Artist, MICA instructor, world traveler, and well-meaning truth twister Marcus Civin faces (mostly) facts about his unexpected move back home…to Baltimore.
Originally, I’m from Saint Petersburg. When I learned to drink champagne, I learned in a castle back home. I learned to smash the empty champagne flute on the ground after a toast. My mother says a family of raccoons lived in our tool shed. Way back, I’m related to Dostoyevsky—yes, the great Russian novelist.
My father did his medical residency at the National Institutes of Health, outside of Washington, DC, in Bethesda, MD. I have an early memory of watching my brother and my father build a metal model fire engine. I watched them through a hole in the floorboards; they were in the basement of a little house in Bethesda, and I was upstairs with a stuffed Snoopy. I bet I was supposed to be napping.
My mother says my father used to bring bones home to that house from the hospital for study, that they were real human bones. When I was three, my father got a job at Johns Hopkins, and my family moved from Bethesda, Maryland, to Baltimore.
Wait — I lied. I am not from Saint Petersburg. I learned to drink champagne in Baltimore. Really, I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, then moved to Bethesda, then to Baltimore. My father, it’s true, worked at the NIH, then at Hopkins. I’m not related to Dostoyevsky, though this is not by choice. I’ve been to a couple of castles, but I haven’t been to in any castles in Saint Petersburg. The raccoons lived in our garage in Baltimore, this is completely accurate.
I grew up in Baltimore. My older brother and my sister-in-law, my nephew, my parents, the family with whom my family does all the Jewish holidays…they’re still here.
I left Baltimore for good in 1996. Since then, I have lived in Providence, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I never thought I’d be back to Baltimore to stay. I’m back.
Really, why’d I leave? Really.
Maybe it was the preppies. At the Baltimore prep school my parents sent me to, I read Camus in the original French. I remember reading the opening passage of The Stranger (L’Etranger). It was 10th grade study hall. My French was pretty good; I understood what was happening. Sitting in study hall, I was reading when I got interrupted by a boy twice my size who put me in a headlock. I shook him off, looked around and decided to put a boy smaller than me in a headlock. This is all to say that I didn’t understand Camus’s existentialism. What is existentialism to a 10th grader?
But I guess some aspect got through. This world is absurd. I found myself and find myself wondering: What is the truth of who we are?
My Facebook page says I am from Saint Petersburg City, Russia. It’s easy to lie on Facebook. Facebook is absurd. But, why lie? I could have posted that I’m from Baltimore. I want to be from somewhere I don’t know quite as well. That is probably not possible at this point.
When I was a graduate student south of Los Angeles – it must have been 2008 – I was up late working in the digital lab, trying to edit some photos. Some of the other students who were also working late in the digital lab noticed I didn’t have a Facebook page. They set one up, filling in all the necessary information for me from what I truculently provided them. Religious Views: Peanut. Name: Vonya Imir.
If you know Russian — I don’t — Vonya i Mir apparently approximates a phonetic pronunciation of the title of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I was obsessed with War and Peace. My grandparents and my great grandparents on both sides have ties to Russia. I have tried a number of avenues to connect to that history, but I have never been to Saint Petersburg. I’m a Baltimorean.
For me, Baltimore is like a person; I know it better than any place. Baltimore and I have had a lot of distance in our relationship, but it’s okay now.
I suppose I am something of a prodigal son. I was always thinking about Baltimore. It just took me a while to come home. When I lived far away, I missed the Chesapeake Bay. I missed Charles Street. I didn’t get to run into people that much who knew me when. I couldn’t laugh and say, “Yeah, how are you? How long has it been? You look exactly the same!”
Maybe I could blame my wanderings from home on a drawing professor, that erudite and accomplished painter of beach scenes who spoke softly and reverently about light, who liked my drawings and loved art history. At least as I recall, this professor remarked about one of my drawings: it was as if I had rendered the air visible around the figure.
Fast on the heels of that probably exaggerated compliment most likely meant to quell my general nervousness, the same professor told me I should get to know art history. To do so, he told me that I had to go see a whole lot of works of art in person.
So I left Baltimore and went to meet many artworks in person. I went to Milan, to Florence, to Rome, to Madrid, to Paris, to Mexico City, to Oaxaca City. I made a lot of drawings as I went. Baltimore was in a lot of the drawings. Also when I wasn’t drawing, I often thought a lot about Baltimore.
Home is the place that clings to you, the place that’s always on your mind.
When I’m here, I can say: “I know. I grew up here.”
I swam in the Chesapeake Bay before I donated allowance money to help clean it up. In high school, my boys and I would drive out of Baltimore in search of a river rush. In the dark, we would find rural bridges to jump off. It must have been a 10-foot jump. It felt like 50 feet. I have no idea where we were; my boys drove.
“Come on,” they’d say; I could hear splashing in the dark. “It’s fine. Feels good! Jump! There are no rocks.”
For two summers, almost a decade ago, I served as a mural assistant. If you go to a few well-appointed corners in San Francisco and look to the tall, sparkling walls, you can find my name in the credits. There is nothing like sitting on the fifth story of a scaffold with a paintbrush in your hand. Doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t get better. Being high up means great distances.
I’m not fickle, but I will always go away from Baltimore.
I’m back, but I might not be back forever. I like seeing great distances. Seeing great distances, I’m not asking questions. In the face of great space laid out before me, I can relax, I just am.
Distance is possibility.
So is closeness.
This is true about me: Home used to scare me. I think I was terrified that I had some sort of tether. I thought true imagination was always soaring, rootless. I thought I could go greater distances if I never went home. I was wrong.
I went far, being wrong. I went to great lengths. I was ridiculously wrong. Once, having been long on the road, but only at the beginning of my time away from Baltimore, I met a friend in Massachusetts. We were invited to another friend’s wedding in North Carolina. To get to North Carolina, driving through Baltimore looked like it made the most sense. Instead of following the map, I made this very patient friend of mine drive around Baltimore, around and out of the way. Going through Baltimore was the most direct route. We weren’t even going to stop. It was night — we were just trying to get through. At that point, I didn’t even want to see Baltimore. My friend and I drove around my home. We didn’t really gain or lose anything by going the very long way; I was just being totally ridiculous, and wrong.
This past Sunday I was in line at Evergreen Cafe on Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore. In 1995, I worked at a now long-gone bakery at nearly this same spot. Sunday, I heard a voice that sounded familiar, a voice ordering a sandwich without onions. A turtleneck-wearing woman sat down at a booth and waited while a cook made her a sandwich.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I think you were my third grade teacher.”
I told my former third grade teacher I was Marcus Civin and that everyone used to call me Marc. She said she remembered my voice. She asked, “How’s your brother?”
“A civil rights lawyer.” It came out fast. “I came home because I wanted to be closer to my family; I love hanging out with my four-year-old nephew; my Dad and I sometimes go to the gym together; I found work teaching as an adjunct at Maryland Institute College of Art. The whole thing feels like coming home. The whole thing feels like family.”
She said she thought she remembered my mom was interested in art.
“MICA,” my former third grade teacher said, “good for you.”
I wonder if third grade teachers go around soothing all of their old students — in the popcorn line at the movie theater, in parking lots – until the whole world feels like a family.
I’m lucky to have a home. I’ve been back for about a year, and the road feels familiar and good. After traffic in Southern California, I’m in shape to drive most places around here, though I get lost. My GPS takes me past backyards I had been remembering as if in a dream. There they are. They’re real. I really did swim in a deep, three-foot-long, three-foot-wide fountain, a green-water, lily-pad-strewn pool. There it is.
Right after grad school, a friend of a friend in Los Angeles asked me to help out in his studio with a big installation he was sending in a hurry to Denmark. About a dozen of us worked together. One of the other artists on the job, I found out in the process of gluing Styrofoam piece to Styrofoam piece, she had been in my same high school class, but attended a neighboring school. We had old friends in common. I thought I could remember her red hair, freckles, could remember her sitting there on the steps to Roland Avenue at carpool time. Turns out, she’s a great painter. I hardly know her. This was before I came home, but it meant a lot to me that she had been there, then, in Baltimore, with me. We didn’t know then that on totally different trajectories we would both become artists. Working in Los Angeles, stumbling on a biographical overlap, I realized I wanted to come home. And I did.
I now appreciate that there are lots of artists in Baltimore, some even sort of like me. God help them. I look more like Baltimore than I realized and Baltimore looks more like me.
I have a story I like to trot out about John Waters, circa 1988. He used to come in to the old Recordmasters at the Rotunda and give me music advice. My friend worked there, and I would hang around. John Waters would come in and browse. He told me what music to listen to. If I went up to buy a Debbie Gibson cassette, John Waters would hiss and hand me Blondie. I wanted the Rolling Stones? Hacking noises from John Waters as he waved me over to Lightnin’ Hopkins.
As I told a version of this story the other night to some MICA alums over beers at Club Charles, I felt like I was back in the record store at the Rotunda. The thing is, the story is totally untrue. My friend did work at the record store at that little mall. I think maybe we saw John Waters in the shop once.
The MICA friends told me John Waters comes to Club Charles every once in a while. Maybe at some point, I’ll have to come clean. After all, Baltimore is family. You can’t lie to family, right? It’s true I’m home.
Marcus Civin earned a BA in theater from Brown University and an MFA in studio art from the University of California at Irvine. Marcus is a co-founder of New Urban Arts, a non-profit arts mentoring program in Providence, RI, and a co-organizer for two years of Perform! Now! a performance festival in Los Angeles. He lectures in art history, curatorial practice, and foundations at Maryland Institute College of Art.