Jeffrey Kent’s Quiet Influence Has Shaped the Baltimore Art Scene for Decades

When Jeffrey Kent moved into a luxury apartment overlooking Druid Hill Park in the ’80s, it was one of the nicest places he’d ever lived. It reminded him of a scene straight out of a Woody Allen film, with treetop views of Baltimore’s “Central Park.” Except for one thing. There was no art on the walls.

And he had ample time to stare at them. He’d just gotten fired from his day job at a Georgetown haberdashery, where he sold menswear, after being arrested for possession and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He decided to make his own art and started creating bright, abstract acrylic paintings, often with words embedded in them, to hang in his apartment. Meanwhile, he continued hustling, because, as he put it recently, he still had rent to pay—and now lawyer fees.

“But then people started trying to buy the paintings,” Kent recalls. “People I was selling drugs to—lawyers and doctors and accountants—and the people I was buying drugs from, who had money from selling drugs…they started buying the paintings off my walls. So I had to keep making more.”

It worked out nicely. He fell in love with making art, and he’d also inadvertently given himself a business front. He could tell his family he was selling paintings. Kent never imagined then that art would one day become his life and that he’d influence so many people through his creative work and vision.

In the decades since, Kent has become a mentor for emerging artists, a lodestar for people looking to navigate the art world, and a liaison between working artists and collectors, ultimately being instrumental in putting Baltimore on the map of the art world.

He gave Amy Sherald her first studio space and worked alongside the artist who would become world-renowned for painting her Michelle Obama portrait, which is in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. Kent and Sherald remain close friends.

Kent also gave Jerrell Gibbs his first studio space, mentored him, and encouraged him to apply to MICA’s M.F.A. program in painting, despite the fact that Gibbs had not earned an undergraduate degree (after all, Kent had done it). Gibbs was later commissioned to paint the Elijah Cummings portrait for the U.S. Capitol and is now represented by the prestigious Chicago-based Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, which exhibited his work in a solo show in Paris this summer. Kent joined Gibbs there for the opening reception.

Kent set out to be a successful artist long ago—and he achieved that, with work in collections at the National Academy of Sciences and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, among several other institutions. But how he finds time to work on his craft—and still sleep—is something of a mystery, even to his assistant.

Because ultimately the work he’s become best known for is the sculpting of the Baltimore art world itself—as co-founder and co-director of Connect + Collect, chief curator at the recently reopened Peale museum, an adjunct professor at MICA, and founder of Accomplished Art Apprentices, among other roles. His quiet influence over the work and careers of so many artists—as well as collectors, curators, and gallerists—has grown and innovated our regional art scene.

“We all started under Jeffrey Kent at 120 Studio,” says Baltimore artist, author, and entrepreneur Chris Wilson. “He has this gift for giving advice, and he’s influenced a lot of artists’ careers heavily. He’s the king- and queen-maker.”

On a warm September day, Kent’s tall stature exudes a calm presence over his living room in Station North, where he takes a seat next to his assistant, Cleo Rose, at a glass table against a backdrop of art—a miniature who’s who gallery of the Baltimore art scene and beyond. Directly behind him is a work of his own, a floor-to-ceiling collage made of pages of O, The Oprah Magazine, with a large “O” painted over it in blue and a glossy, layered finish. The piece is part of a series, he explains, that will be included in his autobiography through art, which he’s been working on for years. The “Zero” series pays homage to a particular Winfrey show that told the stories of women who had quit their day jobs to live their dream—an episode that played in the back of Kent’s mind for years before he would essentially do the same thing.

Long before that, as a kid growing up in Baltimore, Kent found inspiration in the TV show Bewitched—in particular, the character Darrin Stephens, who worked at an advertising firm. Kent’s young-but-entrepreneurial-minded brain was intrigued.

“Of course, I had pipe dreams of doing something creative, because no one in my family thought it was a good idea,” Kent says. “I got no support growing up.”

 

“HE’S INFLUENCED A LOT OF ARTISTS’ CAREERS HEAVILY. HE’S THE KING- AND QUEEN-MAKER.”

 

After the wake-up call of his arrest, and the subsequent newfound passion for painting, Kent inquired about a vacant building on the corner of Baltimore and Charles streets that got heavy foot traffic. He had the idea—innovative at the time—to install his art in its storefront windows, as he felt ready for the public (not just drug dealers and his clientele) to see his work after two years of painting. The owners were not only excited by his proposition but asked if he’d be interested in operating a full-scale gallery inside.

“I’m like, I’m an artist. I’m not a gallerist. Like, what is this? They told me, ‘You don’t have to pay any rent, no electric, just get a phone and a sign.’ I’m like, I guess I can’t say no to that. So, that’s how I got my first art gallery, Hand Originals. It was really crazy.”

The new space became the impetus for Kent connecting with the Baltimore art scene and expanding his client base—and also for getting clean, after a brief relapse. He also learned he had a penchant for transforming spaces. After running Hand Originals, he moved into a studio in the Copycat Building and renovated the space so well that when the owner saw it, and realized what he could then get for it, he wanted to double Kent’s monthly rent, Kent recalls with a laugh.

Instead, Kent left and found another place to work, this time an 8,000-square-foot warehouse space in the Abell building on the corner of Baltimore and Eutaw streets. It had sat vacant for more than 25 years, he says, and he worked to transform it into a dream studio. The space was so inspiring that Kent, with that Oprah episode in mind, quit his day job selling cars to focus on art
full-time.

“I told myself I’d rather be dead than do anything else but make art for the rest of my life,” he says.

Fast-forward another 10 years of making art to 2008, and Kent was accepted into MICA’s graduate program in painting. He credits Leslie King-Hammond, then dean of the program, for giving him a deeper understanding of art and helping him to develop his skill for critique.

“She taught me so much about myself and my art,” Kent says. “MICA changed my life.”

At the same time, before, during, and after his schooling, Kent was running SubBasement Artist Studios, a huge live/work space on Howard Street that closed in 2014 after a decade in operation.

Cara Ober, founding editor and publisher at BmoreArt, discovered SubBasement as a grad student at MICA and was immediately impressed with what Kent was doing.

“It was really the only artist-run space that was effectively selling art. He was the first person selling Amy Sherald, who had a studio there. I remember at the time thinking, ‘Good God, these prices.’ Amy Sherald’s paintings were selling for $5,000. I was like, ‘These are gorgeous, but I don’t have $5,000,’” Ober says.

“So many artists were undervaluing and underpricing their work, and Jeffrey was like, ‘Nope. This is the price.’ And, as a result, the people who could buy, did…Jeffrey was the one person who was actively cultivating relationships with real estate developers and different kinds of collectors or, as he described it, ‘people in a position to support artists.’ People who could buy art for the price that it deserves to get. Is my husband mad at me that we didn’t buy any Amy Sherald back then? Yes. He’s like, ‘Why don’t you just buy everything Jeffrey buys?’ He’s right. Jeffrey just seems to have a sense of whose work is gonna blow up.”

In 2019, Kent and Ober would go on to found Connect + Collect, a program under BmoreArt that connects collectors to emerging artists in Baltimore through studio visits and talks, usually with Kent serving as host.

“Most collectors buy in New York or Basel or Miami,” Ober points out, “but a lot of these people are also buying a significant amount in Baltimore, and I think that is in large part because of Jeffrey.”

By the 2010s, Kent had gained a solid reputation for himself as an artist and curator and organically became the go-to mentor for young artists, especially Black men in Baltimore.

Devin Allen, for instance, after receiving national attention for his black-and-white photo of the Freddie Gray riots that appeared on the cover of Time magazine (he would land another Time cover in 2020), found himself wanting to evolve his art and break free from the limits of photography. He wanted to branch out into painting and sculpture and try different mediums. Like so many others, Allen reached out to Kent, whom he’d met a few years prior, and Kent gave him studio space, where he worked for three years.

“I didn’t go to MICA or any of that,” Allen says. “I hung with local rappers, I used to hang at the Crown, but I didn’t really know any artists. When I started experimenting with sculpture, I reached out to Jeffrey because he was one of the few artists I knew who worked in different mediums. I started playing with charcoal, I would sit and watch him paint, just to learn. But from there, he taught me how to make editions, how to sell art, how to price my work, and that led to him curating my first mixed-media show.

“I’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s not perfect,’ and Jeffrey was that vehicle that assured me that it doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needed to be great. He’d be like, ‘This is important work. Do it.’”

The mixed-media show, Spaces of the UnEntitled, was installed at The Peale museum in 2019. It was Allen’s first time showing color photographs, as well as multi-media performance art, a component created by Kent and Allen together.

“That was the show that showed people, ‘Oh, he’s able to move into these other spaces.’ It transformed the way people looked at my art and what I was capable of doing,” Allen says.

The exhibit was equally as meaningful for The Peale, where Kent serves as chief curator.

“From the beginning, I wanted the programming at The Peale to be driven by the community, and here was Jeffrey coming to us as a community creator who had a story to tell with Devin, so we were very happy to put The Peale at his disposal,” says Nancy Proctor, chief strategy officer and founding director of The Peale. “The show was important, at that point in The Peale’s history, for getting the museum back on the cultural map. It had been shuttered for 20 years. Most people forgot it had even existed.”

 

“I TELL PEOPLE I’M A SELFISH GIVER,” KENT SAYS. “I GET SOMETHING OUT OF EVERYTHING I DO.”

 

Kent proposed a second show, work by Baltimore street artist Adam Stab, which he mounted later that year. By 2020, he was invited to be part of the leadership team. Proctor credits Kent’s vision as being instrumental in the rebranding and rethinking of The Peale’s mission. That year also saw the launch of Accomplished Art Apprentices, an initiative Kent founded at The Peale that allows young, marginalized men to learn the ins and outs of working in the art business—everything from handling, installing, and wrapping art to learning historical preservation techniques, mastering power tools, gaining financial literacy, and identifying best COVID policies and practices. Kent personally teaches some portions of the program but also hires other professionals to lead sessions when needed.

The first four apprentices who went through the 36-week pilot worked alongside a team of contractors who were renovating The Peale and were paid $20 an hour. Two of them have gone on to start their own business.

Kent has also recently become an adjunct professor at his alma mater, teaching MICA’s First Year Experience. He shares with freshmen what he’s learned over a handful of decades—not just painting techniques but how to be confident in your work and how to grow thicker skin, even if influential figures in the art world visit your studio and tell you your paintings are “too dusty” or your signature is “too large” (yes, Kent was told both of those things).

One might think Kent’s own art gets lost among his many other involvements, but he makes time to get into the studio every day.

Everything is thought out well ahead of putting paint to canvas, down to his signature—which, like most of the text in his pieces, is written backwards, not just a nod to his dyslexia but to give viewers the experience of having dyslexia by forcing them to slow down in order to read.

His conceptually oriented work explores social and political history, systemic racism, and groupthink, including the ways in which commodities are marketed and societal systems erected. The amount of thought behind each piece gives them multiple layers of meaning—and, often, mediums.

Following his passions and curiosity has broadened his career, reputation, and mind. In fact, there’s very little Kent hasn’t tried—in the art world and in his own art.

“I tell people I’m a selfish giver,” he says. “I get something out of everything I do. I only do something if I want to do it.”

On that note, he’s worked with nearly every material imaginable, from the more traditional (charcoal, acrylic) to the more experimental (shredded money, bricolage, and, currently, a technique he’s not yet revealed publicly). Even within a series, he’s likely to include several mediums.

He no longer has extra studio space for artists because all of his home studios are currently occupied by his own works in progress—a different medium in each room. Yet, he’s still exploring new ideas, whether it’s launching a nonprofit or venturing into a new medium.

Meanwhile, his spray-painted mural of a backwards, upside-down flag—a distress signal he painted when Donald Trump was elected, he says—runs along the length and width of his entire long and narrow house.

“I haven’t tried oil yet,” he says. “I’m gonna try that next.”

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