Crispy cold days with intermittent cloud cover are among my favorite conditions for a visit to Baltimore. Although I’m certain the harbor is sparkling in summer, it is the short afternoons of the darker seasons that call me, dangling promises of Daily Grind coffee and great art in front of my chapped lips. This combination of elements, which includes art, caffeine, travel, unguided thought, and love for my companion, gets me high. It makes me feel good, and I need it. I, like every single other human being on the face of the earth, am hardwired for pleasure, and pleasure and addiction run hand in sweaty hand. Some addictions are destructive, others are seemingly benign, but they all do the same thing—feed our need for pleasure. And we all have to feed it, whether we like it or not. Andrew Weil, M.D., goes so far as to say that “not only is addiction universal, not only are all of us in it, but it’s the essence of our being as humans.”
It is with this understanding firmly in mind that Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, hailed in CNN News as “one of the most fantastic museums anywhere in the world,” opened its eighth thematic mega-exhibition, High On Life: Transcending Addiction, last month. The exhibition features the work of 100 artists, primarily self-taught, whose current or former addictions range from shopping to smack. The exhibit is divided into seven sections: Temptation, Descent, Constant Craving, Dispensation, Just Say Know, Plants of the Gods, and The Third Eye. Media used range from oils to cigarette butts to pot seeds; discarded dime bags are sewn together to form Tom Fruin’s urban quilt entitled “Treasure Map.”
The exhibit isn’t just about individuals struggling to overcome the hellish depths of narcotic or alcohol addiction, although there is some of that. One can’t expect an exhibit like this one without it, especially in a city that recently ranked #1 among US cities in its citizens’ use of heroin. Temptation, Descent, and Constant Craving all offer fantastic, thought-provoking, and often painful works—but they also offer the inspired incarnations of those who have recovered. The following section (Dispensation) is about addictive substances whose use is legal and encouraged in our society: food, alcohol, nicotine, prescription drugs, and shopping. Just Say Know illuminates the idiocy of the never-ending, always-failing War on Drugs, citing studies that remind us that alcohol is associated with more violent crime than any illegal drug. Plants of the Gods shows work influenced by psychotropic drugs like cannabis or LSD. The work in The Third Eye, the final segment of the show, alludes to scientific theories that we can experience visionary states of consciousness through mystical practices, eliciting a euphoric response without the aid of external substances.
The exhibit includes work by a few trained or well-known artists—novel for the AVAM. Paintings and photographs by William S. Burroughs grace the walls, and there are several incredibly vivid oil paintings by Chris Mars (co-founder of the Replacements). I was fortunate enough to see, up-close, the work of Ron English, famed Baltimore billboard anarchist. Several three-dimensional works by Elizabeth McGrath are definitely a highlight; these, alongside works by famous untrained visionaries like Howard Finster and Charles Benefiel. Ray Materson, whose work is shown nationally, garnered an entire gallery at the AVAM to showcase his phenomenally intricate, 2″ x 3″ embroidered works that he began making while battling drug addiction in prison. The squares, which comprise his life story entitled Sins and Needles, boast 1200 stitches per square inch.
Unlike most other museums, mega-exhibits at AVAM comprise the vast majority of their gallery space, although they do house a permanent collection. The museum is wholly dedicated to visionary art, which they define as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without any formal artistic training, whose works arise from an intensity of innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” The AVAM experience begins well before you pay the $8 admission; just outside the entrance is the three-ton, forty-foot tall, wind-powered Whirligig, created by 76-year-old farmer and visionary artist Vollis Simpson. The Whirligig is a part of the Central Sculpture Plaza; just around the corner is the Wild Flower Sculpture Garden and Meditation Chapel, and adjacent to that is the Tall Sculpture Barn, whose 45-foot ceilings enclose mammoth towers of expression. Sometime soon, AVAM will screen art films in the barn. The top floor contains the Joy America Café, which offers a variety of eclectic American dishes. Even their web site is fun; at avam.org, you can make an art car and a dancing robot of your own design.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MODE MAGAZINE, MARCH 2003.
PLEASE CHECK DESTINATIONS BEFORE TRAVELING.
American Visionary Art Museum
Baltimore Inner Harbor
800 Key Hwy., Baltimore, MD
• Take I-83 South to Lombard Street light. Turn right on Lombard. Turn left at Light Street. Turn left at Key Highway (MD Science Center is a landmark). AVAM is on the corner of Key Highway and Covington Street.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
• Baltimore Museum of Art
10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, MD
• Maryland Science Center
601 Light St., Baltimore, MD
• National Aquarium in Baltimore
501 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, MD
WHERE TO STAY
• Celie’s Waterfront
1714 Thames St., Baltimore, MD
• Scarborough Fair B&B
1 E. Montgomery St., Baltimore, MD
• Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor
110 South Eutaw St., Baltimore, MD
WHERE TO EAT
• The Daily Grind Coffee House
1726 Thames St., Baltimore, MD
• Ban Thai
340 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD
• Brewer’s Art
1106 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD
Originally Published in MODE Magazine in November, 2002