a detailed review of the painted screen exhibition, see Fern Shen’s excellent Baltimore Brew report, “Baltimore’s Painted Screens: Beyond the Bungalow.”)
The Fox Building was abuzz with people and energy Friday night – a student art show was also occurring on the second floor, while “La Hostess” Laure Drogoul parked her hearse outside the building and encouraged visitors to sing ’80s karaoke tunes instead of holiday carols. Inside, it was a veritable Hipster’s Holiday, with a Who’s Who of local artists, filmmakers and scenesters schmoozing and drinking the gratis wine and Natty Bohs on offer. Just a sampling of attendees sighted included: filmmakers Jeff Krulik and John Heyn (Heavy Metal Parking Lot), outsider art painter-performer Joe Coleman, Baker Award winning artist Lynne Parks and her mega-talented visual artist husband Chris Siron, sideshow expert/raconteur extraordinaire James Taylor (American Dime Museum, Shocked and Amazed! On & Off the Midway — magazine), musician-entrepreneur-yoga instructor Andriana Pateris (W.O.D., Cicaeda, Trixy’s Palace), filmmaker Dawn Campbell (who came out to support her sister-in-law Jenny Campbell, the New Orleans-based artist and costume-designer whose downright sexy screens were featured in the exhibition), SoWeBohemian arts icon Dan Van Allen with his lovely chanteuse sweetheart Selena Schreyer (Baby Aspirin), Scott “Unpainted” Huffines (founder of the original Atomic Books, now known for Atomic TV, Pirates of Essex & Baltimore Or Less fame) and his missus Kristin “Blondes Have More Fun” Miller, actress-model Chastity Darling (of Atomic TV and numerous John Waters films) – I even spotted three Enoch Pratt librarians (hi Eva, hi Kim, hi Lynne!) there!
But even without spotting these cultural art scenesters, the night was worth it just to score the glorious Johnny Eck poster produced by Baltimore’s historic and iconic showcard printing company, Globe Poster (as shown below). Though they promoted commercial music and entertainment events, Globe Posters were also legitimate works of art – so it’s fitting that their collection and legacy is now curated by MICA.
The night truly was electric and – given the sensory overload of sights, sounds and local luminaries on hand to spot and schmooze with – will require a second visit to take in everything in more detail. The good news is that the exhibits will be up for a long time, in conjunction with a number of related events, such as talks, workshops, and film screenings (Freaks, The Screen Painters). All programs are free and open to the public.
Psssst! If you want to see some of Johnny Eck’s “naughty” drawings, such as the one shown below, be sure to check out the curtained back room that’s “off the midway”!