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.”

But back to the origins of the Cork Factory itself. This is where the Maryland Institute’s graduate program began some years ago. Before it moved into a more permanent location, it was rented here from Weant Press. And Weant, in and of itself, is quite an amazing old-time, from-another-age printing press. A labyrinth. It was downstairs. Quite an interesting space.

But after MICA moved out of the building, a well-known painter [moved in]—Rita Beler, a fabulous beauty, from all accounts. I never saw her but I heard a lot about her, her and her wild hair. She was known for painting giant canvases up here in the nude and leaving the studio door open. [Laughs] But evidently she was built like nobody’s business. One of the people that came to buy a painting was Buzz Beler, the owner of the Prime Rib complex. And he ended up marrying Rita. That’s another story. So after Rita married Buzz, she moved out of the space and Sal, who knew Rita, moved in.

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