To live in and love Baltimore is to understand that its greatest charms lie below the surface. Its problems, and the way people in power continually frame them, obscure the real beauty within. Derrick Adams knows this truth well, even if he spent most of the past three decades living in another, more obviously glamorous city.
“I was at a party last night in New York, an ARTNews party that was to celebrate Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys, who are collectors of mine,” the 49-year-old artist said. “I left the party early to come here, for this today, and I was telling my friends, ‘I’m going to my country house!’”
“This” was his interview with The Baltimore Sun on a hot Friday morning in late September. “My country house” referred to the large detached house, overlooking a quiet tree-lined street in the Waverly neighborhood. Birds chirped while Adams, attired in all-black clothes and Balenciaga sneakers, recounted departing the star-studded shindig with all the nonchalance of someone explaining how they left a work acquaintance’s boyfriend’s birthday party for “a thing."
His relaxed and meandering demeanor makes it easy to forget that he’s an internationally renowned artist. His exhibits take his art as far as Paris and Johannesburg. Several of his works sit in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, among other premier institutions.
Despite this fame — or given his Smalltimorean familiarity — he chose to stage his first hometown solo exhibit at another hidden gem: The Gallery at Baltimore City Hall.
“Where I’m From,” which runs through Nov. 22, features 10 paintings that line the gallery’s tall walls. Each painting draws from scenes in Adams’ childhood in Park Heights and other city neighborhoods. Using color-blocking techniques, he turns images from old family photo albums into large-scale explorations of everyday life in black Baltimore during the ’80s.
Adams plans to pay his Baltimore-bred success forward by turning the “country house” in Waverly, along with an adjacent lot that he purchased, into another place of bliss — specifically, a peaceful space for artists to relax, find inspiration and create without distraction. He talked about the possibilities for an artist residency, like several he’s done, as well as community events and more.
“I thought about it like a bed and breakfast for creative people ... [but] I don’t want it to be a totally institutionalized space, I want to be very free-flowing," Adams said.
Adams’ debut at City Hall took place nearly 30 years ago, when he and other public school students tackled family and legacy in the “My Heritage: Myself" exhibition. The artist, who won the affiliated competition for his depiction of a black family and child, credited an early art teacher named Ms. Wilson for entering him in the contest. “I didn’t even think about art as a competitive thing” before that moment, Adams said.
He pursued this aptitude throughout his childhood, including the teenage years when most of the scenes in “Where I’m From” took place. After a year at Community College of Baltimore (now Baltimore City Community College), during which he took classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Adams moved north and earned his Bachelors of Fine Arts degree at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His creative reputation grew over the following decades and put him on the radar of several other black creatives with Baltimore connections. The Gallery at Baltimore City Hall’s curator, Kirk Shannon-Butts, whose father hails from Baltimore, and Tonya Miller-Hall, who leads public affairs for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s office, both knew of Adams through these Baltimore-New York connections.
“We’ve been longtime friends, since we were teenagers,” Miller-Hall said. “When I came to City Hall in this role, understanding that the gallery would be part of my portfolio, one of my immediate [goals] was to bring Derrick Adams to City Hall.”
“Where I’m From” opens a window to black Baltimore that made perfect sense for Miller-Hall and Shannon-Butts to highlight. It started when Adams’ sister, “Sometimes Love” author Victoria Kennedy, sent him family photographs she scanned so he could use them for a project with the Gordon Parks Foundation fellowship.
“Because the photographs were aged, they didn’t have the same amount of color that I felt was necessary to portray a certain level of intensity, characteristics, attitudes and things that I felt, as a painter, I was able to do,” Adams said.
The paintings render scenes such as a child’s baptism, an aunt’s cabaret and a family reunion with evocative color. Adams used varying shades of brown, yellow and green to depict a range of skin tones that he said suggest the differences in shades within many families of color. This technique, among other components that suggest the beauty of familiarity, point to what Shannon-Butts called the importance of “memory” to the paintings.
“That scene where the family’s sitting on the car, and there’s a bus stop and houses of Baltimore in the background, even though it’s Baltimore, it could be Cleveland, Oakland, Detroit, it could be anywhere,” Shannon-Butts said.
Adams recognized the necessity of moving to New York for his career in the early ’90s, at a time he said aspiring career artists couldn’t make it work as easily in Baltimore. He referenced his nephew and True Laurels creator Lawrence Burney, musician Abdu Aliand painter and sculptor Shinique Smith as examples of a new generation that took Baltimore to a broader audience. He hopes for this Waverly space to give local artists, visitors, community members and others another space to take the city in.
“I love Baltimore, [but] there wasn’t an opportunity for me when I was a young artist, and I had to go elsewhere to find opportunity,” Adams said. “Now, I’m in a position where I can create opportunity here in Baltimore. So, artists who don’t want to leave Baltimore don’t have to leave. And people who are interested in coming to Baltimore, to learn more about the culture, from the perspective of a black Baltimorean, it’ll definitely be a good way to have an experience.”
Adams’ plans for the space, while still loose, take inspiration from his own experiences with arts residencies. One involved his friend Kehinde Wiley, best known for painting Barack Obama’s presidential portrait, in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
“In Dakar, Senegal, this year, he invited his friends and other people to come to the opening of this residency, Black Rock,” Adams said. “He created a beautiful construction on the water for artists and writers to come and work in Dakar and be very engaged with the surrounding community and the city. And I love that. But then I also thought, ‘Why can’t I do that in Baltimore?’ ”