As an agent of change in his adopted hometown, Scott Burkholder has turned to art to inspire hope.
When Scott Burkholder ’02 arrived at Homewood in 1998 from a small town in central Minnesota to pursue a chemical engineering degree, he had his eye on medical school.
It was his first visit to Baltimore.
“My parents and I questioned where I was headed,” recalls Burkholder of his first venture to the East Coast. “The city felt bombed out.”
Improbably, particularly for a competitive, results-driven freshman who could not fathom the arts’ contribution to society, Burkholder was headed toward the front ranks of the Baltimore arts scene.
“I worked in a Hopkins lab after graduation and learned enough to know it wasn’t for me,” says Burkholder, who then considered the possibility of banking. Awaiting his next move, he started a house painting business and hired local artists to help.
The path from apprehensive undergraduate to medical researcher to an agent for the arts while working to be an agent of change through the arts took the better part of a decade.
“I had a serious curiosity about [the artists] I worked with,” says Burkholder. “They had all of these abstract, big-picture perspectives of the world. It was not natural for me to think that way, and I was intrigued,” he says. “Artists filled out my picture of the universe.”
Where science opened the world to Burkholder, art opened him to the world, well beyond his initial urban apprehensions. As it turned out, Baltimore taught him about beauty—and love. Burkholder got married and stayed. Bought an alley house in Fell’s Point and stayed.
He and his wife, Jenn, recently purchased the one next to it, his roots in the metallic loam of the Patapsco River now nearly 20 years deep.
If you have done a bit of traveling in the city—from the eastern end of North Avenue to Lauraville to the wilds of Carroll Park—you have likely seen Burkholder’s best-known project: 20 public walls stenciled with the word LOVE. The walls were painted by Michael Owen, an artist trained at the Maryland Institute College of Art, whom Burkholder befriended while painting houses.
Their project was grand, simple, and very abstract: Paint the surprisingly controversial word LOVE on walls in every quadrant of Baltimore. Then walk away and see what, if anything, happens.
Owen was the creative guy; Burkholder, the engineer, had the skills to get the project done. “I realized that I have the skill set that sometimes artists don’t have—the logical, practical mindset that can be used in business,” he says. As executive director of the project, he had to plan meetings with community leaders, track spreadsheets, and raise more than $175,000, through corporate sponsors, patrons, crowd-funding websites, and merchandise sales.
No one has monitored the LOVE Project to charter whether lives were changed or possibly saved by the addition of LOVE in neighborhoods where walls are more likely to carry ads for liquor and fast food. We live in a lab where some things can’t be measured.
But other cities have taken note: Owen has completed a LOVE mural in Detroit, with plans for other urban centers.
Owen and Burkholder also commissioned me—a lifelong Baltimore writer old enough to remember when advertising was painted on the side of brick buildings—and photographer Sean Scheidt to document the four-year project. The result was The Baltimore Love Project, a lush coffee-table book published in early summer 2016.
Said one neighbor of a LOVE mural interviewed for the book, “We sure could use more of it.”
“I am an optimistic person and grew up with a strong sense of obligation to share my hope with others,” says Burkholder. “It seemed clear to me in my first weeks at Hopkins that the city needed help, and I could do that with hard work and solid ethics,” he says. “Baltimore has a lot to teach me. A lifetime is not enough to experience the richness of this city. It’s my home.”
—Rafael Alvarez, a longtime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, was a writer for The Wire and is the author of two works of short fiction.
Hear what Baltimore residents have to say about the Baltimore LOVE Project.