“When People Trust You”: MICA’s EXCHANGE Residency Brings International Artists “Home” to Baltimore
Don Palmer — a former music critic for The Village Voice, a retired government employee, and a recent Baltimore transplant — had some misgivings about helping his artist houseguest with certain of her intimate items in their laundry it was his turn to wash. So he contacted his wife, Beth Fredrick, who was in Ghana for work, and told her about his predicament.
“I didn’t want to put away her lingerie,” Palmer says, noting that he’s now totally comfortable with the situation, several weeks into the social/cultural experiment known as EXCHANGE: a home-based artist residency, the brain child of MICA MFA in Curatorial Studies grad student Hyejung Jang. “Last week, I washed all of her underwear and folded it up,” Palmer adds.
In fact these days, Palmer, Fredrick — who serves as deputy director of the Advance Family Planning Project at the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health through the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — and Garcia de la Huerta, a 29-year-old conceptual artist and sculptor from Chile, are practically three peas in a pod, or maybe three peas in a gigantic rowhouse in Bolton Hill.
This kind of laundry-sharing intimacy is exactly what Jang had in mind when she proposed the high-concept project that pairs two international artists with two sets of sophisticated but “not art-expert” locals, emphasizing the widespread benefit to the community that active art-making can bring everybody.
“To make an intimate relationship, I automatically thought about home,” explains Jang, 29, who spent a full year scouting possible artist/host duos. “[Home] allows the artists and hosts to feel comfortable. In this project home is not only a physical space, where family is living together. It is my two artists, two hosts, their relationship and experience, and the work that the artists are creating with inspiration from their experience.”
Kit Yi Wong — who doesn’t reveal her age in case she decides to make art posing as someone younger or older — is a sculptor from Hong Kong. Growing up, she didn’t watch much television because her mother frowned on the “media messages” she might soak up. Living with businessman Steven Freels in the Area 405 building in Station North that he co-owns with Baltimore sculptor Stewart Watson, Wong has embraced television…and red meat.
“I learn so much from the TV and from going to the party rather than school,” Wong says. Wong recently completed her MFA at Yale; Garcia de la Huerta earned a grad degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Wong says she’s quite drawn to Baltimore because people are easy to talk to, and she feels fairly safe.
“I was expecting it would be kind of like New Haven [which is dangerous outside the Yale campus], but it’s way better than I thought.”
Freels is the COO of GSE Systems, and he travels a lot. When he’s home, he uses the studio to work on cars.
“Not wearing a beret,” Freels says, “but I have a lot of artist friends.”
“I enjoy when he comes home,” Wong says. “We watch TV together. Sometimes ‘Big Bang Theory.’”
They also cook together and share in the housekeeping duties.
When Fredrick considered whether or not to participate in this residency program, one of her biggest concerns, aside from adjusting to having a third person in the house regularly, was the business of daily chores. Would she inherit a slob who made her mega-busy life a messy hell?
“Hyejung was very responsive to this concern in preparing the artists, and it hasn’t been an issue,” Fredrick says.
Palmer, Fredrick, and Garcia de la Huerta happily socialize most evenings, all three cooking by turn, hitting parties in Bolton Hill (many of these thrown by senior citizens), going for treats at Blob’s Park, to jazz clubs, to the Baker Awards — Fredrick says she brought de la Huerta to a Roe v. Wade lecture her first night in town.
“It’s great to see Baltimore through the eyes of Beth and Don,” Garcia de la Huerta says, adding that she loves Baltimore’s artistic scene and feels inspired by “this very different conversation about race [because] the majority here is African American.”
Palmer says of his guest, “She’s easygoing and exceedingly polite — she’s very kind and centered.”
“She’ll drink wine!” Fredrick adds.
“She’ll eat anything!” Palmer says.
“Elisa rolls well with anything that comes along, from our loss of a dear friend to my trip to the emergency room [when I fell down stairs] to endless neighborhood potlucks,” Fredrick says.
Garcia de la Huerta doesn’t just roll naturally with everything she encounters while staying with the couple, she makes free-spirited art out of it. Visit the donated School 33 workspace she and Wong share and step inside a fabric-hung room of memory-fueled collage elements — some her own, some borrowed from her new friends — including notes made by Palmer for his Stoop monologue performance, video footage of her temporary life in Bolton Hill, and slides spied by Fredrick at neighbors’ places…
“At parties, she’s trolling for slides,” Fredrick says. “It occurred to me the older [people] probably have slides!”
Above and below, the piece she’s working on at School 33, which resembles, to a degree, a Technicolor tent constructed by a brilliant outsider artist homeless person, with video footage looping subtle images of the artist bathing intermixed with various images she has collected.
“I’m interested in the line between what is public and private,” Garcia de la Huerta says. “I have been recording myself, thinking about the ritual of being with myself… How can I overlap layers? I start very personally, but I’m interested in how people process, how our brains register all these things that we experience. ”
Wong says her work is “always related to space.”
For one current film project, which she works on in cafés, at the studio, and on-site in strangers’ apartments, Wong enlisted two cats borrowed from Baltimoreans (found by want ad) to tour residential settings, the homes also found via want ad. The result is an appealing movie-in-progress presenting a split-screen story: a living room seen through the electric eyes of Cat One — who wears a tiny camera around her neck — and Cat Two, who does the same but finds himself drawn to very different aspects of a room, at different speeds.
“I like to play with the unexpected because there’s so much expectation in my life,” Wong says. “By my age, I should have children and a husband and a car [according to my mother’s belief system].”
She doesn’t meet the volunteer resident before she sets her cats to filming, nor does she monitor her cats while they take their consecutive 30-minute tours. The results are always a surprise.
“People’s personalities come out through seeing the apartment,” Wong says.
Wong says it’s fun to spy a book she owns in the home of a city resident she scarcely knows; it’s interesting to see that “most people tie a plastic bag to the door.” She says, “When people trust you, that is really amazing.”
You can still become involved in the artists’ local projects before they return to their current apartments in New York City at the end of March. Inspired by a Chinese proverb that says it takes 100 rebirths to bring two people to ride in the same boat, Wong is currently looking for a Baltimore resident to accompany her in the boat she built herself. “I would like to invite you to embark on a haphazard yet heart-to-heart journey together this Sunday morning at 10 a.m.,” she writes. “If you want to ride in my boat, let me know via firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Meanwhile, Garcia de la Huerta (above) is looking for abandoned Baltimore buildings to beautify as part of her “(A)dressing Decay” project. “Covering the shattered doors, windows, and walls of each location with soft fabric, the tactile process of applying the textile coverings outdoors blurs the boundaries of public and private space,” she says. “If you own a decaying property, know anybody that would be interested to facilitate any building or would like to volunteer, please contact email@example.com.”