The challenge before Leon Bakst was to design a private theater for one of his most loyal patrons. The problem was where to begin.
Bakst, the set and costumer designer for the Ballets Russes in Paris, was in 1922 a guest at Evergreen House, the home of Alice Warder Garrett and John Work Garrett. Alice had invited Bakst to come live at the North Charles Street estate and design a theater for her. She encouraged him to use the home's bounteous art and book collections as a source of inspiration.
Peasant Art in Russia, a book Bakst found in the Garrett Library, provided folk images that he stenciled and used as the theme for the whimsical theater that can be seen today.
Bakst was just one of many well-known and emerging artists, among them Gari Melchers and Henry Varnum Poor, who benefited from Garrett's hospitality and support.
The legacy of artists dipping into Evergreen's inspirational well that began with Garrett continues today. One recent example was last year's Sculpture at Evergreen, an outdoor exhibition of site-responsive, large-scale works by 10 contemporary artists. The exhibit was a unique assemblage of sculptures that were both inspired by and created specifically for the historic estate's house and grounds.
In this same tradition, next month Evergreen will welcome Randy C. Bolton, a printmaker and digital artist from Philadelphia, as its first artist in residence. In June and July Bolton will have exclusive use of Alice Warder Garrett's studio, now located on the adjacent grounds of Loyola College. Cindy Kelly, director of Hopkins' historic houses and university collections, says the residency will provide the artist an opportunity to respond to various aspects of Evergreen's collections, architecture and grounds in the process of creating new works of art. The work Bolton produces during his residency will form the basis of an exhibition to be displayed at Evergreen in the summer of 2002.
"I've wanted to do an artist in residence program since I got here," says Kelly, who became curator of Evergreen in 1998. "This is an opportunity for an artist to come and spend two months' time here, fully supported, just working on his art. And we want the artist to use the history of this place, the collections of this place, to create a whole new body of work. This is just the kind of support that Mrs. Garrett would want to be giving an artist."
Bolton, a professor of art at the University of Delaware, was sought out due in part to his interest in Japanese decorative art, of which there is an extensive collection at Evergreen.
"Some of his works make it look like he has already been here," Kelly says.
Kelly says the artist in residence program, which Bolton is the first to participate in, could in the future support musicians, set designers and dancers, in addition to visual artists.
In keeping with the theme of place as inspiration, Evergreen will be presenting an exhibition titled "Scott Ponemone's Baltimore: The Interplay of Art and Architecture," opening on May 18 and continuing through Sept. 16. The exhibition will present 41 new watercolors to be shown at two locations, Evergreen and Homewood House.
Ponemone, a Baltimore artist, spent the last year and a half sketching at 15 public and private sites in the Baltimore area, including Evergreen, Homewood House, Hampton Mansion, Mount Clare and Clifton Mansion, the summer residence of founder Johns Hopkins.
Ponemone turned his sketches into a series of vivid watercolors that combine the architectural elements of the building with details of the decorative arts inside.
Kelly says that being able to look at works of art in the place that inspired them adds another dimension of enjoyment for the observer.
"It is fun to have them hung where they were made," Kelly says. "It is a sort of treasure hunt. You look at one painting and think, Where did I see that detail? Then you try to figure out where it comes from. I hope people will have fun with it and get lots of pleasure out of looking more carefully."
"Scott Ponemone's Baltimore" will open at Evergreen House on Friday, May 18, with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m., and at Homewood House on Wednesday, May 23, with a reception from noon to 2 p.m. During the course of the exhibit Ponemone will conduct an outdoor painting workshop, and there will be three gallery talks, two by the exhibition's curator, John Dorsey, former art critic for the Baltimore Sun, and one by Ponemone.
Kelly says both the artist in residence program and the upcoming exhibition are part of an effort to further Alice Warder Garrett's legacy of artist patronage, while at the same time exploring the history of the university's historic houses.
"My goal is for people to realize that these are museums that can function as vital places. Places where you can come to learn about new art, new music, see new artists, see new musicians and learn about history, all at the same time," Kelly says. "I think this approach makes the museum relevant, pertinent and exciting."
Inspired by Bakst's use of the house's book collection for the Garretts' private theater, Kelly invited 20 artists to come to Evergreen, find a rare book in the Garrett Library and then make an entire new book in response to it. Kelly gives an example of one artist who has used an architectural design book as the inspiration for a very sophisticated pop-up book, in which the architectural elements stand up as you turn the page. The 20 books that were created will be put on display at Evergreen House this coming October.
Exhibition hours for "Scott Ponemone's Baltimore" at Evergreen House are 10 a.m to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The exhibition at Homewood House Museum can be viewed from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday.