ArtWalk: Marion Warren’s Photos Large as Life
When we walk or drive West Street, we’ll be passing a life-sized family photo album, where community history becomes art.
The Eye of the Beholder, produced by Mame Warren, Maryland State Archives,1989
County Courthouse on Church Circle, Annapolis, Maryland, 1949
"It’s not easy to be unobtrusive with a camera the size of a Speedgraphic, but when I saw this shot, I set up quickly before they even noticed I was there … The subjects were Bill Labrot, Judge Ben Michaelson (in hat), and Police Chief Will Curry."
previewed by Carrie Madren
Through seven decades, legendary Bay photographer Marion Warren captured changing Annapolis: its citizens, culture and landscape. Soon, you’ll see West Street as it used to be in a six-piece, larger-than-life photo exhibit of Warren’s work.
This collection situated on the sides of the Donlon building, the Annapolis Collection gallery and a private condo building will be the third of six ArtWalk sites, up for three years as part of the Annapolis Charter 300 celebration. We’ve already seen Sy Mohr’s colorful folk art mural brightening the Annapolis Harbormaster building and Greg Harlin’s naval battle scene welcoming Naval Academy visitors off Craig Street.
Now, Marion Warren’s six captioned images from a black family on Clay Street anticipating a 1940s’ parade to a 1950s’ car outside the Farmer’s National Bank on Church Circle return to the streets where he found them.
“This [installation] was much more complex, because there’s six images instead of one,” says Sally Wern Comport, artistic director of ArtWalk. And they’re big; the biggest measures 10 by 16 feet. Her installers will have to use a scissor lift instead of ladders and scaffolding. The mounting bracket is drilled into the mortar of the historic brick walls, so the artwork doesn’t disturb the brick, she explained.
As the big photos go up this week, a dream over two years in the making comes to life.
“Marion was an active participant in this project from very beginning, so I know he’s very happy [with it],” said Joanie Surette, Marion’s business partner and friend from 2001 until his death 11 months ago.
Hatching an Artful Plan
The West Street site, just a block and a half from Warren’s home on City Gate Lane, has history with Warren. The photographer was a frequent diner at Sean Donlon and friend of owner Pam Finley.
“Marion came in all the time,” says Finley, who struck up conversation with him many times before learning his identity. “We used to bring him food when he was in the nursing home.”
Here also was where ArtWalk’s artistic director Comport had hung a temporary piece that caught Warren’s eye while dining at Sean Donlon (now Stan and Joe’s Saloon). When Comport and her ArtWalk co-collaborator, Chuck Walsh, met Warren in a chance encounter outside Sean Donlon, an artful plan was hatched.
“We had a lot of long discussions about which might be appropriate for this West Street site,” says Comport, who gathered with Walsh, Surette and Warren in his City Gate dining room. They agreed to select photos taken on or close to West Street.
“It was initially overwhelming for Chuck and Sally because of the scope of Marion’s collection and the number of choices,” Surette said. But as they poured through the Annapolis images among Warren’s estimated 100,000 total Bay-wide collection the group came to agree on six to transform the ArtWalk site.
At first, Comport said, Warren wanted to use an image of West Street cluttered with telephone poles and electric wires and signage.
“It was a great photo but it wasn’t the romantic vision of one we finally chose,” she said. The group came to quicker consensus on the other five photos, and in the end Warren was satisfied with the selections.
Before Comport presented the idea to the Historic Preservation Council, Warren photographed the bare, graffiti-covered walls, to illustrate how public art would grace once-unsightly views. In failing health, Warren attended two of the hearings with Comport, to help get the project approved.
“The whole concept artwork on buildings was new to him,” said Surette.
Art Lives On
“What an amazing honor to work with Marion,” Comport says. “He was so enthusiastic about this project.”
Warren captured Annapolis and the Bay since 1948, and was a founding member of the Historic Annapolis Foundation with Anne St. Clair Wright. He documented all the buildings that the Foundation set out to preserve. When Warren attended the opening of HistoryQuest with Surette in 2006, he noted that he thought himself the only founding member left.
Surette first met 81-year-old Warren in 2001 while working as a designer for his exhibit at St. John’s College. She soon became his professional assistant later also his personal assistant as his health waned and Warren’s devoted companion in the last five years of his life. “We were extremely close,” she says.
Surette still continues his business, M. E. Warren Photography, with Warren’s daughter, Mame Warren. The two own the copyrights to all Warrens images and are now working with Richard Olensius to digitalize the images currently all negatives and prints to make them last far into the future. Olensius has converted about 100 images so far, including the six used in ArtWalk. Two of the ArtWalk photos were digitalized for the exhibit.
“It’s safe to say he died at peace because what meant the most to him was his photography; he wanted to keep the pictures alive,” Surette said. Warren spent his life capturing a Bay and Annapolis culture as it moved forward throughout the 20th century.
The ArtWalk project helps carry out Warren’s dream of keeping the pictures alive in a way that indoor exhibits can’t by exposing everyone who passes by on West Street to the history and beauty captured in the photographs.
Art for the Masses
By the first week of August, Marion Warren’s works will adorn the exterior of the building where he first saw Comport’s test piece for ArtWalk.
“This art will make the whole place will look better,” says Finley who still owns the Donlon building. “On the far side of the lot, there’s cement crumbling.”
Beyond improving the site, the art will benefit the thousands of people who will see it.
“Art tells a story. People can see what West Street was like 50 years ago,” says Finley.
Thus when we walk or drive West Street, we’ll be passing a life-sized family photo album, where community history becomes art.
“Marion felt that there were a lot of people who really don’t know where they are, the history of the town. So if we can visually pull them in and give a sense of place, that’s good,” Surette says.
The public art projects of ArtWalk and other art efforts make residents to feel at home and give visitors a souvenir.
“Annapolis, with all the growth, like it or not, it’s a historic tourist town,” says Surette on public art. “We should give people something beyond a traffic jam and a T-shirt.”
Catch the official unveiling of Marion Warren’s work at 2pm August 10, beside 45 West St.: www.artatlarge.com.