Ky Vasser, curator, surrounded by the artwork of Megan Lewis, CRWNLEAKS, and QRCKY).

By Jannette J. Witmyer
Special to the AFRO

“The Coal Scuttle Legacy,” an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, and mixed media art currently on display at the Motor House, honors the artwork and legacy of the late Baltimore artist Tom Miller and holds a special place in the heart of its curator, Ky Vasser. She remembers being introduced to Miller’s artwork when her elementary school class read his vividly-illustrated book, “Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?” (co-authored with retired Baltimore educator Camay Murphy), and the excitement and pride that came with learning about the incredibly-talented Black artist from West Baltimore.

“I grew up in West Baltimore, and a part of our curriculum in public schools in the city was that we were required to read “Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?” I remember being heavily influenced by the art style, alone,” she explains. “And, I think a part of that was to preserve the history and knowledge of Black artists in Baltimore

A self-described “mixed media illustrator,” Vasser says that she tends to repurpose things she finds in the community to create works. “I kind of live by the idea that whatever you need to heal your community usually lies within it. So, you can create from that.”

She believes her approach is part of the reason she’s so heavily influenced by Miller’s work and why she was so touched by his book, a colorful, artistic journey of a young boy who creates the life of an artist from a found coal scuttle, when she was younger. “It’s literally the feeling of taking a piece from his community and creating something completely new and imaginative out of it. Like bringing people into your own fantasy world with a physical object that you created.”

Vasser says she’s found it “disheartening” that so many people in Baltimore draw a blank when she mentions Tom Miller, an artist she considers a “Baltimore Legend” and whose murals she grew up looking at, all over the city. Being offered the opportunity to curate an exhibition at Motor House has allowed her to do something about it. Not only is she honoring the art and legacy of Tom Miller through this exhibition of artwork by five Black artist, but she is offering it 21 years after his June 2000 passing.

The five artists selected for the exhibition, Ernest Shaw, Megan Lewis, QRCKY, Victoria Walton, and CRWNLEAKS, represent a mix, ranging from emerging to established artists. Vasser explains their selection, “All the artists that I picked were based on the fact that they weren’t necessarily trying to be defined by anything specific. They were just trying to transport the viewer. So, much like Miller, I found that they work within what I call portals, almost. Something I really enjoyed about Miller’s work is that there’s a fantasy element that’s trying to teach you something.” 

Finally, she adds, with resolve, “I was emboldened to, immediately, create an exhibition surrounding some of his works and pieces, because whether we know it or not, or whether people recognize it or not, a lot of folks are influenced heavily by Baltimore’s Black artists and Black Arts history. It’s just about exposing people to it and preserving that history.” 

“The Coal Scuttle Legacy” exhibition will be on view until June 19, 2021, at the Motor House, 120 W. North Ave, Baltimore, MD 21201. 

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Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO