One Baltimore #30, Making A Secret Life


I’ve been in love with the American Visionary Art Museum since I was a teenager. I remember one of the first exhibits I saw there. There was a little set of embroidered pieces showing domestic scenes and pastoral views. Lovely, but they didn’t seem like much to me until I read the placard alongside them. They’d been made by an imprisoned man (Ray Materson), using only threads from his socks. How deeply I was struck then by the labor and the longing that those small and intricate artworks represented.

Well, my friends, the rewards of self-published journalism are finally rolling on in. I got invited to visit the AVAM **for free** to write an article on their latest exhibit! Like, as a member of the press! I was given a “media kit” when I checked in at the front desk (consisting of a folder with info on all the pieces and artists)… I HAVE ARRIVED!!

Planetary Prayers by Alex Gray

Woulda been nice if I’d actually seen the message on my WordPress site back in the fall when they invited me to their opening for the exhibit, but c’est la vie. Luckily, the offer still stood once I did notice it. I’ve since replaced the “Contact” form on the site with an email address — hmu at with more offers of free things.

Even cooler than saving $15.95, when I asked if there was someone on staff to whom I could ask a few questions, they hooked me up with Rebecca Hoffberger, the founder/director herself. I did a quick google, and was unsurprised to find that the woman was as interesting as her choice of life’s work would suggest. Raised in the Baltimore ‘burbs, she got into college at just 16 but turned it down to learn to be a mime in France instead. At one point she lived in the rural mountains of Mexico for three years, helping to deliver babies. Eventually she found her way back to B’more, where she worked at Sinai, helping psychiatric patients reintegrate into their communities. It was there that she developed the idea for her museum.

Gaia by Alex Gray

For those not familiar, by the way, the AVAM is the official national museum for outsider art, works by the self-taught and by all manner of people outside the mainstream. It consists of two multi-level buildings, a barn, and a sculpture garden, all nestled against Federal Hill and covered in gorgeous mosaics.

I spent a good three hours on Sunday absorbing the museum’s newest exhibit, which is entitled “The Secret Life of Earth” (you could view it in a lot less time, but after that formative experience with the sock-art, I always take the time to read every placard, and it remains worth it). It explored a topic that is near-constantly on my mind — our impending ecological/climatological doom — leavened with beauty, humor, and hope. Some of the things on display include:

  • NASA satellite imagery of smoke from wildfires in California wafting thousands of miles across Canada while sands from the Sahara blow across the Atlantic,
  • Soulful, life-size primates made from a dazzling array of green baubles,- Far Side cartoons about extinction,
  • A buffalo skull intricately covered with turquoise, beads, and paintings,
Honoring the Buffalo by Judy Tallwing
  • Placards with easily digestible data on everything from woodpeckers to factory farming,
  • Stunning paintings depicting the Goddess of the Bees, layers of superimposed reality, and nature in/out of balance,
A closeup of a portion of The Goddess of the Bees by Peter Eglington
  • Inspirational quotes from scientists and philosophers the world over,
  • Video clips of Greta Thunberg on The Daily Show, the trailer for a documentary called Fantastic Fungi, and a baby elephant and a woman joyfully playing together,
  • Sketches done by Julia Butterfly Hill during her two years living in a giant redwood to save it from loggers,
Journal Entries by Julia Butterfly Hill
  • A wall of shoes and boots painted with a variety of cityscapes and patterns,
  • And a heck of a lot more.

One of my favorite pieces was an installation called “Release” by Santiago Navila, which took up an entire dimly-lit room. It consisted of large pieces of semi-sheer material stretching at diagonals from the floor to the ceiling, onto which a video was being projected from multiple angles. There was a news clip about the ocean garbage patches and then nature shots, overlaid first with a haunting voice chanting “Round we go, round we go,” followed by a meditative monologue on positive thinking. The sounds and images reverberated in my mind after I’d left.

Release by Santiago Navila

When I got home, I gave Ms. Hoffberger a call (like so many people right now, she’s down with a cold, and so couldn’t come out in person). Speaking to her was a whirlwind of free-flowing interconnected ideas and themes, many of which, sadly, I had to trim out for purposes of length. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.


Abby: So you curated this show yourself, that’s correct?

Rebecca: Absolutely.

Abby: Do you usually curate the AVAM’s shows?

Rebecca: Yes, I’ve picked everything since we opened in 1995. I’ve had guest curators I’ve chosen, I’ve co-curated, I’ve mentored a young curator to help, but I write every word, I pick every color, I pick every placement, I pick the feeling, I pick why we’re doing this show at this time, I choose the quotes and write the exhibition text.

Abby: I’m not surprised to hear that, the shows are so varied and yet there’s been a very consistent feel over the years. How do you choose the artists to highlight?

Rebecca: Well, the process is totally intuitive. It’s like once I know what I’m supposed to do as a theme, usually right away, because I see so much stuff, two or three things, strong things come to mind right away and I go “Oh my, those are my anchors, if I can get them.”

As far as artists go, I get a ton of mail, I can’t respond to it or I wouldn’t be able to have a museum, ’cause it’s that much that comes through. It’s less now, but in the first few years it was a foot and half of unsolicited mail a day, and we don’t throw anything away, we have these huge boxes filled with stuff, but every once in a while something will come to the top. I try to look at the local talent, even though I show work from people over the world.

Abby: I noticed there were a lot of Baltimore people!

Rebecca: Uh-huh, I try to prioritize that when I can.

Abby: So, I take it that the natural world has been important to you for a long time. Did you come into this with a lot of specific things that you wanted to highlight or did you find that you learned a lot through the process of putting it all together?

Rebecca: Well, both. Nature has been really a lifelong passion. The name pays homage to a friend of mine who was the co-author of the book The Secret Life of Plants. He and I were actually working on a book together when he passed away — Christopher Bird. And then three years ago when I met Louie Schwartzberg, the foremost time-lapse nature photographer in the world, I didn’t realize he’d been the primary photographer for The Secret Life of Plants movie, so it was kind of like, wow, we have these same ties that went way back. And before I even knew Fantastic Fungi was coming out [Schwartzberg’s new film, which looks amazing:, I knew enough about mushrooms that they should be starred in the Earth show for all they do for us and all that they can do that’s still being explored. So it just went together.

A still from Fantastic Fungi by Louie Schwartzberg surrounded by flowers by Erika Ezerskiene

And I knew I wanted to have the Thich Nhat Hanh quote, “Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet,” and so once I knew that, then I was sent images of painted shoes and boots by Rick Skogsberg from Vermont, and I found out he, too, was very close to nature and self-taught, he was interested in fractals and fundamental forms in nature, and I said “Oh okay, great. Now I have a way to vary the show texture and inspire people to artfully recycle shoes.”

So it’s all just a very organic process. I start seeing relationships between work I like, or that play well or dance well together. And so the fact that our eyes are hard-wired to see more variation in the color green than any other, I thought, “Oh my gosh, Johanna Burke’s life-sized green monkeys are such a symphony of greens, what wonderful works to play off.”

Green Monkeys by Johanna Burke


During our conversation, Rebecca asked me if I’d seen the museum’s exhibit on Parenting and I felt really foolish for having to say I’d missed it… not so much for the moment of minor embarrassment, but because it’s a loss to have missed any one of the AVAM’s shows. I felt that even more keenly, having learned a bit about how they come together. So don’t miss The Secret Life of Earth, which will be up through 9/6/20!

I’m super grateful to Rebecca for her generosity with her time and for all the work she’s brought to us over the years! One of the other things she told me about is the museum’s 25th anniversary show, coming up in 2020. She’ll be going back through all 40 of the AVAM’s major exhibitions over the years and working to curate an experience that will be accessible to people coming to the museum for the first time, yet deeply meaningful to those who’ve been along for the whole ride. It sounds like it’s going to be an amazing labor of love.

Another fun note — while heading to the museum’s basement bathroom, I ran into Bob Benson, sitting on a bench by his mirror-mosaic installation piece on farts. He pointed my attention to several of the tiles representing various kinds of farts and stories about farts, and encouraged me to step up and press the button to hear award-winning farts (they were indeed very impressive). He also told me about a workshop he’ll be running at the museum in March where you’ll make your own mirror art (not fart-related, as far as I can tell). After making a point to be so memorable, I figure he’s earned his plug —

Bob Benson with his piece Flatulence Post.

Speaking of plugs, don’t forget the West Wednesday Speak-Out Session against police brutality coming up in two days (!! Since last I wrote about it, there’ve been some exciting developments. We have some people confirmed now to read victim’s stories — Council President Brandon Scott, Erricka Bridgeford of Baltimore Ceasefire, Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead of the Today with Dr. Kaye show, Meredith Curtis Goode of the ACLU of Maryland, and mayoral candidate Catalina Byrd, among others.

In addition, I’ve been contacted by Dana Petersen Moore from the City Solicitor’s office, saying she plans to attend and announce that the administration WILL respect the new anti-gag order law in its entirety, including no longer enforcing old gag orders!! We’re asking for a clear written statement, ideally from the Mayor’s office, to this effect. It’s incredibly exciting to think that this could be the day when the issue is finally laid to rest for good, and we can all progress to the next fight. And just in time for the MD General Assembly session… lot of big fights gearing up to be had there on justice issues!

One thing we can’t move on from yet, of course — Keith Davis, Jr. just spent his fifth consecutive Christmas behind bars. An innocent man, shot nearly to death by BPD and then framed to cover it up, the evidence all as clear as day… and still his imprisonment goes on. We’re thinking of you, Keith.




Cultural Event of the Week: Oh dang, both of the Saturday shows are already sold out for Crankie Fest at the Creative Alliance! Looks like there are still tix for Friday, 1/3 and Sunday, 1/5, but I’d snag em now if you wanna check out the scrolling panoramic artworks — they’re really cool if you’ve never seen that kinda thing before — and accompanying musical guests. /

Green Event of the Week: Wanna spend more time in nature in 2020? Start out your year with the Friends of Herring Run Parks at their New Year’s Day Stream Bed Adventure Hike! Wednesday, 1/1 (obviously), from 10am-1pm. /

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s