Global Track is our weekly street art column by Rhiannon Platt.
In its second season, Open Walls Baltimore began in a similar manner as the first, with a mural by curator Gaia. The project acts as a love letter and a gift from coordinators Gaia and Nanook to the city they care about so deeply. With the former curating and the latter the artistic coordinator, the roster of artists is noticeably dissimilar from traditional festival circuits. Although 2012 saw familiar names including Jaz, Ever, Freddy Sam, and Vhils, this year deviates from that pattern.
El Decertor, Zbiok, and Ozmo are among some of the names viewers may not yet be familiar with, but that will certainly change. With Open Walls Baltimore being the first to recognize now popular muralists including Mata Ruda, Jessie Unterhalter, and Katey Truhn, viewers can expect a similar spectacle from this year’s selected muralists. Organizers Nanook and Gaia took a brief break from painting and prepping to discuss Baltimore and murals with Complex.
What first inspired this project and how did it come about?
Gaia: I have personally always wanted to bring street artists to Baltimore to take advantage of the vacant state of the city and its expressive culture. The opportunity arose to reproduce the model of the Street Art festival when Station North Arts and Entertainment District (SNAED) and William Backstrom of PNC Foundation approached me to curate a "transformative art project" under their creative place-making grant application.
Artist: Sanntu Photographer: Martha Cooper
Considering the depressed nature of most of Baltimore’s housing stock, murals are an exciting, albeit topical approach to the aesthetic problems that wrack our home.
Why was it important for you to do it in Baltimore?
Gaia: The murals for Open Walls are all created within the bounds of the Greenmount West and Charles North neighborhoods, that together, both constitute SNAED, which is a federally recognized arts district. The murals help visualize a creative community and hopefully through efforts of outreach, aid in establishing a bridge between the artist and African American communities.
A project like this is important for Baltimore to challenge its locally oriented mindset to extend beyond the city limits and be open to international influence. And considering the depressed nature of most of Baltimore’s housing stock, murals are an exciting, albeit topical approach to the aesthetic problems that wrack our home.
Nanook: Baltimore is where I first began putting up work. It is a city that has taught me a lot about myself and my art practice. It is a great honor to be able to be apart of the team for Open Walls Baltimore 2 and see everything that goes on behind the scenes with putting on a festival. It opens more doors for communication and lasting relationships with organizations and people who are also working on projects in Baltimore City. It is also amazing to be able to facilitate other people from around the world being able to come and experience Baltimore.
El Decertor in Lima, Peru Artist: El Decertor via Street Art News
Is there anyone in particular who you are excited to bring to the city?
Gaia: I am particularly excited to be bringing El Decertor, because not only do I think he is one of the finest muralists in the Americas technically, but I also appreciate his thoughtful approach to spirituality and fragmented community.
Artist: Zbiok via Ekosystem
Nanook: I am excited to have Zbiok come to Baltimore. I have seen him significantly switch his style over the years, and we have lined up a multifaceted wall for him that I am very excited about.
*Editors Note: Prior to the Open Walls Baltimore announcement, El Decertor was one of Complex’s 20 Street Artists to Watch.
The dialogue can get pushed farther than just 'what are you doing to the building' and has a greater possibility of delving into what each individual person sees in each work.
How do you see this second year as different from the first?
Gaia: This year Open Walls departs even further from the generic street art festival roster that we see continuously copy and pasted throughout the world. I invited artists who are more provocative in how they address the mural and the viewer, but I also tried through the wall selection to make the works more community oriented, even though we are expressly not a community arts project.
Has the public reaction changed? If it has, do you think this it due to greater awareness than before?
Gaia: Generally, the city as a whole is significantly more aware of our schedule and events, but the murals are met with the same ambivalence as the prior iteration. Our association with other strategies of reinvestment in the neighborhood makes many residents circumspect of our true intentions.
Nanook: I see how the public is responding to the project more this time around; they have a better understanding of what our mission is because of the last OWB, and so the dialogue can get pushed farther than just "what are you doing to the building" and has a greater possibility of delving into what each individual person sees in each work.
Artist: Gaia Photographer: Rhiannon Platt
What has been your favorite public interaction thus far?
Gaia: I personally enjoyed the intensity of my block whilst painting the first wall for Open Walls. Fielding the dramatically wide range of responses to the work was both invigorating and unsettling. But meeting residents casually and depicting them throughout the composition on the fly was a nice improvisational moment.
Artist: Nanook Photographer: M. Holden Warren
Nanook: My mural is in a community garden, and my best interaction has been with the kids that the garden organizer, Kevin, has been teaching about gardening. It's always incredible to get kids' opinion of my work and witness their ability to formulate complex ideas without any pressure to do so. They constantly fall into tangents about what they think the piece is about or why I chose certain colors, and it is great to sit back and hear their conversations.
Nanook and Gaia with Interesni Kazki at their OWB mural Photographer: Rhiannon Platt
How has your experience been working together on this project?
Gaia: It is always incredible to be able to work with Nanook on a project considering we are so close emotionally but also share the same vigorous work ethic. Things just run swimmingly when Nanook is a participating artist and organizer.
Nanook: I am always excited to work with Gaia on any project. His commitment and passion to work and communicate with the public is incredible. We have spent a lot of time together and know how each other function. I can always rely on him to be up and ready to tackle any task that needs completing.
What can viewers expect from the upcoming artists?
Gaia: Considering there are 12 artists who have yet to paint throughout the month of May, there is still a lot to be done. Expect a tension between the intimate and the strange, familiarity and the challenge.
Nanook: As there is still so much work to be done and an unexpected amount of interactions to be made, I really cannot predict how each individual artist will approach their walls.