Highlights from the interview with Carol Higgs
On Lessons from South Baltimore
AF: How much do you think that you bought lessons from South Baltimore here, as far as neighborhood and community?
CH: Yeah. For myself, not very much, really. Because I moved to Baltimore from Annapolis. So I was very involved in the Annapolis community and politics and activism. I was part of a tenants’ rights group in Annapolis. But when I moved to Baltimore, to move in with Dennis, I probably was only in that rowhouse in South Baltimore for just a couple of years before we moved here.
But for Dennis, he bought a lot of what he learned. And in fact, when we moved in this neighborhood, Dale Hargrave, who I said, is the current president of New Greenmount West [Community Association], was already living here. And Dennis knew Dale, because Dale did recycling in South Baltimore and was part of the Recycling Coalition that Dennis and others were part of. So he had contacts everywhere. And he brought in our experience—which was his experience, much more than mine—of watching something that was vibrant and mixed and a wonderful soup of people become bland and vanilla. And healthy, I guess, but just… I don’t know.
Life left the streets for us. That’s how he saw it. I’m sure that people living there now don’t feel that way. It’s not to disparage them. But there was something that was there that he truly loved that left. And so he found it here. And he didn’t want to see it leave again. So he tried to figure out what happened in South Baltimore.
Part of it was that a bunch of developers came in and bought up houses. And the community association, I guess, was not prepared for this somehow. So he wanted this community association to be prepared. “Hey, this is going to take off. This is going to take off. Developers are going to show up here.” And they are! He was absolutely right. They’re going to show up here, and we need make sure that they come to the community association. That we know what’s going on in our neighborhood. We had lots of abandon houses here that the City owned. We didn’t want the City just taking them all and selling them to whoever. You know? We wanted to know who they are going to. What are their plans?
So Dennis took that from his experience from COPO [Coalition of Peninsula Organizations]—You know, the coalitions that he had there around community organizations. He was involved with… I can’t remember. Oh, what was it? There was an African American neighborhood that was slated…
AF: Oh. Sharp-Leadenhall.
CH: Sharp-Leadenhall. Dennis was vice president of COPO and therefore was very involved with Sharp-Leadenhall and making sure that community remained. Because developers were breathing down their necks trying to get that community. And this was affordable public housing. And they just wanted the land, you know? They were seeing dollar [signs].
And that community won. But they were really organized. And had this woman named Mildred Moon, I believe her name was, who was just an amazing organizer. She was great. And then she had all this other help from other—you know, COPO was a coalition of community organizations—so she had help from other organizations, but she was leading it, and she knew just what do.
So he bought a lot, I think, to this neighborhood. I think that the thing that we both bought is social activism, being able to look around and feel like we want to be a part of our community and we want to find out what the community feels it’s lacking and what it might want, and see if we can figure out a way to leverage.
On Teaching Art Locally
CH: Dennis and I are political activists, too. We have both have been activists all our lives. So we wanted to get very involved in our neighborhood. And the first thing we did was we went over… There was school across the way from us—now a Montessori public school—but it had been called Mildred Monroe [School #32, Mildred D. Monroe Elementary School]. It was a public school. It was named after a janitor. One of the few, if not only, schools in Maryland, and maybe the country, I don’t know, named after a janitor.
We found out that they didn’t have an art teacher at the school. And we were horrified. We couldn’t imagine, either one of us, having gotten through school without art. So we decided to volunteer our time and to become the art teacher for Mildred Monroe on Fridays. We could only… You know, we had to do some real work, to make ends meet. So we picked Friday, and we became the art teachers for the kids at Mildred Monroe. And that was a wonderful entry into the community, because we’d meet all the kids, and then you’d meet their families and stuff.
Bob [Levine] and Kate [Thomas] helped us. I was in a program at the time to get a Master’s degree in non-profit organization, because my graphic design business only dealt with non-profits. My slogan was “do no harm,” so I didn’t do Chanel No. 5 ads and stuff; it was all work for non-profits. But I thought that I should understand them better. I sat on lots of boards. So I was in that program, and I created a non-profit for us as one of my projects, called “The Cork Factory Inc.”
We got other artists to help us, too. But then, unfortunately, the wisdom of school board in Baltimore closed that school. It was doing really well. It had small classes. And that was the problem—they thought that it was under-utilized. So then we launched a fight to save our school, using our art talent for posters and stickers and whatever other way we could whip up support. And it didn’t work. And then our kids went to Dallas Nicholas [School #39, Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School] up the way.
And we decided at that point, Kate [Thomas] and Bob [Levine] and myself and Dennis—There was an opportunity to buy the gallery space next door to the space that I’m living in, 4 North. And we decided that we should do that. So we bought it together. And what we did is we taught the children fine arts as best as we could.
So we continued teaching our kids. We went into Dallas Nicholas and we taught them fine art. They did printmaking. And they did painting. Things like that. Photography. And then we gave them a show in the gallery. And we hung their work. And we tried to do it during open studios, so that we would definitely have an audience to come. And often it hung with our own work, or other people’s work in the building. And they acted as little docents for their work. And it was a really good thing for them. It helped build confidence in them. Their work sold. So sometimes, they would make forty, fifty dollars in a week, which was fantastic. I mean, this is a low-income neighborhood. We had parents come in that had never seen live art. They had never been to a museum. They had only seen art in books. So they had never seen paintings or anything. And now they’re seeing their own child’s work as well as professional artists’ [work]. So it was really fun. It was a great, fun project.
On Art Parties
CH: And we had parties. We have had wonderful, wonderful art parties in our building. I don’t know if you have heard about those from other people. We’ve done three monumental parties. And I call them “art parties” because they involve more than just a party.
Like, one party was the high school party, and it came about because I never got to be prom queen. Of course, in high school, I was far from ever being the prom queen. But I always sort of wanted to be the prom queen. So I decided, why couldn’t we just have a high school party? Because there are other people probably who wanted to be the star quarterback of the football team or whatever, or the head of the yearbook or something. “Why don’t we have a high school party and then we can all live out our aspirations?” So everybody—well, Kate [Thomas] and Bob [Levine], in particular—were our cohorts, and sometimes Nancy and Lou [Linden]. And they said, “Yeah, yeah! It sounds like a good idea.”
So then we got other people in. But then the party just kind of morphs into a really big, big party. Because we began to think about how real we wanted it to be. We got somebody to be a nun, for those of our friends who went to Catholic school. And we installed a nun in there. And then we rig up a PA system so that we can talk to people and make announcements. We began thinking about the things from high school that we remembered. The surly cafeteria lady that used to slop your peas! So we bought these big things of canned peas, and my sister-in-law was the surly cafeteria woman. And then we made people go through the cafeteria line, and we literally sloped stuff on their [plates]. And the part that was amazing was that our friends actually ate it!
CH: And we were like, “You’re are eating it? That was meant to be a joke.” We actually had other food! We used three different loft spaces. Dave Herman’s space was used as a gym. We had people bring red and blue tee-shirts—because we had teams—and then we had it in the gym. And then we had graduation. And Dennis had created a huge puppet on stilts and everything, and that was the Great Professor. We had a graduation ceremony. We had artists friends of ours create lockers. They are fanciful and wonderful beyond belief.
And then we had the prom, to which I got to be the prom queen. Then we decided it wasn’t enough that I got to be prom queen, but we needed to have a story, a scenario about the prom queen. So it was that Kate was the real prom queen, right? But I kidnapped Kate and I tied her up. And we had pictures of that. Like in my locker, I had a small picture of Kate all tied up in a chair. So she couldn’t be prom queen! But of course, somehow at the last minute, somehow she gets free and she takes the crown off my head. And I still don’t get to be prom queen!
So, they were fun parties. We had music and dancing. And people had to bring formal attire for the prom. So people are changing. It’s just crazy. We also had classes. We taught classes. We had an anthropology class. Kate taught a sex class. Bob taught the gym class. Somebody else taught a history class. And every now and then, there would be announcement over the PA system. And one of our friends was a librarian, and she was in my anthropology class. And she had gone to Catholic school. And it came over the system that, “Will Mary please go to the Principal’s office?” This was the nun. “There seems to be missing library books.” And she was so into it, she goes, “No! I would never steal library books!” [Laughs]
CH: So it was fun! Then we had a heaven and hell party. And we had hell in Kate’s loft. We had heaven here. And the gallery was purgatory. We had somebody going around all night with a milk cartoon collecting money for babies to get them out of purgatory. We had pictures of babies on the milk carton; we had baby angels. It was Halloween time, so at the heaven and hell party, you had to come in costume. You had to come as an angel of some kind. You could be a bad angel, a good angel, whatever. Some people came as the Baltimore Hon angel. I was a Baltimore Hon angel.
There were some elaborate [costumes]. There were some prizes given for that. And in hell, everybody had to make things. It was like a factory. Kate made them move along. “That’s enough, that’s enough! Move on, move on, move on.” And then we had a white boy museum in hell. And we also had something rigged up something where they couldn’t see, but they…no…. I can’t remember if they could see, or just hear what was going on in heaven.
In hell, there was only crackers and water. In heaven, was chocolate and wine. And we had made a big cloud, and people got to have their picture taken in heaven to prove they made it. You know, we had all the good stuff in heaven.
Then we acted out the seven deadly sins in play form. We put all of our friends on chairs in the freight elevator and we acted out the plays on the different floors. So then we took our friends down in the elevator. They were reasonably terrified, but they got used to it. And we’d stop on a floor, and there’d be a two-minute skit for sloth. And then there’d be a two-minute skit for whatever the others would be. So we did that, too. So we always had an art component to our [parties]. And they were just incredibly elaborate. Like two hundred or more people would come. And it was totally fun.