Highlights from the interview with Al Zaruba

Portrait of Al Zaruba

On the Origins of the Cork Factory

AZ: So here we are in the Cork Factory on the top floor of the penthouse, as you would say. This place has quite an amazing history as the Crown Cork and Seal complex, where the bottle cap was invented and a bunch of other good stuff. I’m Al Zaruba, sculptor, visual artist, and teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art [MICA]. I came to Baltimore in 1988 for grad school. Ended up becoming the assistant to Salvatore Scarpitta, who was the artist in residence at MICA for about thirty years. Internationally acclaimed Arte Povera artist who was with Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. And Sal is still much more famous in Europe than he ever was in America. So he asked me to be his assistant. I worked eight years as his assistant here in the Cork Factory.

At that time, Sal’s central studio was in this place. A lot of amazing people have come through this place because of Sal. Exhibitions. I installed his seventh appearance at the Venice Biennale and I think it was 1991, 1992, something like that. Which is another story in and of itself. But at one given point, he had over half a million dollars’ worth of art in this space, which are all now in major collections. So there’s this long tradition of that. I was Sal’s last and longest lasting assistant. For those that ever knew him, he was a legend. As one collector in New York said, “Whenever Sal walked into the room, he sucked all the air out of it.”

But back to the origins of the Cork Factory itself. This is where the Maryland Institute’s graduate program began some years ago. Before it moved into a more permanent location, it was rented here from Weant Press. And Weant, in and of itself, is quite an amazing old-time, from-another-age printing press. A labyrinth. It was downstairs. Quite an interesting space.

But after MICA moved out of the building, a well-known painter [moved in]—Rita Beler, a fabulous beauty, from all accounts. I never saw her but I heard a lot about her, her and her wild hair. She was known for painting giant canvases up here in the nude and leaving the studio door open. [Laughs] But evidently she was built like nobody’s business. One of the people that came to buy a painting was Buzz Beler, the owner of the Prime Rib complex. And he ended up marrying Rita. That’s another story. So after Rita married Buzz, she moved out of the space and Sal, who knew Rita, moved in.

Audio clip from oral history interview with Al Zaruba

On a New Era in the Cork

AZ: After Sal moved out, and Sal had taken me to Italy five times during the years that I worked here in the Cork Factory as his assistant. I mean, my God, the time that he was burning tires in here and we were pushing black smoke out into the atmosphere, and the fire department showed up and they were really furious with Sal. At times he would mix all kinds of strange chemicals. Incredible stories about some of those things. He was a maniac; larger than life. Something almost mythical and very gregarious, outspoken and just an amazing human being. He was my primary mentor and a huge influence on generations of artists that came through MICA. So when he was here, this was quite the place. After he moved out and up to Pennsylvania to the place he had there, and into New York, back again. He’d been in New York, but he returned to New York. He kept a duality of places.

I had the extraordinary opportunity with the other artists in the building to buy the building from Weant Press. It was a whole new era.

[Ellsworth] Weant had an offer of $400,000 for the building. We bought it for $200,000. We asked him why he was willing to sell us the building for half the amount, and he said he had more than enough money. His daughter was set for life. And he liked us. How generous is that? Pretty amazing! I loved him. He was a good, godly man. And compassionate and just fun to talk to. Because he was full of stories, many of which I’ve forgotten.

But because of him, I found out about the tunnels that run underneath the Cork Factory down to the railroad tracks. I’m the only person that I think in the building now that has ever tried to explore them. They’re extremely dangerous because the walls and roofs are semi-caving in, plus they’re filled with spiders and all kinds of other lovely things. Yeah, in that amazing space that’s behind the Cork Factory.

In the years that I was here, the Pyramid Atlantic [Art Center] was born here, one of the most important residency programs on the East Coast, if not America. Helen Frederick was the founder of that, and she was downstairs.

Also Dorfman Waxworks were across the other half of this floor There were times when I’d come out of the elevator and see some guy standing there with a gun. It scared the holy shit out of me, only to find out it was one of Dorfman’s figures on the verge of being packed out to some museum. [Laughs] So there was a lot of stuff going on.

In the years that I took over after Sal left, I began to throw a series of parties that kind of raised my notoriety or profile in Baltimore, along with a lot of exhibitions. My shows were well received. Several critics followed my work. I got four Maryland State Arts Council grants. Got the first of my two Pollock-Krasner fellowships, which is a nice big, fat chunk of cash each time. They no longer give two grants to any artist. They now only allow it to be won by a few in the area. So, la di da di da. Sold a lot of work out of here. Was with the Gomez Gallery for a while, which was one of Baltimore’s top galleries at the time. It’s since closed.

And I showed overseas. Showed in India. Showed in Egypt. Certainly showed in France. And of course, through Sal, showed a number of times in Italy. Most memorably in the Italian Alps, a couple of great shows. And put out a couple of editions of artists books through Edizioni Pulchinelefante in Milan, which is an invitational thing, very prestigious. The press is about 300 years old. And it’s exclusively for artists. How cool is that?

So because of Sal, I ended up going to New York to the Space Program for a residency for a year at Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation in Tribeca, and was on the fast track for a major art career. I was doing about eighty receptions a month, which is just crazy, looking back at that. Doing all the right things, jumping through the hoops, and quickly discovered that I really did not like the New York art world. It was very brutal, backstabbing. So I made a critical decision just short of buying a fantastic studio in Tribeca for $30,000, which I now regret not doing. But it wasn’t meant to be.

I came back here to Baltimore and settled into this place. And for a while I called it the Arctic Circle, because Sal had once said, “There are times, Al, you have too many exotic ports of call in your work. You need to go to the Arctic Circle. There’s nothing left but the sky above and the snow below.” Words of wisdom. So I began to strip my work down to the dark period, to the burned, to the crushed metal and all of that. The scary stuff, which was why I was once told by Costas Grimaldis, “Very interesting, powerful work, but nobody will ever buy it.”

Well, the most horrific of all those pieces hangs on the fourth floor of my major collector’s house. She loved it. She totally got the piece. And she enjoys the fact that it scared the shit out of people who came up the staircase. [Laughs] So whatever people decide to say about your work, I learned that if you’re being truthful, if you’re being authentic, if you’re really trying to say something that’s powerful about the human condition, keep doing it no matter what people say. Just be true to yourself and whatever your vision is. And that’s something that I think really was birthed in me in this space.

Audio clip from oral history interview with Al Zaruba