Baltimost: Ernest Shaw Jr., teacher and artist in residence at Motor House

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Credit: André Chung

Baltimost is a Baltimore Fishbowl feature series that asks locals what they love about their city. The idea is to celebrate Baltimore and the people who make it so unique.

So what makes Baltimore the Baltimost to you? It could be a favorite place, a great meal, a memorable interaction or something else entirely. Email suggestions to Karen at [email protected]

Ernest Shaw Jr., 50, is a painter, teacher and artist in residence at Motor House

In his words: “I grew up in a community where art was celebrated. My mother painted. I have other relatives who are musicians, dancers and visual artists.

My painting style is not like my mother’s, but I inherited her passion. I literally would sit at her feet and watch her paint. I can still smell the turpentine, and see her stretching the canvas.

We would go to plays, and see art exhibits in Baltimore and Washington D.C. One day she took my younger brother and me to an exhibit of Impressionist paintings in D.C. I was maybe 13.

I didn’t want to go, but then I saw the paintings. They were huge, colorful and painterly. It was all about the brush strokes. I decided that day that I was going to be a painter.

I went to the Baltimore School for the Arts and then went to Morgan State University. I was 31 when I graduated with a degree in fine arts. While I was in school, I had a quality control job at Bethlehem Steel, which paid a lot of my tuition.

After that, I got a masters of fine arts degree from Howard University. In 2002, I started teaching art in Baltimore City schools. I’m also an adjunct professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

I teach my students about what it means to be an artist. It’s more than just having skills. It’s about being able to defend your artistic choices. You work is not simply for your benefit. It has to have meaning.

I’ve had a studio at Motor House for two years. My art is mostly acrylic and charcoal. I’ve painted portraits of James Baldwin, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin and Pablo Picasso. The day after Toni Morrison died, I painted a mural of her in Graffiti Alley.

These portraits are my way to honor my ancestors. I do a lot of research about the person. I look for a photo that’s not well known but that resonates. I also look for high contrast and a lot of light, which helps me create depth.

I’ll use an iPad or my phone to look at the photo. I start with a sketch. The eyes are the most important. You can get everything else right, but it won’t work unless the eyes are right. The goal is not to recreate the photo, but to capture the spirit as I see it. That’s why Impressionism was so important to me. 

I sketch for an hour, leave it, rework. Then I may lay down an underpainting. The whole thing could take 16 or 20 hours over four or five days. 

One thing I love about Baltimore is the art on display at the New Beginnings Barber Shop. Troy Staton is the barber, and he’s also a collector. His shop looks like a gallery. He exposes his community to quality art, mostly from African-American artists.

Every fall and spring, he does a show with artwork from students at Green Street Academy, where I teach, and Excel Academy. It’s a great experience for the students, and all the artwork is for sale. The arts community in Baltimore is very rich. I never felt malnourished when it comes to creativity.”



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