One of the first things you notice when you get past the reception desk at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, a museum dedicated to self-taught artists, is the “Robot Family” by Pennsylvanian artist DeVon Smith. The parents, their children and a dog made of vacuum cleaners, hoses, clamps, and tail lights turn their heads, move their arms, blink their eyes and generally sort of creep you out in a friendly way. From the entrance, you make your way to the second floor exhibits, including “Holy H2O – Fluid Universe” where all the pieces are water-themed. An artist calling himself Mr. Imagination has a series of giant, multi-coloured and well-detailed fish made entirely of bottlecaps.
The stars of the museum are Nancy Josephson’s “La Siren” and Tom Duncan’s sculpture “Slave Ship”. Inspired by the voodoun goddess of the same name, “La Siren” is a working fountain done in the form of a voodoo shrine. A life-sized goddess clad in beads, sequins and glitter stands, holding a snake in each hand, water pouring from their mouths into a pool below which is bedecked in shells, Virgin Mary icons, candles and other offerings. The piece was inspired by the artist’s own travels in Haiti, and perfectly conveys the feral beauty of the voodoun faith.
Duncan’s “Slave Ship” hits you like a punch in the stomach. This meticulously detailed sculpture of a slave ship, replete with row upon row of people chained together in cramped quarters below deck, also carries the products of slavery’s legacy, from Klansmen to minstrel singers in blackface. At the prow of the ship, the Statue of Liberty holds a skeleton aloft in her torch.
The AVAM is easy to find. It sits on the south side of Baltimore’s Inner Harbour, right next to the famed Federal Hill (which still has cannons from the Civil War aimed at downtown Baltimore). As you approach the building, take a look at the giant, psychedelic weathervane standing next to it. Like most of the pieces inside the museum, it’s easy to tell that it was constructed from whatever discarded materials were at the artist’s disposal – bicycle chains, traffic cones, bits of glass and such – but the end result is a wholly different creature that you almost expect to sprout legs and start dancing. These pieces live.
The American Visionary Arts Museum also has a detailed website: http://www.avam.org/.