Big Fish: Baltimore Artist Greg Otto Tackles The Cylburn Mansion — And Takes On A New Town

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Greg Otto’s crayon-colored, Pop-Art inspired paintings of Baltimore landmarks – the Domino Sugar factory, the Bromo Seltzer Tower, the Hippodrome and hundreds more – have made him one of Baltimore’s most recognized and beloved artists. For nearly 30 years he has drawn inspiration from the quirky buildings of Baltimore’s industrial past, famous landmarks and storefront churches alike, distilling their beauty and zapping them with color. Towering or tiny, dignified or drab — they take on new glamour when seen through his eyes.

And we’re not the only town that loves him. His work received national attention a decade ago, when the American Institute of Architects/Chicago asked him to paint a series of Chicago’s awe-inspiring buildings for the 2004 AIA Convention there.

A few years ago he began work on a group of paintings of New York City – a city Otto has been fond of since the early 70’s, when the legendary abstract expressionist art dealer Betty Parsons included him in her stable of artists. At the time, Otto was working in a style that could hardly more be different than his current color-infused canvases – minimalist abstractions in pencil on paper which are both subtle and fascinating, and which he is still returns to occasionally.

His most recent New York painting, of the Flatiron building, along with one of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, and a just-completed portrait of the glorious Cylburn Mansion (photos below) will be on display at Cylburn Arboretum’s Annual Celebration of Art, this weekend, June 14th and 15th. 40% of each art sale benefits the Cylburn Arboretum Association.

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The attention-getting boldness of Otto’s work belies his quiet, self-effacing manner. A conversation with him is a real conversation. His responses are measured and thoughtful. He is curious about other people and about the world at large. We spoke to him at his house in Roland Park, where he lives with his wife, freelance writer Kathy Hudson.

You had a long career as a television announcer. What gave you the courage to finally become a fulltime artist?

When I attended MICA (in the late 60’s), I saw a small faculty show which introduced me to the world of painting, a world I didn’t know existed. There was one artist in particular who stood out, Robert Moskowitz, and I’m still in touch with him today. At that point, the seed was planted. Also, after 25 years in TV, I had done just about everything I wanted to do, and the industry was changing. It was time to move on. A two-year stint in the Army also helped me focus on what I really wanted to do.

Can you talk about your interest in buildings and architecture?

 My interest grew out of a frustration that I couldn’t find imagery I liked of Baltimore. I read in The Sun, in the 70’s , that they were going to tear down a grand old movie house on North Avenue called The Met, so I photographed it. That started me shooting a lot of the city with emphasis on these old buildings. So many have disappeared. The addition of vibrant color to the architecture makes people more aware, and you can see the detail much better. There’s also a preservation side to all of this.

Since 1996, much of your work has been commissioned. Does that mean that you don’t need a gallery?

 As a result of reproducing some of my realistic work in postcard form, I started to get requests from institutions, non-profits, etc. for an image which they could use to put a ‘face’ on their project or to use the picture for development purposes. Self-publishing has played a big part in getting the work “out” and has allowed me to no longer have a gallery, except for the Francis Frost Gallery www.francisfrost.com in Newport, Rhode Island,  that represents some of my early abstract art.

Are there any Baltimore buildings you would still like to do?

 I’d like to do a drawing of the old Parkway Theatre on North Avenue and Charles, where I had my first show in the city.

 What do you hope people will take away from your paintings?

 I enjoy presenting the city in different ways, some moody, some up-beat. For me, the use of strong color is a positive view of this city’s potential

 Is there anything in your work that you want people to notice more than they do?

All of my pictures are either paintings or drawings. They are not ‘photo-shopped’ computer images or silk-screened or altered photographs. I draw them first and then paint them. They can take two to six months per image to complete.

Do you think in years to come the name Greg Otto will be associated with a particular movement or group of artists?

 Hard to say. Most of what I’ve done lately doesn’t seem to have any relationship to what’s been going on in the art world. Some of the very realistic colored pencil drawings are similar to the photo-realists. My early abstract work is reflective of the minimalist work of the 60’s and 70’s.

What’s your favorite painting of yours?

That would be my Art Deco treatment of the Domino Sugar factory with the ‘scroll’ type of border at the top of the painting.

Favorite painting by someone else? Why?

One of my favorites would be Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning”. It’s just a wonderful, moody picture of storefronts in the morning when the sun comes up. I like a picture that can give you the feeling of a mood and of peacefulness at the same time.

What advice would you give to a young person who wanted to be an artist?

By all means try it, even if you can’t do it fulltime. Work in sketchbooks whenever you have a moment. Your worst enemy will be self-doubt, this comes with the package unfortunately, so just keep at it.

What’s the best advice you ever got? Did you take it?

One of my instructors at MICA, again, Bob Moskowitz, said he didn’t see “enough of me” in the work. So at that point I had to ask myself: is this what I would really like to see in the picture I did take his advice, and I still ask myself: Is this what I really want to do with the painting?

The worst?

A dealer in Philadelphia said in a condescending tone that she “couldn’t understand all this color … and nobody’s doing this.” I told her that I had every intention of continuing down this road, and if they make stronger colors, I’d be using them!

*Posters and postcards of Otto’s work are available through the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and local venues like the Ivy Bookshop, the Women’s Industrial Exchange, Gundy’s Gifts in Roland Park and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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