Bringing It All Back Home

By Michael Anf, Baltimore Magazine

Tony Shore’s black velvet paintings render down-to-earth, working-class Baltimore as high art.

In a windowless space inside the old Crown Cork and Seal complex in Highlandtown, Tony Shore works amid a post-industrial landscape—a labyrinth of hulking brick buildings. Amid walls shedding decades-old paint, he’s feverishly creating new work for a show at C. Grimaldis Gallery and living off a diet fit for a portly middle schooler which, even as an adult, he resembles. Diet Pepsi, peanut butter, and lunch meat—caloric and caffeinated fuel for a working-class hero.

“If I’m preparing for a show, I’ll work 24 hours straight, then maybe go home to take a bath and eat dinner,” says Shore, who lives in Hamilton. “Then I come right back. I have a very understanding wife.” 

Shore, 36, feverishly paints Baltimore scenes. And while the ruins of industrial sites don’t figure into them, some of the people that once worked in buildings like these do. Some of them are from Shore’s family. With appreciation, grit, and care, Shore has placed them in works that re-enact candid or harrowing moments from his unassuming, southwest Baltimore childhood. As a result, his paintings are filled with equal measures love and fear, charm and disgust, and sentimentality and honesty.   

He spreads thin layers of acrylic paint across black velvet, choosing the fabric of flea- market art because it provides a novel surface—and because that’s where his story starts. “I come from a flea-market family,” he says. “The original idea was that I would do black velvet paintings about people who would own black velvet paintings. They were pretty common in the neighborhood I grew up in.”

Shore’s metamorphosis—from graffiti-spraying street kid to well-respected contemporary artist—has been slow and steady. His years as a bleach blond punk at the Baltimore School for the Arts prepared him for a scholarship to the Maryland Institute College of Art and eventually graduate work at Yale University. 

Since then, he’s exhibited work at major galleries around town and at the more proletarian and accessible Creative Alliance, down Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown. Not bad for a regular guy.

But last year, Shore’s profile was raised considerably. He won the $25,000 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, one of the most prestigious juried art contests in the region. The prize included that rarest of plums for a local artist: an exhibition of his paintings at the Baltimore Museum of Art. 

“Having his work hung there was quite a pat on the back for him,” says Rex Stevens, chairman of the drawing and general fine arts departments at MICA, and a mentor of Shore’s. (He’s his boss these days, too; Shore teaches painting, drawing, and a “cultural perspectives” course as a full-time faculty member at the Institute.) “His work was hung in this big room, but it really stood up to it. I remember walking through the room with him. We were both practically levitating.” 

Stevens has seen Shore grow up with his art. When Shore first studied with Stevens in a life drawing class in 1991, “His stuff was very cartoon-like, flat-colored, and heavily outlined,” Stevens says. 

Shore refers to it as his “Fat Albert period.”

Even then, Shore’s old stomping grounds figured into his art. One of his “Fat Albert” paintings depicted the racism he grew up with: An African-American kid (who resembles Ol’ Weird Harold from the “Fat Albert” cartoon) gets bloodied by a gang of white toughs for the “crime” of walking down Washington Boulevard, while a young Tony looks on, aghast, from across the street.

“I saw a lot of f--ked up things when I was growing up,” he says. 

As Shore’s star has risen—which might have led him to ditch his downscale past for more typical or anonymous subject matter—he still spends a good bit of his time in working-class bars on karaoke night or teaching Morrell Park kids how to paint. And as his style has moved from garish animation to something more closely resembling the Old Masters, he’s still painting those “f--ked up things.”

Growing up, Shore lived at the corner of Harman Avenue and James Street. His house was just down the hill from Morrell Park, with its unobstructed views of the elevated I-95 to the west and the Oz-like towers of downtown to the north. 

Shore’s father, Harry, loaded whiskey into trucks at the old Calvert Distillery (and later, Seagram’s) in Halethorpe for 30 years, while his mother, Sue, kept things moving at home. Money may have been tight, but Tony doesn’t remember being denied much of anything as a child. “Looking back on it, things seemed happy enough,” he says, “but I think we were just another struggling family.” 

“He comes from this working-class family that didn’t have a lot of material things, but they’re always laughing,” adds Andrea, Tony’s wife of the past seven years and a librarian in Baltimore County.

Harry and Sue supplemented his paychecks by peddling regularly at flea markets in North Point on weekends. Harry sold cut-rate household goods, and Sue sold crocheted Christmas stockings, little pillows with sad-eyed poodles on them, and Humpty Dumpty toilet paper covers. 

Sue would sometimes send a pile of them off with Tony—about 10 years old at the time—who would sell them to barflies at Washington Boulevard taverns. In return, he’d get to keep a bit of the action. “That helped us have a Christmas,” Tony says. “And I guess that’s where I learned to sell my art.”

As a youngster, he drew pictures from a generic photo album cover and sought out artist types in the neighborhood—including a housewife who made sunset paintings on small pieces of wood. He also made himself a fixture at the Enoch Pratt Library (Branch Number 36), on Washington Boulevard, where he’d spend afternoons drawing images from various books.

“My older brother was really good at baseball and I needed somewhere where I could figure out what I should be doing,” he says.

As that picture of himself as a budding artist became clearer, it started to fill in for his parents, who saw that many of the neighborhood kids were dropping out or getting into fights. Even though they couldn’t readily afford sending their boys to a private school, they managed to scrimp and save enough to get Tony to a parochial middle school in Lansdowne. There, he thrived and eventually landed in an after-school program at the Baltimore School for the Arts. 

He also had something of an unusual mentor: “J.J.,” the character played by comedian Jimmie Walker on Good Times. “He was an artist in the ghetto who made paintings about his family,” explains Shore. 

Although Shore aspired to do exactly that, the street still beckoned. At the time, he was getting $10 a week in allowance—just enough to buy several cans of spray paint. He and his pals would paint graffiti under the girders of I-95, as well as on buildings and park walls. “That’s how I bridged the gap between art and the other kids,” Shore says. “I was a little different—this little punk rock kid in a neighborhood of Metallica T-shirts.”   

Hence, his graffiti tag: WEIRDO.

“He would wear his Dad’s Army trench coat and this floppy felt hat when he went out,” Sue Shore says. “He was weird.”

He got busted, not long after starting full-time at the School for the Arts, when a fellow graffiti writer got caught and ratted out the rest of the gang. Shore was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and instructed by the judge to write a 2,500-word essay “on why my art should be confined to a canvas,” Shore says. “The irony is I don’t paint on canvas even now.”

That arrest yielded other ironies, as well. Years later, Shore founded Access Art, an after-school program for neighborhood kids in the old library building where he used to draw after-school. But the library is long gone, a victim of city budget cuts. And one of Access Art’s first commissions involved painting a mural at the city police department’s Southwestern District, where Shore had been locked up, as a teen, for spraying paint on walls.

Shore’s appreciation of his background has only deepened over the years. After his time at Yale, Shore worked for several years in New York, doing studio work and painting an undercoat or two for David Reed, a well-regarded abstract painter. Shore enjoyed the networking and the work, “but I was still painting about Baltimore,” he says. “When you’re young, you want to get away so much from where you are. It’s not until you get away from something that you can look back at it and see the value in it.”

Shore’s family members—including his parents, brothers, and his cousin Booper—have all figured prominently in his works. They may have once been portrayed as caricatures, or as absurd stand-ins for Jesus (in a mock-up of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”) or the Venus of Urbino (as “The Venus of Sowebo”) in his satirical paintings. But these days, they’re more apt to be portrayed poignantly, as in a meticulous, haunting painting of Harry Shore undergoing a home dialysis treatment. 

“When I first started this, I would make fun of things, like how people looked or how classic paintings would look with people from my neighborhood in them,” explains Shore. “But I think that, over time, it’s become more like I’ve been doing research, like I’m documenting and preserving what I’ve seen and who I’ve spent my time with. There has been this sort of growing dignity for the people I paint and the materials I use.”

 “His subject, which was satire, matched the corniness of the material, the black velvet, he was using,” says Grace Hartigan, the grande dame of Baltimore painters and a fan of Shore’s work. “For a while there, I thought he was replacing the satire with sentimentality with the paintings of his family and all. But it looks like he’s going new places with his old medium.”

“I have never known an artist who has developed so much over a given span of time,” says artist/cartoonist Tom Chalkley, “much less one who has stayed true to himself and his roots while developing his sophistication.” Back in the early-1990s, Chalkley and Shore were drawing caricatures for passersby at the Inner Harbor.

“The thing I like about Tony is that as educated and talented as he is, he still manages to be part of his community,” says Stevens. “He hasn’t really mocked his past, although it might have looked that way. He’s got a lot of chutzpah, a lot of ambition. You could go in a negative way with that. But he went in a positive direction.”

In his Highlandtown studio, Shore furthers that evolution, painting shapes for a large en masse fight scene. Set in an alley south of the city, the violent subject matter may bring to mind earlier works, but the execution is more refined. Shore moves quickly, holding in his left hand a staged photo of three men beating another man who is already on the ground, illuminated only by the headlights of a parked car. Shore cuts in images and color with his steady right hand. His iPod plays segments from NPR’s This American Life. 

“I’ve always been drawn by the group paintings, but they’re much harder to do,” he says, while combining acrylics to match the shade of the photo. “It’s like I’m developing a new word for my vocabulary.”

During a trip to Europe last year, Shore sought out museums with paintings of crowded barrooms, including those done by 17-Century Flemish artist Adriaen Brouwer whose puckish sense of humor and “lowlife” sensibilities would match Shore’s, if the latter’s were more overstated. Shore ended up seeing a lot more Vermeers and Rembrandts, and the darkness inherent in his medium might recall some of the emotion evoked by Goya paintings. But Shore’s eye has always been drawn to the otherworldly light with which Caravaggio shaded his subjects. As the portrait of his father hints at, he’s made strides at recreating it in his own work.

As he paints, Shore jumps around a good bit, shading in edges “and avoiding the really hard parts for as long as I can,” he half-jokes. He’ll cut in several layers before finishing. “The nice part about painting on velvet like this is you can see the forms take shape almost instantly,” Shore says. “The trouble is that once you put the paint down, you can’t go back and change it. If you don’t like something on a canvas, you can wipe the oil off and start over again. This is a one-shot deal.”

Shore has no fixed program for the future, besides improving as a painter. These days, he says, he enjoys playing around with the notions of appearance and reality, which would seem to suit a man who has experienced firsthand much of what’s depicted in his artwork.  

“A lot of my favorite photographers blur the line between fiction and nonfiction,” he says. “I feel like, sometimes when paintings are done really well that you can trust them in the same way you would a nonfiction photograph. And if you can make someone trust that painting, then you can make that narrative entirely believable.”