on the origins of the cork factory

AZ: So here we are in the Cork Factory on the top floor of the penthouse, as you would say. This place has quite an amazing history as the Crown Cork and Seal complex, where the bottle cap was invented and a bunch of other good stuff. I’m Al Zaruba, sculptor, visual artist, and teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art [MICA]. I came to Baltimore in 1988 for grad school. Ended up becoming the assistant to Salvatore Scarpitta, who was the artist in residence at MICA for about thirty years. Internationally acclaimed Arte Povera artist who was with Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. And Sal is still much more famous in Europe than he ever was in America. So he asked me to be his assistant. I worked eight years as his assistant here in the Cork Factory.

At that time, Sal’s central studio was in this place. A lot of amazing people have come through this place because of Sal. Exhibitions. I installed his seventh appearance at the Venice Biennale and I think it was 1991, 1992, something like that. Which is another story in and of itself. But at one given point, he had over half a million dollars’ worth of art in this space, which are all now in major collections. So there’s this long tradition of that. I was Sal’s last and longest lasting assistant. For those that ever knew him, he was a legend. As one collector in New York said, “Whenever Sal walked into the room, he sucked all the air out of it.”

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on creating the district & legalizing occupancy

AF: As far as city government is concerned, and the process of rezoning this building for live/work space, how did that get started?

BL: A lot of the spaces across the street in the Copy Cat Building, which was also part of Crown Cork and Seal, got occupied by fairly activist artists. One of them was David Crandall at the time. There was an entity that the state was creating called an arts and entertainment district. They created it with the idea that it was going to go to Highlandtown, where the Creative Alliance is. They tailored it right to them. And David Crandall initiated this procedure of, “Why should it go to them? It’s got to be competitive, so why don’t we compete for it?”

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on art parties

CH: And we had parties. We have had wonderful, wonderful art parties in our building. I don’t know if you have heard about those from other people. We’ve done three monumental parties. And I call them “art parties” because they involve more than just a party.

Like, one party was the high school party, and it came about because I never got to be prom queen. Of course, in high school, I was far from ever being the prom queen. But I always sort of wanted to be the prom queen. So I decided, why couldn’t we just have a high school party? Because there are other people probably who wanted to be the star quarterback of the football team or whatever, or the head of the yearbook or something. “Why don’t we have a high school party and then we can all live out our aspirations?” So everybody—well, Kate [Thomas] and Bob [Levine], in particular—were our cohorts, and sometimes Nancy and Lou [Linden]. And they said, “Yeah, yeah! It sounds like a good idea.”

So then we got other people in. But then the party just kind of morphs into a really big, big party. Because we began to think about how real we wanted it to be. We got somebody to be a nun, for those of our friends who went to Catholic school. And we installed a nun in there. And then we rig up a PA system so that we can talk to people and make announcements. We began thinking about the things from high school that we remembered. The surly cafeteria lady that used to slop your peas! So we bought these big things of canned peas, and my sister-in-law was the surly cafeteria woman. And then we made people go through the cafeteria line, and we literally sloped stuff on their [plates]. And the part that was amazing was that our friends actually ate it!

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on being an artist/teacher

AF: When you were talking about this idea of being an artist first, and a teacher second, you know, in regards to someone else. Of all the people I’ve talked to in the building so far, not as many have been teachers. I’d be interested in your experience with having so many decades affiliated with MICA and the painting department, how you kind of balance [being an] artist/teacher.

PM: Well, when I taught, I always taught as an artist. But the skill of teaching as a teacher is that you are making sure your class is using their time and the experience they’re getting. Many artists will come in if they don’t have that feel for teaching. By going through Cooper Union for three years with the greatest teachers in some ways, and then Yale, another three years in residence, one year out, I’ve had a lot of teachers. And I think you learn teaching by having teachers. And then as you teach, you learn more about teaching. After each class, I almost want to write a book because all of a sudden, oh!—it all comes together and I understand. I have chapter one through ten, you know?

I think that’s what happens at the Institute.

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on finding a studio in baltimore

AF: I wanted to ask you—before we turned the recorder on, you told me a little bit about some of the other studio spaces that you had around the city.

PM: Yes.

AF: Would you be willing to talk a little bit about that?

PM: When I first arrived, the big choice of finding a studio—one of my friends from Yale, Michael Economos, had a studio in 206 West Franklin [Street], which is between Howard [Street] and Park [Avenue]. I saw that there was space available under him, so that’s where I first got a studio. I had that studio from 1966… I had that thirteen years as far as I remember.

Then I actually moved my studio from 206 to across the street, and I even forget the number, but it was a studio over a liquor store. The artist before me in that place was Israel Hirschberg. He was teaching at the Institute, but then he left. Eventually, he went to Jerusalem and started the Jerusalem Art School, which is still going. It’s very active.

So anyway, I was there seven more years. And then I had to leave and I had to pack all my stuff up. I was looking for a space, so I packed all my stuff up and Howie Weiss allowed me to store my belongings in the loft that he was renting.

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on architecture & industry

LL: This is the last generation of industrial buildings to be ornamented. When you leave, we’ll go outside and you can look up. There are these great Romanesque arches. There are carved faces with little carved lions and clowns and shit. And the whole two-block long factory complex was all built at the same time. And it’s all ornamented in the same fashion. And that went away immediately after that.

This portion over here—this addition to the Copy Cat Building—was built in 1906. And if you look at it, that ornamentation is gone completely. It’s totally utilitarian. This is kind of the end of the 19th century, when your industrialists demonstrated their power and their sophistication by decorating. Even the factories are decorated.

And the brick work, it’s exquisite brick work, it’s just really quite remarkable. It really is one of the last pure brick piles. You know, basically this is a hollow shell. The floors are supported with cast-iron posts that hold those steel I-beams. But structurally, it’s all masonry. There’s no structural steel in these walls at all. And there is no pre-cast concrete. Interestingly, the Copy Cat Building has a lot of cast concrete floors. This building does not. And I’m not at all sure why.

But this really is, I think of the whole complex, far and away the most attractive building. And, indeed, it is really the most manageable in terms of its size. It’s only about 40,000 square feet, the whole building. And that makes it possible for a small number of impecunious artists to own it and keep it going.

on the gallery & activism

KT: So, for instance, the gallery—as much as we would hold that open for gallery space, for art shows and things of that nature—it also was a huge place for gathering people. The stuff that has gone on in that gallery is just amazing over the years. I mean, all kinds of political organizations have met there, had meetings there, gatherings. I remember that we had Bernardine Dohrn from the sixties come one time and speak to us.

There were just all kinds of things going on around here that revolved around it. So there always was a combination of activism [and art] here. So it’s the bent of the people in the neighborhood and us, in particular, but also the direction of the gallery for a long time. I think it’s kind of a nice marriage, probably not an unusual one.

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