One time, Jaz Erenberg’s kindergarten teacher called her mother in to school. As the teacher showed her a coloring page, one with the line-art of a cat that disappeared in a burst of rainbow colors, they sounded slightly concerned — Erenberg, the teacher told her mother, was having trouble coloring within the lines.
“No,” her mother, who was a linguist, said, “She’s an artist.”
Erenberg, now 32, smiles as she recalled this story. She doesn’t remember this happening, Erenberg said, but it sounded about right.
“My art practice can be boiled down to that interaction,” said Erenberg, an Upper Fells Point-based artist and muralist who went viral on social media after she posted a video of the artwork she painted on her rowhome. Banana palm leaves in magenta, bright orange and yellow against sunrise colors make her house an outlier next to the mostly brick and Formstone facades of her South Durham Street neighbors.
While neither of her parents were artists, they were creative solvers, she said. Erenberg’s parents knew she processed the world visually and gave her a sketchbook before she learned how to read. As a young girl, she liked to collect flowers and put them inside books, studying later how the weight of the pages altered the shape of petals. Art, even if she might not have described it as so, was just how she processed the world.
Erenberg painted her first house at the age of 13, when she was visiting her uncle and aunt in their new home in Israel. Knowing Erenberg would stay with them for the summer, they asked her to paint their home. They drove her to the city to get art materials and supplies and gave her total creative freedom — it was both exhilarating and challenging.
Her art began to take over their home, with a new addition each time her uncle, who was a scientist, and aunt, who was a teacher, arrived home after a long day of work. Flowers on the back of the door; windows painted teal; an underwater scene painted in the bathroom.
“That was the first time I had to unpack what it means to create for a space and in a space rather than just in my sketchbook,” she said.
Seeking a change of scenery and pace after living in at least four states, Erenberg decided to go to boarding school in Israel not too long after that summer. She moved back to the United States around 2012, leaving a budding art program to enroll in the Maryland Institute College of Art. She had married an American who had a son who was 4 at the time, and she wanted to be part of his life, she said.
At MICA, she studied printmaking and was an avid wood sculptor, a nod to her father who had a knack for woodworking. But her first community-centered art project was photography.
She was biking to college back then, going through a route where she passed by people experiencing homelessness. Having her life touched by them about twice a day made her realize there was a social component missing in her artwork, she said.
She began leaving her house an hour or two earlier, taking with her handwarmers when the weather was cold and packing extra lunches for the people on her route. She asked them for their cardboard signs, writing them a fresh one, and took their old ones to monuments across the city. Erenberg never did anything that would damage the monuments, but she was awfully nervous that she would get in trouble, she said.
She snapped pictures of the cardboard signs in the city, she said, later including facts about the criminalization of homelessness when she posted the project on social media. That project caught the eye of Michael Owen — an artist and founder of the HOME artist residency — who invited Erenberg to paint a mural in Highlandtown.
Stephanie Garon, an environmental artist also based in Baltimore, met Erenberg about five years ago, when Erenberg had just completed the Highlandtown mural. Her work is distinctive, Garon said, and Erenberg is a “marvel” with color. Garon describes her art as passionate, lifting the viewer up.
Erenberg’s plan for the mural, painted on the front of a rowhouse on a quiet street where people can get lost in the art, felt distinctly Baltimorean, Garon said.
“She should get permission and try and do the entire street,” she added.
Erenberg’s husband, Doron Erenberg, had asked her for years to make the front of their home an art mural, but she kept pushing back, Erenberg said. It’s not that she didn’t have the confidence she could do it — living with her work was a bit daunting, she said. She ended up with two ideas that both her and her husband really liked, she said, but they couldn’t agree on which one.
So, the couple took it to Instagram asking for a vote. It was a close race, too, Erenberg said. The two designs accomplished the same visual and emotional goals, Erenberg said, but one design was more complicated.
“Obviously, they chose the harder one,” she said with a laugh.
In the week Meaghan Lermond moved to her new home at South Durham Street from Massachusetts, she caught Erenberg and her husband outside, who were painting the first layer before tracing the design onto the house.
It almost felt too on-the-nose, too fantastical that Lermond had just moved to a new city and all of a sudden was witnessing a mural come to life across the street.
“Now I’ve seen it in all these steps and it’s incredible to see the amount of time and effort and planning that goes into it, and the amount of care and love that’s put into it,” Lermond said.
For several nights, Erenberg, her partner Doron, her stepson Aiden and sometimes Lermond used a projector to light up the artwork against the newly white-painted rowhome. She had to cut the design into slices, Erenberg said, projecting from Lermond’s roof for the top floors. As someone was by the projector, she used colored chalks to draw the line art for the banana palms, using whatever chalk matched best with the final color.
They changed the light fixture by the front door, mailbox and door handle. Feeling that something was still missing, Erenberg reached out to a friend who is a window painter, asking them to continue the palm leaves to push the artwork forward, giving the whole piece more depth. Erenberg stood outside her home FaceTiming the friend who painted the windows on the inside, so they could see the lines that needed to happen.
When Lermond sits by her window in the living room, she sometimes sees people snap a photo of the mural as they pass down the street.
“It brings joy in your heart,” Lermond said of the artwork. “If you’re holding tension in your body, it just releases it.”
The world is a lot quicker to be angry lately, she said. But as she sees people walking by her house, she sees positive experiences, people smiling and taking photos of it.
“It’s really why I do what I do,” Erenberg said. “I’m so happy that I get to live in it now, too.”
Corinne Zmoos, a speech language pathologist in Waverly, reached out to commission a mural on her home as soon as she saw one of Erenberg’s Instagram posts. Zmoos, who is also a children’s musician, wrote a song several years ago in which she mentioned she wants to have a house with a mural on it. Several lines in those lyrics came true this year.
An artist herself, Zmoos described the creative process as intimate and collaborative, where Erenberg gave her space to come up with a concept. Zmoos felt nourished for choosing to to invest in herself and her home.
The painting process took about a week, she said. Erenberg finished the artwork right around Halloween.
When she walked out of her freshly painted house, Zmoos smiled, inundated with a sense of euphoria. Zmoos’ friends told her if anyone would have an artwork showcased on the front wall of their home, it would be her, she said. Her neighbors call it the sunflower house now.
“I think it’s wearing the right outfit now. It feels right, it feels beautiful, it feels unique,” Zmoos said. “It’s so beautiful to be inside of it with this mural on the front.”
Since finishing up the murals on Zmoos’ home and her own, Erenberg had embarked on a project in Waverly. She created her mural business in 2020, shifting from her full-time job as a teacher amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a difficult transition in some ways, she said. She is an educator at heart. But she still finds time to teach art to middle and high schoolers through various programs across the city. Her next one starts in January as part of a partnership with Julie Community Center, a nonprofit organization a couple of blocks away from her house, where she will develop a full mural design with students.
She uses plant life as a stand in for painting about the idea of community and growth. The imagery of black hands has been making it into her art, too, which she uses to talk about people and emotions and, in some ways, guide an idea of ancestry in her artwork. The colors are loud, warm and tropical, typically starting with magenta, and have an underlying feeling of exuberance and resilience.
“A lot of people needed to be resilient and survive to make me,” Erenberg said, referring to her Black, Puerto Rican and Jewish heritage.
In her artwork, Erenberg usually gravitates toward banana palms leaves. Flowers, she said, are gorgeous, but they already come in all colors. Leaves are different.
“I get to make them all the colors,” she said.
So when she thinks back on the line-art cat her 5-year-old self had colored, perhaps it is a style she has been cultivating for decades. Her favorite murals, the one she is the most proud of, are the ones in which the colors make the building disappear.
“So there are no lines,” she added with a laugh.