Artist Megan Hildebrandt will kick-off the BMA’s American Wing Reopening Celebration on Sunday, November 23 at 10:00 am with a great Baltimore tradition – step scrubbing. BMA educator Jessica Braiterman caught up with Megan to find out more about the step scrubbing.
JB: How did you get started with your step-scrubbing project?
MH: The project began in the spring of 2008. Local history was very central to my practice at that time, and I had been researching the history of Baltimore, specifically Highlandtown (where I was in residence at Creative Alliance). I came across Aubrey Bodine’s amazing (however staged) photographs of women and children step-scrubbing. Asking some locals about the tradition, they all remembered it as an essential ritual of life, a weekly routine that underscored the importance of community via the front marble stoop. I wondered why I rarely saw anyone scrubbing their steps anymore. The few I did see scrubbing had a lot in common– many of the women wore housedresses and even had their hair in curlers – and maybe had an average age of 60. It was as though the tradition was nearly gone, and these women were the keepers of it. So I began to scrub. Every Saturday Morning.
JB: What are some of the more memorable experiences while scrubbing people’s steps in Baltimore?
MH: I remember how warmly I was greeted by people. I think I caught them off-guard pretty often, offering a service for free. But they did pay me in their own ways. Many would stand outside and offer tips about how to better scrub, what product was best to use on marble (Bonami!), and memories of their brothers and sisters taking turns with the chore. Highlandtown in 2008 was really changing a lot – many Polish families who had lived in those rowhouses for decades, many new immigrants from all over the world who had just moved in, and every color person you can imagine. In this way, I sometimes acted as an introduction to a ritual in their new neighborhood; sometimes as a reminder; sometimes a student; sometimes a teacher. My job changed with every door I knocked on.
JB: Did you gain a new appreciation for cleaning as a result?
MH: The task at hand of scrubbing was an immediate way to engage my audience. Once I was cleaning their steps, we had something to talk about. I have always appreciated the way labor allows for a fluidity, a sense of being alongside, a closeness. And the repetition involved in scrubbing definitely has echoes in my other artwork.
JB: How has step-scrubbing informed or connected to your other artistic practices?
MH: As I said, repetition and ritual is a main tenant of my work at present. I believe it does trace directly to the Do Your Steps project. Knowing that every Saturday morning, I was going to walk around East Baltimore for two or three hours and scrub steps gave me a wonderful structure in which to work. The same can be said of my autobiographical drawings. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2009, working in grid-like formations became another way of repeating an image, and the scale of the drawings was so large they became performative.
JB: What do you hope for the large-scale scrubbing of the BMA’s front steps on November 23?
MH: I hope it to be a visual code, a somewhat quiet poem of history, a bright spectacle. I hope for it to act as a communal unlocking of tradition – perfect for the 100th anniversary.
You can join Megan on November 23 at 10:00 am for some elbow-greasing fun on the BMA’s front steps. Don your best apron and rubber gloves and join Hildebrandt to scrub the BMA’s front steps. Register ahead of time by emailing the artist at: email@example.com
Stay for performances, storytelling, art activities and more throughout the whole day at the museum.
The step scrubbing project has been generously sponsored by Faultless Starch/Bon Ami.
Photo credits from left: Courtesy of the artist; Photograph by A. Aubrey Bodine • © Jennifer B. Bodine • Courtesy of www.aaubreybodine.com