06 Feb A Thousand Buildings Burned
A thousand buildings burned in February of 1904 when a great fire devastated the heart of Baltimore’s financial district. Pictorially this historic conflagration provoked my imagination in a major way and inspired me to depict several epic views of the fire in various stages of its spectacular destruction.
In 2010, The W.P. Carey Foundation commissioned me to create a suite of large oil paintings based on historic Baltimore during the life and times of James Carey (1751-1834) of Loudon, the great early Baltimore businessman for whom Johns Hopkins Carey Business School is named. Even though the 1904 fire did not ravage the city until 70 years later it provided a startling re awakening that most buildings from18th and 19th century were lost for ever. I was largely influenced by JMW Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Parliament which also accidentally caught fire in 1834. I share the British masters enthusiasm for voluminous plumes of smoke , volatile explosions of weather , and a devilish attempt at creating order out of chaos.
Buffered by the Jones Falls, the old power plant in Baltimore’s inner harbor survived the fire. It is featured, the morning after, as a lavender silhouette against a burnt pink sky in my painting depicting the view southeast from the Continental Trust Building. I was also was intrigued by the dramatic salvage efforts made to remove bank safes from the charred remains of major financial institutions. Heavy cast iron safes, filled with millions of dollars and safety deposits were tumbled down dozens of stories, cratering into cellar holes where excavators designed elaborate pulley systems pulled by teams of mules to salvage these valuable coffers. Curious looking men dressed in white heavy canvas suits called “white wingers ” were seen amidst the debris recoiling ruined fire hose. They appeared to me like ghosts rising from the ashes trying to reclaim their beloved city. Like many of us fascinated by the Great Fire of 1904 I found myself in my dreams exploring the exquisite mansard shell of the smouldering B & O Building and lingering at night by steam pump engines that ushered in the mystical dawn of Baltimore’s new age.
Excitingly, I once again have the opportunity to paint dynamic subjects related to Maryland, this time engaging the diverse issues facing Maryland today. Commissioned by the Maryland Historical Society, I will interpret Maryland’s ‘Controversial’ Social History scheduled to open in 2017. My newly created paintings will be juxtaposed with selected artifacts from the museums collection in order to serve as a teaching exhibition and reanimation of the living past. The contemporary examinations will make Maryland’s distinctive history relevant and demonstrate how the continuity of artistic form provides a compelling visual literacy . I strongly believe that the artistic interpretation of challenging topic narratives such as immigration, same sex marriage , poverty, plight of black Marylander and the Baltimore underground has the capacity to provide universal appeal and most importantly give a sense of human dignity in an epoch of such extraordinary diversity.