Fragments of Fort Howard: Sabbatical project by Matt Klos
“It was like finding the ruins to an ancient city in the jungle,” he said. You wouldn’t believe that in 50 years a place could go back to nature like that.” Baltimore County Executive Frederick L Dewberry, early in 1972
On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in late winter 2011 I packed a large panel and my paints into my truck and drove 3.7 miles to Fort Howard. I had stumbled upon this 47 acre parcel of federal property situated at the end of the Sparrows Point peninsula during the occasional drive or jog along a surprisingly rural stretch of road. Since the road that leads from my home to Fort Howard leads in the opposite direction of work, shopping, friends, and family it was never on my way but remained on my mind. The majesty and decay of these places left an indelible impression on my mind.
The painting I began that morning in 2011 remains unfinished like nearly a dozen other paintings I’ve begun at the Fort Howard site. Although unfinished artworks are understood as a natural occupational byproduct for artists it may seem strange to some. Why go through all the trouble to begin something and not bring it through to fruition? During my time working at Fort Howard there were a number of reasons why I would abort work on a painting. Occasionally it was due to a significant shift in the season or due to a visual equation that I couldn’t quite sort out. In these cases the paintings are waiting for the seasons to roll around again and for a new solution to be dreamed up. More often, however, my interest in the initial idea, the thesis of the painting, waned over time. In these cases the paintings merely fizzled out and have been sanded down and painted over.
In summer 2013 I embarked on my sabbatical project at Fort Howard by preparing dozens of 2’ and 4’ square painting surfaces. My full time pursuit during the summer and fall of that year was focused on the completion of a series of paintings documenting the structures situated on the Fort Howard grounds. Fort Howard, although largely unoccupied still maintains an outpatient clinic which is open on weekdays and is watched round the clock by security officers to prevent trespassing and vandalism. As a painter and professor of visual art I keep a consistent studio practice and my professional time is split between teaching and personal work. Before my sabbatical it had been nearly seven years since I had been able to pursue studio work for full time. By my estimation a project of this scope would have taken several years without the generous support of the college and the granting of a sabbatical which allowed me to work full time in the studio once again. I am grateful to Dean Dan Symancyk, Vice President Trish Casey-Whiteman (both of whom have recently retired), and Anne Arundel Community College’s Board of Trustees for their efforts in making my sabbatical request a reality.
Leading up to this project I saw two deeply moving exhibitions which helped shape some of my goals. “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series” retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery and “De Kooning: A Retrospective” at MoMA. Both exhibitions confronted the viewer with an impressive sense of scale and various series of works that seemed to be directed by rigid self-imposed rules or restraints. Additionally both artists showed great courage by not “buttoning up” or editing expressive aberrations that fell across the surface of paintings. It seems that these aberrations serve to balance the more ordered and deliberate marks on the paintings’ surfaces netting a gestalt effect that is both emotional and cerebral.
On a sweltering night in August 2011, just two weeks after completing Fort Howard #7, I heard fire engine sirens for the better part of two hours. It wasn’t until two days later when I arrived at Fort Howard and saw the yellow police tape that I realized where the fire trucks had been heading that evening. The white house pictured in Fort Howard, #7 had burned to the ground scorching the giant sycamore tree that grew in front of the house and leaving a pile of rubble and three pillars of brick where the chimneys stood. I set up and began to paint the wreckage but was asked to leave shortly after beginning to work since a police investigation was underway. During the short time I worked that day I could hear the Ospreys scream and sense their agitation as they flew over the burned wreckage which had held their nest. After the fire access to the premises has been strictly limited and for non-veterans a revocable license is needed to visit the Fort Howard site.
While working at Fort Howard I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing from a number of interesting folks. Some belong to families that have lived in the Fort Howard area for generations and some have lived in the military homes within Fort Howard’s grounds. As an example, in early August 2014, an elderly gentleman, who was driving through with his daughter stopped to chat as I was painting the theatre building. He said that when he was a young boy his family didn’t have much money and he would come and sneak into the theatre. He said that the soldiers knew he was there but they didn’t mind. He also mentioned that there was a “colored cook and a white cook” who he would make a point to visit. They were good to him and always gave him a bite to eat. I picked up this story and dozens of others during the making of the project.
Painting onsite and in the elements had its challenges. Lugging large panels, a studio easel, folding table, 3’ palette, and two boxes of paints to the worksites required on average an hour of setup and teardown per session. Some days were uncomfortably hot, interrupted by torrential rain, or painting was abandoned due to the cold and frustration of trying to work in winter gloves. Sometimes when momentum was gained on a particular sunny day painting the clouds would roll in for several days and interrupt my flow. More than once large panels would catch a sudden gust of wind and topple. It was not always possible to find a shady spot in which to stand while also getting a desired view of my subject. As November and December came the days shortened significantly making work on sustained paintings ever more challenging. In spite of all of these things, and indeed, because of these things ideas came to me that certainly wouldn’t have come if I had not been working from life. Working from life, or perceptually painting, requires grafting imagery together and the resultant image is less about one moment in time but rather a collection of many moments in time. The rewards of painting onsite far outweigh the numerous inefficiencies, false starts, discomforts, and frustrations. I had been working on Fort Howard, #6 for about a week in early October. All the while the sky had been an airy and unchanging cerulean blue. Then one morning a patch of magnificent alto cumulonimbus clouds drifted in place and remained for the better part of the day. I spent nearly five hours, an entire painting session, that afternoon reworking the sky which I feel has greatly enhanced the overall effect of the painting. The initial sky was sufficient but it simply didn’t as well. If I hadn’t been there to experience the phenomenon of that day in that particular place I would have missed a critical opportunity.
An account of the Fort Howard facility which was submitted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Dates of historic record and some fascinating facts regarding these structures can be found there.