Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


February 23, 2009

Artistically Defined

Dina Kelberman, co-founder of Baltimore's Wham City artist collective, is trying not to live like a jerk.

Adam Rosen

There exists an economic principle, the theory of the "inferior good," that maintains certain goods and services will only increase in demand when other goods and services deemed to be of a higher quality increase in relative cost. As far as PhD-devised suppositions go, this seems pretty self-evident: Amidst our current crisis, for example, shares of Spam-manufacturer Hormel Foods continue to swell even as the average stock plummets. Public transportation ridership is hitting record levels, and private-label merchandise is gaining quickly on its branded counterparts.

A lot of people want to live in New York, but they settle for other places. In the context of geography, then, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore could be considered inferior goods. All of which is fine for some artist-types, who, until even those parts got too expensive, had been living in the inferior parts of NYC, anyway.

Photo by Dina Kelberman
"Maybe it's the grossly uncritical nature of things here that's allowing people to end up making some really great art."

Photo by Dina Kelberman

And this is how the Wham City "artist collective"—such is the only designation broad enough to cover a group whose members include a mock late-night talk-show host, a mascot costume-designer, and a wave function generator-playing DJ—came to arrive in Baltimore. After graduating from SUNY-Purchase in the early 2000s, the group headed south on I-95 because, as co-founder Dina Kelberman says, "We didn't feel like spending all our time working shitty jobs."

When Wham City turned up, the city had just finished re-zoning the neighborhood around the Amtrak terminal, Station North, as an "Arts District." Tax breaks were given to writers, painters, playwrights, and musicians who would live in the once-elegant neighborhood. (Though it wasn't entirely forsaken, at least by Baltimore standards). The collective moved into the Copy Cat building, an iconic red-brick building so-named for the printing company it once housed.

"The Copy Cat Building"

In evaluating the collective's success in Baltimore, look no further than their accolades: selection of "Spiderman of the Rings" (the work of aforementioned function-generator-abuser Dan Deacon) as one of the 50 best albums of 2007 by Pitchfork; filmmaker Jimmy Joe Roche's solo exhibition at the R.A.R.E. gallery in Chelsea; the sale of a Kelberman comic at the Whitney. While predictably hesitant to admit their part in the city's (non-homicide related) national ascension—last fall, for example, Rolling Stone crowned Baltimore "Best Scene"—Wham City's influence speaks for itself. Kelberman, who is 29 and grew up in the city's Severna Park suburb, is perhaps most uniquely qualified to appraise the state of the city. An unrelenting illustrator, her comics grace the Baltimore City Paper every week, and her site is littered with random projects. She's exhibited at the Cake Shop in New York, and has shown her work at venerable mid-Atlantic art institutions the Walters Art Museum, the Artscape Festival, and the Creative Alliance.

In the following interview, which was conducted through email and edited for clarity, Kelberman riffs on Baltimore's brand new bag, the difficulties of giving criticism to friends, and why she's not exactly starving. [You can hear Kelberman, along with DJ Scottie B and Charlie Stella, talk about her work at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series on New York's Lower East Side on Thursday, February 26, at 8 p.m.]

Gelf Magazine: How'd you get into drawing?

Dina Kelberman: I have always drawn since I was a kid; I was obsessed with Chuck Jones and Looney Tunes. I only started doing comics in college as kind of a fluke. I just drew this weird little comic as a flyer for an art show I was in, and people seemed to like it. So I thought maybe I'd do some more. I was never into comics before

Gelf Magazine: Why'd you move to Baltimore, and when?

Dina Kelberman: I moved to Baltimore, I think, in August 2003? Something like that. Me and a few other people moved ‘cause we didn't feel like spending all our time working shitty jobs just to be able to afford to live in NYC, and we heard that in Baltimore you could live in a giant warehouse for real cheap and just walk dogs for a living. I grew up near here, so when I could come home for visits I would come back with these reports of easy living, and everyone was sold.

Gelf Magazine: Can you give me a rundown of your work history?

Dina Kelberman: Since I moved to Baltimore, I've basically worked as an art assistant and at a movie theater. I've done some freelance illustration and web-design stuff, too. I won the annual comic contest so I have a weekly comic in the city paper for one year, which I think they and many other people are annoyed by. I get paid $15 a week!

Gelf Magazine: How much credit does Wham City deserve for Baltimore's current "it" status?

Dina Kelberman: I have no idea.

Gelf Magazine: As someone raised in Baltimore—the county, yes, but damn close, still—I'm still coming to terms with the idea that someone would want to move there from Erie, much less Australia (as The Death Set has). What…in the &^%$…is happening?

Dina Kelberman: I have no idea. Because they heard it's fun and cheap? I mean, those are pretty awesome things.

Gelf Magazine: With so many bands and artists now in such a small city, is there a growing sense of competition?

Dina Kelberman: There's sometimes some weirdness, because artists are all insane people, but mostly everyone just wants to be friends and support each other, which is the main reason why Baltimore is awesome. Do you think I use too many commas?

Gelf Magazine:No, fine on comma usage.

Dina Kelberman: Thank you!

Gelf Magazine: In a recent article in Urbanite on the Copy Cat building, a senior at MICA declared, "The way people write about lower Manhattan in the '70s and '80s, they will write about Baltimore in the 2000s." Do you agree or disagree?

Dina Kelberman: I don't know how people wrote about Manhattan in the '70s and '80s, and I doubt I will know how people write about Baltimore in the 2000s.

Wham City Presents: BEASTY & THE BEAUT

Gelf Magazine: It seems like many of Wham City's pursuits involve reinterpreting, mocking, or generally verb-ing pop ephemera ["OCDJ"; Deacon's "Spiderman of the Rings"; the "Beasty and the Beaut" revue; Ed Schrader's late-night impresario]. Are we so irrevocably entrenched in the postmodern world? Has everything really been done before?

Dina Kelberman: Well, I think there are probably an equal if not larger percentage of completely original things happening, too. And mainly I think: Who cares?

Gelf Magazine: Is there ever any criticism?

Dina Kelberman: Maybe…

Gelf Magazine: Can you expand on this a little? In an article titled "Why Baltimore?" in Impose magazine, OCDJ's Dan Gaeta says, "There's a major lacking of a critical dynamic. Nobody wants to tell somebody that they suck…a lot of people do bad things and no one tells them. It's kind of awkward. There's no precedent for constructive criticism." Does Gaeta have a point?

Dina Kelberman: Yes, I definitely agree with Dan about that. I mean, I try to be honest with my friends if they ask for my opinion about their work, but it's not like I feel comfortable just going up to people and announcing I think their work needs this or that. Is that how people do it in New York?
For example, I have a real problem with this whole symmetry/tribalism thing going on in everyone's art now, but people are so into it that I feel like it sort of precludes my ability to critique beyond, "Well, I guess you're into this whole thing and I'm not." I don't want people to just like whatever I like, but yes, I think people could be challenging each other more. But then again, I like that people feel really free to do whatever the hell they want and not be afraid of some judgmental shitstorm, so maybe it's the grossly uncritical nature of things here that's allowing people to end up making some really great art!

Gelf Magazine: Judging from your website, you're prolific. What keeps you in nice, brightly-colored paint supplies these days? And what project do you most enjoy?

Dina Kelberman: I have some inheritance which allows me to live semi-impoverished but spend all my time making art! Hopefully I'll start working at my friend's T-shirt company soon because I need a job or I am going to go insane. Also it's embarrassing to just live off inheritance like some kind of jerk.
Right now I'm really excited about putting out this new book, which will just be called Important Comics, I think. It'll be a collection of lots of the comics I've been posting on my website for the past few years, and it's my first book to actually get printed and bound by someone other than me—as opposed to my usual process, in which I spend forever making these tedious micro-comics by hand. Which is fun, but definitely not cost-effective, and generally limits me to a run of about 100 copies. FUCK THAT!

Gelf Magazine: Are the majority of people in your art and music circles out-of-towners?

Dina Kelberman: Are you asking if they are from Baltimore or not? Like, originally? I think the answer to that would be yes, they are not, but the circle is constantly changing like a big changing blob of goo, so it could all change again in any direction in an INSTANT.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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