2013 Best of Baltimore: Arts

The best artists, bands, concerts and more

By John Lewis - August 2013

2013 Best of Baltimore: Arts

The best artists, bands, concerts and more

By John Lewis - August 2013


Chul Hyun Ahn

Costas Grimaldis first came across Ahn’s light sculptures at the Korean artist’s MICA thesis show in 2002. Since then, Ahn’s work has been a fixture at Grimaldis’s Charles Street gallery. He’s also been compared to artists Dan Flavin and James Turrell, found his way into many private collections, and been exhibited in France, Germany, and at this year’s Venice Biennale. Ahn’s potential, like his mind-bending art, seems limitless.

Author Readings

The Ivy Bookshop

The Ivy’s excellent stock makes it a top-notch indie bookseller, but the Mt. Washington shop’s author readings and talks make it an essential destination for lit lovers. During a recent month-long stretch, the Ivy presented a talk with science geek Mario Livio, a Q&A with Sujata Massey and Laura Lippman, an afternoon tea with Jane Austen expert Juliette Wells, and book launches for Jessica Anya Blau and Marion Winik. (Yes, that was all in one month!) And it launched a new monthly reading series, Starts Here, which focuses on local up-and-comers. The key to a book store surviving in today’s Kindle world? Make yourself indispensable, which The Ivy Bookshop most certainly has done. 6080 Falls Road, 410-377-2966.


Soft Cat

In a music scene known for scrappy indie rock, post-punk clamor, and club beats, Soft Cat offers something truly alternative—hushed and nuanced songs buoyed by strings (violins, cello, acoustic guitar) and wide-eyed wonder. Songwriter Neil Sanzgiri and a spirited crew of collaborators find pastoral calm in concrete jungles and conjure idyllic sounds to match. Sanzgiri sometimes brings Andrew Bird to mind on this year’s Lost No Labor album, but with more frayed edges and a stouter heart. His brand of chamber pop is as extraordinary as it is unassuming.

Concert Series

Jazz at the Johns Hopkins Club

For almost two years now, Peabody Jazz Studies director Gary Thomas has booked an amazing concert series at the Hopkins Club. It’s the perfect mix of an intimate venue and world-class talent. Thomas, an acclaimed saxophonist himself who’s played with the likes of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, brings jazz superstars like Jack DeJohnette (another former bandmate), Chick Corea, and Jason Moran to town. Thomas has a deep Rolodex, and we look forward to seeing whom he’ll call for next season. 3400 N. Charles Street, Hopkins Club Website.

Dinner and Show

Creative Alliance’s Marquee Lounge

Highlandtown’s Creative Alliance, long an arts hub, became even more enticing after the Marquee Lounge began serving food last year. The tasty dishes (UTZ-crusted fried green tomatoes with crab salad!), local beers, and Zeke’s Coffee go down easy before a concert, art opening, or movie at the Patterson. And when a DJ turns up to spin a set of classic soul/jazz, it makes for a particularly transcendent meal. 3134 Eastern Avenue, 410-276-1651.


The Walters Art Museum’s Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

The wordy title pretty much covers the scope and intent of this insightful show, which closed early this year. In it, Walters curator Joaneath Spicer examines the complexities of race through dozens of paintings, sculptures, objects, and prints, many of them culled from the museum’s permanent collection. Spicer puzzles over historical facts, asks questions, and raises issues relating to identity and how this art was produced and perceived. She also shows that, even though budgets are tight, smart people and resourceful institutions can produce remarkable exhibitions. If you missed the show, it’s worth checking out the catalogue at the Walters’s museum shop. 600 N. Charles Street, 410-547-9000.


Fred Lazarus

Few leaders have impacted Baltimore as mightily, and meaningfully, as Lazarus. During his 35 years as president of MICA, Lazarus, who recently announced his retirement, transformed the school into a nationally recognized, more civic-minded institution. On his watch, MICA doubled enrollment, added 18 undergraduate and graduate programs, and forged a reputation as one of the country’s best arts schools. It also greatly expanded its footprint (the campus is now ten times bigger than it was when Lazarus arrived), played a major role in the establishment of Station North, and made community engagement an integral part of its mission. Lazarus changed the college and the city around it.


Elaine Eff

For decades, Eff has worked to identify, spotlight, and preserve traditional art and culture around the state. A former director of the State Arts Council’s Maryland Traditions program, she can riff authoritatively about everything from backwoods artisans to Smith Island cakes, though she’s best known for her work with painted screens, an art form that originated in East Baltimore 100 years ago. Eff’s comprehensive book on the subject, The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed, comes out this fall and figures to further solidify her standing as the city’s Queen of Screens and our preeminent folklorist.


Maryland Film Festival

There is nothing commercial about the Maryland Film Festival. It doesn’t cater to celebrities or any kind of studio agenda; instead it’s a veritable orgy for film lovers of all stripes and colors. Like thought-provoking documentaries? Check out Skizz Cyzyk and Joe Tropea’s Hit & Stay, about the Catonsville Nine. Like moody, evocative art-house dramas? Check out Matt Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker or Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love. Like the kind of film that will inspire a ferocious post-film debate? How about the challenging (and mind-blowing) Post Tenebras Lux. Turning the Station North Arts District into exactly what city planners envisioned—a lively hub for the nurturing, discussion, and celebration of art—the MFF has become the must-attend event of the spring. md-filmfest.com

Orchestra: Old School

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Thanks largely to music director Marin Alsop, the BSO continues to throw surprises our way: Programming works by local composer Christopher Rouse alongside Carmina Burana and staging Hairspray with conductor Jack Everly and narrator John Waters. 1212 Cathedral Street, 410-783-8000.

Orchestra: New School


The BSO-sponsored program takes classical music to city schools with wildly satisfying results, as the kids infuse the repertoire with new energy and ideas. They also partner with other musicians from around the city (and around the globe) to put spins on what symphonic music can, and should, be.


Beach House at the Lyric

When Beach House took the stage at the Lyric in April, it had been a few years since the dream-pop duo had performed in their hometown. During that time, they released a Top 10 album (2012’s widely acclaimed Bloom), toured the world, and appeared at virtually every major American and European music festival. So when singer Victoria LeGrand hit the Lyric stage and declared, “Baltimore, it’s been too long,” the roar from the audience drove home that point. The band’s generous set, coupled with the gorgeous setting and appreciative crowd, made for a transcendent evening.


Marion Winik

Don’t expect knee-slapping guffaws or giggle fits from Winik. In her books—especially the new one, Highs in the Low Fifties—she threads sly humor through poignant observations that generate reflection rather than mere escapism. Winik recounts misadventures, admits shortcomings, confronts demons, and stares down mortality with disarming candor. To her credit, that sincerity never drifts into sentimentality. Instead, it resonates with hard-earned wisdom that, like Winik’s humor, connects on a variety of levels.


Center Stage’s The Raisin Cycle

Kwame Kwei-Armah joked to The Sun that he “must have been high on drugs” when he agreed to write a play in response to the Tony-winning Clybourne Park——which was, itself, inspired by the classic A Raisin in the Sun——and present both plays, in repertory, as The Raisin Cycle. It turned out to be a great idea, because Kwei-Armah delivered a lively and thoughtful piece, Beneatha’s Place, that played well with Clybourne and nodded to its legacy. Kwei-Armah, who became the theater’s artistic director two years ago, also delivered on a promise to up its national profile, and indeed, the likes of Variety, The New York Times, and PBS covered The Raisin Cycle.

Music Video

Dan Deacon’s “Konono Ripoff No. 1”

The song nods to Congolese band Konono No. 1, but the innovative video hits closer to home. It assembles jittery GIFs of local scenesters—including Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Double Dagger’s Nolen Strals, and Deacon himself—holding objects they consider meaningful. But that isn’t all. A companion smartphone app syncs to the video and displays the objects, which can be manipulated by the viewer. The simultaneous videos make a good match for Deacon’s frenetic track.

Natural Art

Cylburn Arboretum

Visiting Cylburn is like walking through a sprawling art installation full of natural, carefully curated exhibits. Cylburn’s impressive collection includes flowering shrubs, tree peonies, boxwoods, and beeches situated in and around areas for sitting, walking, and gawking. Do not miss the Japanese maples near the Mansion. The view from under their colorful canopy of leaves late in the afternoon rivals anything Monet ever put on canvas. It might even inspire you to pick up a paintbrush. 4915 Greenspring Avenue, 410-367-2217.

Patron Saints

Chris Toll, “Blaster” Al Ackerman, Thomas “Pope” Croke

Long before Dan Deacon and the Wham City crew earned Baltimore a national rep for its wildly creative, alternative arts scene, folks like Toll, Ackerman, and Croke paved the way to that road less travelled. Unconcerned with celebrity and seemingly oblivious to trends, they walked through this city leaking unfettered creativity at every turn. Sadly, they all passed away within the past year, but their eccentric bravado continues to resonate.

Visionary Artist

Mars Tokyo

The star of AVAM’s current mega-show, The Art of Storytelling, Mars Tokyo (real name, Sally Mericle) exhibits two distinct bodies of work: meticulously crafted, miniature assemblages she calls Theaters of the 13th Dimension and comic-like drawings taken from her visual diaries. Although the forms couldn’t be more different, they accumulatively tell an intensely personal story that deals with everything from relationships and body image to quitting smoking. She also paints and, like many AVAM artists, has a compelling backstory, so it may be time for a retrospective exhibit of all Mars Tokyo’s work sometime in the near future.

Acquisition: Old School

Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue

This 11th-century piece was exhibited by the Walters this spring. It was once affixed to a cabinet containing Torah scrolls in an Egyptian synagogue. Now, it’s a priceless portal to the past. 6000 N. Charles Street, 410-547-9000.

Acquisition: New School

Sarah Sze’s Random Walk Drawing(Eye Chart)

Purchased for the BMA’s Contemporary Wing, this mixed-media sculpture is comprised of intricately cut paper and everyday objects such as a tape measure, pillow, small fan, and, yes, an eye chart. 10 Art Museum Drive, 443-573-1700.


Bernard Lyons

Lyons, who is also the bar manager at Bertha’s, consistently brings exceptional, improvisational jazz to town. It’s particularly notable because the music isn’t remotely commercial, though the acts Lyons books (through his company, Creative Differences) are often internationally known performers. Due to his determined efforts and good ear, the likes of Marilyn Crispell, Tim Berne, Nels Cline, and our own Lafayette Gilchrist turn up regularly at spots such as The Windup Space. Thanks to Lyons and the annual High Zero Festival, Baltimore continues to thrive as a spot for challenging and edgy music.

Small Press

BrickHouse Books

Local lit hero Clarinda Harriss has been editing at BrickHouse for 40 years now, but she certainly isn’t resting on her laurels. In fact, she turns up new talent and doesn’t shy from work that might otherwise have difficulty getting published. As a result, BrickHouse’s recent titles range from Richard Fein’s essay collection, Yiddish Genesis, to Rachel Hennick’s Ghetto Medic, an account of her father’s stint as a Baltimore fireman and paramedic.


John Waters

Our local icon hasn’t directed a film in nearly a decade, but that hasn’t stopped him from being our highest-profile cultural ambassador. It also hasn’t seemed to dampen his spirits, because Waters is funnier than ever. At a recent Howard Theatre show in D.C., he riffed about everything from the venue’s musical heritage and the city’s gay bars (anyone remember the Chicken Hut?) to designer clothes and Justin Bieber (who once told him, “Your ’stache is the jam”). Waters’s droll recap of last year’s cross-country hitchhiking trip has us looking forward to the book it inspired, Carsick, which is due out in May 2014.


Deana Haggag

George Ciscle founded the Contemporary Museum in 1989, curated groundbreaking shows at the Maryland Historical Society and the BMA, and started the Exhibition Development Seminar and Curatorial Practice MFA programs at MICA. As Ciscle flourished, the Contemporary floundered after his departure in the mid-1990s and eventually shut down last year. Now, the museum’s board is turning to Haggag, a recent graduate of Ciscle’s Curatorial Practice program, to both reinvent the Contemporary and, perhaps, recapture some of the old magic. She certainly has the passion, and pedigree, for the job.

Slice of Baltimore

12 O’Clock Boys

Lotfy Nathan’s film about the city’s wheelie-popping, law-defying dirt-bike riders created quite a buzz, both locally and nationally. Nathan, a MICA grad, introduced the rest of the country to a Baltimore subculture that’s inherently dangerous and wildly fascinating. His film not only documents the crosstown jaunts and high-speed stunts, it also speaks to the motivation behind death-defying behavior that’s heroic to some and criminal to others. Like The Wire, it humanizes its subjects and shows us something about ourselves.

Theater Venue

Everyman Theatre

Artistic director Vincent Lancisi planned and oversaw extensive renovations of Everyman’s Fayette Street home, which opened in January, and it shows. The main room retains the theater’s trademark intimacy, minus the claustrophobic feel and sightline-busting columns, while state-of-the-art lights and sound enhance the atmosphere of each production. The lobbies are comfortable and encourage dining from a curbside food truck or lingering over a drink from Vinny’s Bar. The new site also includes spacious workshops and storage spaces, administrative offices, classrooms, and an upstairs rehearsal hall that Lancisi hopes to, one day, convert into additional performance space. 315 W. Fayette Street, 410-752-2208.

Dance Event

Baltimore School for the Arts’ Appalachian Spring Festival

After School for the Arts became the first high school given permission by the Martha Graham Center to stage Graham’s classic ballet, Appalachian Spring, it leveraged that coup into a school-wide, weeklong arts festival in April. Students constructed the theater set, researched the ballet at the Library of Congress (where it premiered in 1944), mounted wall panels about its historical context, created visual artworks inspired by the ballet, remixed Aaron Copland’s score, and drew storyboards for an animation project. And most importantly, the dancers nailed the performance (cover photo). 712 Cathedral Street, 443-642-5167.

Tribute Album

Mobtown Moon

It takes guts to reinterpret a classic record like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, but Sandy Asirvatham and Ellen Cherry not only did an admirable job, they reinvented it in surprising ways. The two local musicians assembled a diverse cast of players, tapped into the original album’s gravitas, and, in some cases, wrung new meaning from it. Incorporating elements of jazz, hip-hop, gospel, and roots rock into Floyd’s prog-rock, they underscored the emotional range of the original tunes and spotlighted the city’s wide range of talent in the process. As a result, Mobtown Moon functions as a tribute to both Pink Floyd and the breadth and depth of the local music scene.


Jen Michalski

We’ve previously cited Michalski for editing the City Sages collection (2010’s “Best Anthology”) and we’re fans of the 510 Reading Series she co-hosts with Michael Kimball, but she really upped the ante this year by publishing three books: a novel (The Tide King), short story collection (From Here), and a pair of novellas (Could You Be With Her Now). Though admirably multi-dimensional, Michalski never fails to tell compelling stories capable of challenging and surprising readers. That readership figures to grow substantially if she continues producing work of this caliber.

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