At the Upton Metro Station at Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street, an explosion of color greets transit patrons at the conclusion of their escalator journey. “Baltimore Uproar,” a monumental mosaic by the renowned African-American artist Romare Bearden, depicts a jazz band fronted by a singer of ambiguous identity—perhaps Baltimore’s own Billie Holiday. It is no coincidence that Pennsylvania Avenue, which runs directly above ground and recently became a state-designated Arts & Entertainment District, is Baltimore’s historical center for jazz. How did Baltimore attract such a prestigious commission as Bearden?
Born in North Carolina in 1911, Romare Bearden was one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century. He explored numerous forms of art throughout his career, including painting, stage design, and songwriting—but Bearden is best known for his rich collages. His subject matter often dealt with African-American life and the American South, and had a humanistic bent inspired by his experiences serving in World War II. Bearden was also a founding member of The Spiral, a Harlem collective dedicated to debating the role of the African-American artist in the civil rights movement.
A strong baseball player as a young man, Bearden was offered—but declined—a spot on the Philadelphia Athletics fifteen years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. In 1932 while playing for the all-Black, semi-pro Boston Tigers, Bearden pitched against the legendary Satchel Paige, who had played for the Baltimore Black Sox just two years earlier.
Shortly after Bearden graduated from New York University in 1935, Carl Murphy, the publisher of Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper, offered him a job as a weekly editorial cartoonist. Bearden’s cartoons, which featured prominently on the opinions page, reflected on the realities of America in the time of Jim Crow and the Great Depression.
Bearden’s masterpiece is located on a metro line which, while functional, is just a sample of what a comprehensive metro system could have been for Baltimore. A 1968 planning report envisioned a rapid transit system with six lines emanating from downtown and extending out to the greater Baltimore region—but today, only a northwestern line to Owings Mills and a spur to Johns Hopkins Hospital has been completed. Each metro station was designed by a different architect and received a public artwork by artists of varying renown. Bearden, whose $114,000 mosaic cost the MTA about $30,000 more than the second-most expensive artwork, stood out as the most famous artist of the nine selected. The mosaic, made of fine yet fragile Venetian glass and ceramic and measuring 14 by 46 feet, was assembled in Italy.
“Baltimore Uproar” was unveiled on December 15, 1982. In a 1983 Sun article evaluating public art in the fledgling metro system, art critic John Dorsey acknowledged the mosaic’s grandeur and fitting subject matter, but concluded that the reaction of the public would be the only authentic evaluation. Since its unveiling, Baltimore has indeed embraced and appreciated Bearden’s token to the city that helped shape him.