on neighborhood change

AF: From the perspective where you sit today, how do you really feel about your role in this community, and also looking ahead, as far as the evolution of this area?

BL: Well, I think the effect is when I was first living here, when Kate [Thomas] and I were first living here, until people started moving into the Copy Cat building, the neighborhood was actually pretty dangerous. We would get our cars broken into all the time, and stolen a number of times. We’d be calling about gunfights that you could actually see out the windows. Then, as the artists moved in, and they were up all hours of the night, that started to change.

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on a new era in the cork

AZ: After Sal moved out, and Sal had taken me to Italy five times during the years that I worked here in the Cork Factory as his assistant. I mean, my God, the time that he was burning tires in here and we were pushing black smoke out into the atmosphere, and the fire department showed up and they were really furious with Sal. At times he would mix all kinds of strange chemicals. Incredible stories about some of those things. He was a maniac; larger than life. Something almost mythical and very gregarious, outspoken and just an amazing human being. He was my primary mentor and a huge influence on generations of artists that came through MICA. So when he was here, this was quite the place. After he moved out and up to Pennsylvania to the place he had there, and into New York, back again. He’d been in New York, but he returned to New York. He kept a duality of places.

I had the extraordinary opportunity with the other artists in the building to buy the building from Weant Press. It was a whole new era.

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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 joining the cork factory

NL: My first exposure here was probably coming to a party. Logan Hicks used to have the whole floor above us, and he would have enormous parties and art shows. At some point, I came to one, and it was dark and dramatic out on the street. It was this lighted place on this really dark street. In the old days, the street was a bit hazardous. And then I had a friend who had a studio on the 5th floor, and I’d to go to his parties occasionally. And a bunch of us… Well, I don’t know how lengthy you want to get into all of this.

In 1998, I guess, when Maryland Art Place was just moving out of their old space on Saratoga [Street], a friend and I were stuffing envelopes to help out, I’m not even sure what. But Peter Bruin, who was then on the board of MAP, was working with us and saying, “By the way, there is one show left and they are looking for somebody to just do something in their building before they leave it.” Janet and I said, “Well, we can do something.” So we got a hold of a bunch of other friends and it kind of evolved. There were nine of us. And it was this big installation thing that we all did. We’d get together and talk and talk and talk. And then we’d each go home and make plans and come back together again and talk and talk and talk. It was quite exciting, really. And then we installed it there.

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