Nestled in a protected harbor at the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore, Maryland is a delightful mix of historic sites and modern attractions. On a recent visit, I could have immersed myself in history by visiting Fort McHenry, the key military stronghold of the War of 1812; the USS Constellation, the last Civil War vessel afloat; or the Flag House and Start-Spangled Banner Museum., but I was looking for fun. So, my son, BJ and his wife, Cori, and I opted to visit two of Baltimore’s unique museums.
The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), located on the south side of the Inner Harbor, was an experience that tickled my senses and made me laugh. The giant whirligig that sits outside the main building sets the tone for the fanciful and quirky exhibits in the museum. (see attached photo) A series of multi-colored, rotating windmills are perched on a crossbeam 55 feet above the entrance patio. Vollis Simpson , mechanic, farmer and self-taught artist, created the installation at age 76.
Sometimes referred to as ‘outsider’ art, visionary artists are generally self-taught and use a variety of medium to portray the world as they see it. As opposed to folk artists, their art is unique and not passed on to others. Some of the artists featured in AVAM created only a single piece of art, like the man who spent five years creating a gigantic replica of the Lusitania utilizing 193,000 toothpicks. Others crafted their art using everyday materials, e.g. bottle caps, light bulbs, bras or window screens.
One of the museum’s educational goals is to ‘encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strength.’ As I looked at the exhibits, I was captivated by each artist’s ability to see the world through his or her own unique lens – true ‘out of the box’ thinkers. The biographical stories of each artist were as fascinating as their creativity. A sleek wooden sculpture was a self-portrait chiseled by a man in a mental institution who had taken no interest in art or the world around him. One day while walking on the hospital grounds he became captivated by a fallen log, carted it back to his dormitory, and proceeded to fashion a life-sized minimalist statue that occupied the remainder of his life.
The main building has a circular staircase leading to the galleries on three floors. Adjacent buildings provide space for larger pieces and hands-on workshops for children and adults.
Before we left, we spent time poking around the gift shop where you can purchase everything from art deco cards and creative children’s toys, to eccentric oddities.
After lump crab cake sandwiches at the Rusty Scupper Restaurant overlooking the harbor, we headed over to Geppi’s Entertainment Museum. The museum, which just opened this fall, emerged from Steve Geppi’s comic book collection. As his collection grew, he abandoned his job with the U.S. Postal service and parlayed his life-long love of comic books into a business that eventually became Diamond Comic Distributors, the world’s largest distributor of comic books. An avid baseball fan, he is also part owner of the Baltimore Orioles.
The exhibits trace the development of pop culture in the United States. As we made our way through each room, we delighted in comic character memorabilia that formed a physical timeline, starting with the country’s earliest period and ending in the present, reflecting a unique social commentary of the times.
Comic books are carefully preserved in clear acid-free jackets and many of the toys are in their original boxes. Buster Brown, Popeye and the Katzenjammer Kids reflected the focus on family entertainment up until the Great Depression. I had not realized that the introduction of super-heroes not only provided an escape during the Great Depression and World War II, but emphasized the triumph of good over evil.
‘Oh, look,” I exclaimed. “These are all the comic characters of my childhood.” I don’t remember reading comic books – they weren’t deemed appropriate reading. However, I was introduced to Howdy Doody and Hop-a-long Cassidy on the television. BJ rolled his eyes.
“See, there is a replica of the Hop-a-long Cassidy holster set I got for Christmas when I was about eight,” I squealed.
The displays that focused on BJ and Cori’s childhood featured Ronald McDonald, Playdough, Superman and Star Wars characters. “I still have two of your Star Wars action figures stored in my cedar chest,” I told BJ.
The comic characters of our childhood live on in our memories. As we headed back to the car, my mind was remembering my Dick Tracy badge, the multitude of Disney characters, and how play expanded my creativity and imagination.