November 22, 2014

This is Baltimore: Puerh, pierogi, and plique-a-jour

Within the  past week or so, two different articles about the dark side of Baltimore have popped up in my news feed.  One about Leakin Park's notoriety as a dumping ground for corpses, the other about the difficulty of overcoming the negative image created by shows like The Wire and the new podcast, Serial.  I'd heard the reputation of Leakin Park before I ever rode my bike through it along the Gwynns Falls Trail and, yes, I'll admit to moments of paranoia in a few spots, especially opening the door of the public restroom in Leakin where a murder victim had been found just a year before my first ride there.  But on that ride and others since, I've not once experienced anything more alarming than having a homeless person yell at me as I blew past him in the tunnel near Carroll Park Golf Course.  I've not yet listened to Serial, but I have watched The Wire and have driven many times through neighborhoods that feature prominently in it. I've seen kids hanging out around those corner convenience stores who very well could have been dealing drugs just like the kids in The Wire. But mostly I've seen working class folks whose circumstances force them to live in down-trodden neighborhoods that are unfortunately subject to a high level of crime. Those are the same folks I've seen on the last Friday night of the  month when the Baltimore Bike Party rolls past their row-houses, sitting out on their front stoops and smiling while their children line the sidewalk to cheer and high-five us crazy, mostly white, cyclists as we ride by.  The more gentrified neighborhoods we pass through never give us that sort of greeting.

I've gotten to know a pretty large portion of this city, and yet I still feel like there's so much more to explore in its widely varied neighborhoods.  Today I stuck with some old standbys yet still managed to have new experiences.  Started the morning with brunch at Teavolve, a place I've watched evolve from a teeny little tea shop in Fells Point to a terrifically popular restaurant in Harbor East that serves from breakfast through dinner, tea through cocktails, and that has a vibrant connection to the local music and art scene.  Their staff hustles and the brunch maitre'd, Gary, always gets me quickly seated in a nice cozy spot. With a pot of Puerh tea and an Eden omelet (sorry, no food porn photos, I was too busy eating), accompanied by a good book, I have trouble imagining a better spot for breakfast anywhere in the city.

From there I headed over to Canton for some shopping.  It was on the way back towards downtown, passing alongside Patterson Park on Eastern Avenue, that I made an impulsive and fortuitous stop. I've been entranced for years by the golden onion domes of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church

Image source

For a few years now, I've thought of stopping to see if I could go inside. A place sitting in the middle of Baltimore with such fantastical architecture would have to have an interesting interior, right?  But I just never got around to it.  Until today, when a sign in front of the church reading "Pyrohý sale 10 - 2" forced me to grab the nearest parking space and bolt across the street.  The wooden doors at the front of the church were locked tight, but in a little annex down some steps next door, I found a small dining hall and kitchen where they were selling boiled potato, cheese, and sauerkraut pierogi from the kitchen service window.  After handing over $16 for a dozen potato and hearing from the woman manning the window about her recently broken tooth, I asked if the church was open.  She said no but asked if I wanted to see inside. When I said I'd love to, she turned around to a gentleman in a sweat suit and said, "Father, this lady would like to see inside the church".  Next thing I know, I'm following the casually-dressed priest back up the steps to a side door of the church, which he unlocked and then ushered me through into a small space so beautifully painted with icons that it literally made me gasp.

Image source
In a Ukrainian accent so thick I only understood about two-thirds of what he was telling me, the priest described scenes painted on the two side walls and the row of icons of saints martyred during the Stalinist era. I must've looked like a wide-eyed fool over it all, it was so gorgeous, but he was very obviously proud of showing it to me and invited me to come back for Sunday mass to hear the church choir-- "No music, only voices like angels", he said. I may very well go back some other weekend, but via the magic of the interwebs, I found a taste of them--


After that impromptu stop, it was back to the day's planned itinerary, which meant heading up Charles Street to the Walters Art Museum to check out the current exhibit on the history and breadth of the collection that William and Henry Walters gifted to the city.  That gift is an incredible treasure.  One of only two free museums in Baltimore (the other being the BMA), it's a labyrinthine building combining 19th century and modern architecture, full of surprises from ancient cultures, through the Baroque, and into the 18th and 19th centuries.  I've a handful of favorite rooms and items there, but today was struck by a piece I've never seen before.  In a dark blue side-room of the From Rye to Raphael: The Walters Story exhibit, I found a deceptively simple little Japanese bowl made of silver and plique a jour.  I've seen plique a jour before, both in the Walters collection and in the vintage estate cases of the jewelry store where I work.  It's a form of enameling that allows light to shine through the enamel and create a luminous effect.  But I'd not seen any like this before. Usually it's in small pieces of jewelry, cigarette cases, small bowls or dishes, sometimes larger dishes on stands.  Louis Comfort Tiffany, famous for his stained glass, also worked in plique a jour, so you may've seen it, too. But this simple Japanese bowl was so very different. It looked to have been made of a single sheet of silver molded into the shape of the bowl, and then pierced with hundreds, I mean hundreds, of small scallop-shaped slivers interspersed with many-petaled chrysanthemums, some singly and some in small groups.  Into the scallops was inlaid pale grass-green enamel.  Into the chrysanthemums, tender gradations of pink and soft bright yellow.  The lighting in the gallery was almost criminally wrong for truly showing off the beauty of this bowl, as it shone straight down from a fixture in the ceiling so that much of it was blocked by the inward curve at the top of the bowl.  You could see the silver framework of the design and the prettiness of the colors, but in order to see the luminous glow of the enamel you had to crouch down next to the display case and look up at the bottom sides of the bowl. But that crouching was worth it, as the thing left me stunned.  Much plique a jour is created like stained glass, with bars or wires of metal laid down in a frame-work and soldered together.  If one piece gets messed up, it can be removed or fixed without disturbing the rest.  But the walls of this bowl were smooth, inside and out. There were no separate sections, no solder.  The artist who created it obviously took the initial solid silver bowl and pierced through the metal to create those hundreds of slivers and petals.  If he'd messed up one, he'd have had to scrap that bowl, melt down the metal, and start all over.  The craftsmanship of it was so exquisite and subtle that it made the Lalique and Tiffany pieces in the same room look ham-fisted and over-wrought in comparison.

And once again, via the magic of the interwebs...

Image source.  For a larger view, click here and then click again.

Don't ever, ever let anyone convince you that Baltimore is a scary place with nothing worth seeing. 



suttree said...

Sounds like a fun morning, especially the church.

KaliDurga said...

It was very fun, and very stimulating.

Cratedigga said...

ha! i wonder how come that our Ukrainian varenyky became Polish pierogi in Baltimore. Looks like lovely adventure :)

KaliDurga said...

Good question. But so many cultures have some variation of meat, cheese, vegetables, whatever inside of dough that it's not too surprising they'd become lumped together here in the U.S. However it happened, I'm glad that sign outside the church said "pirohy" instead of "varenyky" because I wouldn't have stopped for varnyky ;)

lostgander said...

I always love your Baltimore posts! Thanks for sharing. I'd always wondered about that church.

KaliDurga said...

Thank you! You should check it out whenever you're over by Patterson Park. There are also some very cool creature sculptures in the stretch of the park across the street from the church.