Best of Baltimore

2013 Best of Baltimore: Arts

The best artists, bands, concerts and more


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Maryland Film Festival

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

Orchestra: Old School

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

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


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

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


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

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”

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

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

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

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

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)

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,


Bernard 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.