An enormous ball made out of more than 18,000 bras, a replica of the ill-fated Lusitania constructed of nearly 200,000 toothpicks, and a floor mat created out of hundreds of toothbrushes are just a few of the quirky treasures to be found inside Baltimore‘s imaginative American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM). While it’s a lesser-known spot on the city’s tourist circuit, once anyone catches sight of the museum’s exterior – a found-object mosaic made out of tiny pieces of mirror and glass – it’s impossible not to be curious about what is kept inside.
Wander through the halls and galleries of the museum and you’ll be greeted by an eccentric collection of “outsider art,” or work made my self-taught art makers who have little or no contact with the mainstream art world. It’s common for these artists to be discovered after their deaths, and often times their artwork illustrates unconventional ideas, extreme mental states or extravagant fantasy worlds. Some of the pieces in the museum are thought provoking, while much of it is laugh-out-loud funny – but no matter what, the AVAM has the potential to make you change your opinion on what can be considered art.
Here’s a sampling of some of the fascinating things to be discovered in the museum’s three buildings and sculpture garden:
- A 55-foot wind-powered sculpture called a “whirligig”
- A collection of non-electronic machines that visitors operate by pushing buttons
- Robots made out of streetlights and vacuum cleaner parts
- Framed, aerial photographs of crop circles
- A collection of postcards from the Post Secret project
- Sculptures made out of Styrofoam cups
- The “Flatulence Post,” a podium decorated with fart art that plays recordings of all the winning farts from an annual competition
- An expansive Pez collection
- Several “art cars” covered in mosaics
- An observation deck fashioned to look like a bird’s nest
If visiting Baltimore in the spring, check and see what dates the museum hosts the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race (this year, it was May 5). For the race, entrants create wacky, roving sculptures that traverse both land and sea on a 15-mile dash. Racers receive awards such as the “Golden Dinosaur” awarded for the most memorable breakdown and the “Grand Mediocre Champion” for the sculpture that finishes dead center in the middle of all entrants. Some of these kinetic sculptures are on display in a section of the museum.
The summer months, on the other hand, bring an outdoor film series to the AVAM. The museum takes advantage of a natural amphitheater formed by the adjacent Federal Hill, screening movies on a 30-foot wide screen that hangs from a golden hand sculpture on the west side of the museum. The screenings happen on Thursdays, so if you’re in town bring a lawn chair or blanket to the hill and enjoy the show.
All year round, be sure to browse the Sideshow Shop, the museum’s version of a gift shop that is packed with oddities and other goodies. Round out the trip at Mr. Rain’s Fun House, a moderately-priced restaurant serving American food and hand-crafted cocktails that match the creativity of the museum, and you will have had a day that truly defies convention in Baltimore.
Photo by Libby Zay.