By Mike Cross-Barnet
Tamara Payne says that before 2007, “I didn’t even know there was a ‘Harwood.’” That seems amazing now, considering the strong influence her artistry has had on this rapidly reviving neighborhood. Attractive mosaic house number signs on many blocks. Colorful flower baskets on Lorraine Avenue. The beautiful glass-and-ceramic mural at the entrance to Barclay Elementary/Middle School. Workshops at the 29th Street Community Center. And, most recently, a butterfly-themed community art project on the sides of houses at the corner of Lorraine and Barclay.
Tamara’s creative fingerprints are all over the neighborhood, from the Harwood sign on 25th Street, to the mosaic welcoming people to the Community Center. And yet, she didn’t begin with the intention of being a “community artist.” Instead, she started modestly by adding beautifying touches to her own rowhouse on Lorraine. Neighbors who admired her mosaic number sign started commissioning her to create signs for their houses, too.
“I put a mosaic sign up on my house and my neighbors said, ‘Hey, where’d you get that from?” Tamara explains. “It was a domino effect – neighbors started commissioning me for mosaics, year to year to year … and it grew until the whole block was done.”
For Tamara Payne, art and community activism are inseparable. When she moved to Harwood, she had “a little trepidation on my spirit” when she saw drug dealers on the corner and trash blowing around the street. She decided to lead by example: picking up trash, sweeping in front of her house, doing small things to fix up her house. She began a tradition of placing flower baskets in front of each home on her block, twice a year (more than half of the block was vacant when she started).
It was a difficult, transitional time for her. Three months after moving to the house on Lorraine, her father died, and she took a leave of absence from her position as a full-time arts educator with the Baltimore City Public Schools. During those 3 ½ months at home, she decided to quit that job in order to make and sell her art full time.
When Tamara found out that Strong City Baltimore was working with Harwood residents who wanted to strengthen their community, her life and artistic career took a turn. She joined forces with Strong City VISTA members who were doing block projects in the neighborhood, winning a grant from Healthy Neighborhoods (a Strong City partner organization) to do a mosaic number sign block project. VISTAs organized neighbors to buy into the idea.
Tamara began holding workshops for both adults and kids, and as her identity as a community artist grew, so did her connection to Strong City. She noticed that the local neighborhood association’s meetings were negatively focused and poorly attended, so she joined the association and opened her home for meetings. Strong City often had a presence at those meetings, including VISTAs and Community Revitalization Manager Peter Duvall, who was exploring ways to tackle the problem of vacant houses. The art projects and workshops had become a way of restoring a sense of pride to Harwood, spilling over into other efforts to care for the community.
“Now we were congregating,” Tamara recalls of those meetings at her home. “Neighbors who wouldn’t ordinarily come together are breaking bread for a greater cause – everyone’s putting in a small piece and owning it. … Relationship building is what it turned into.”
Good things were now happening in Harwood, including at the Barclay Elementary/Middle School, where Strong City’s involvement was nurturing partnerships and building engagement. Meanwhile, thanks to Tamara – and those she inspired – Harwood was starting to look and feel more welcoming through a combination of greening and artistic projects. Youngsters were earning service learning credits for helping with those projects, which they sometimes designed themselves. In 2009, a colorful sign welcoming people to the community was installed at the corner of Greenmount Avenue and 25th Street.
Starting in 2004, Tamara went on a number of trips with her church, Empowerment Temple, doing mission work in South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. This trips, some with other educators and Baltimore City school students, focused on beautification projects as well as nutrition and health issues. After moving to Harwood and leaving her City Schools job, Tamara felt inspired by a new calling. Looking around her neighborhood, she said to herself, “This is my mission now. We need help right here.” She went back to school to finish her graduate degree at MICA, now fully embracing her new identity as a community-based artist.
Needing more space, Tamara began holding workshops at the city-run Barclay Recreation Center (which a few years later would become Strong City’s 29th Street Community Center). For her thesis work at MICA, she teamed up with Strong City and the Barclay school to create the distinctive ceramic mural — featuring images representing the area’s history — that adorns the school at Barclay and 29th streets.
Through many changes over the years, she says, one thing that has remained consistent is the support she has gotten from Strong City – from help with block projects, to space to do her workshops, to fiscal sponsorship of the community association, to help with grant writing. “It’s almost as if my relationship with Strong City changed the direction of my whole life,” Tamara says.
After the 2015 Uprising, Tamara says, she wanted to do a new community project and was thinking about the “butterfly effect” – the idea that even the smallest changes can have powerful, unforeseen consequences. Also, butterflies represent growth and transformation, and “I wanted something that would be a representation of Harwood transitioning,” she says.
On May 12, 2018, Tamara unveiled the “Butterfly Effect,” a collaboration between herself and fellow Harwood resident Ryan Parnell, a contractor — fusing her glass mosaic art with his carpentry skills. The project was made possible by two Spruce-Up Grants from Central Baltimore Partnership. The mosaics are displayed on the sides of several homes in the neighborhood.
Harwood today is a far cry from when Tamara moved here back in 2007, just two years after drug dealers firebombed the home of then-community association President Edna McAbier – a low point for the neighborhood after decades of slow decline. Whole blocks were abandoned, trash was a major problem, and beauty was hard to find. These days, Tamara says, people have a sense of ownership. They take care of their property – she’s not the only one out sweeping and picking up trash.
“When I moved here, half my block was vacant and all of Whitridge was vacant,” she recalls. “Now, the last three community association presidents have lived on Whitridge, and there are no vacants on my block.”
And – no surprise – many of those refurbished houses have Tamara Payne mosaics out front.