+ By Julia Gibb
Sharing an awning with the vibrantly painted facade of FinArt Gallery and Studios is a modest storefront sporting a sleek and subtle logo for Art at Large, Inc. Behind the deceptively understated exterior is an exuberant collection of work by Sally Wern Comport. A work in progress rests on the drawing board; original, completed art from past and future projects hang on the walls and are stacked on desks. Books—some illustrated by Comport—fill a bookcase.
Adding to the eclectic atmosphere are works by other artists, pieces of vintage furniture serving as seating and storage, three-dimensional models of exhibitions spaces, and substrate samples for installation projects. The sheer quantity of work threatens to take over the space. “Half of my job is just finding stuff,” jokes Lindsay Bolin Lowery, artist and studio manager at Art at Large, Inc. But there is an underlying sense of order to it, too, the spirit and content of the work adding warmth and color to the long, narrow studio.
Formidably disciplined and bursting with enthusiasm, Comport credits her family for her eye for design and work ethic. Her father, who graduated from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh on the GI bill, started his own advertising agency in Ohio, where Comport grew up. “He always had a drawing table set up in the living room, where he would do pro bono work at night and on weekends for the church or his friends,” she says. Comport created her first paid works at age 15, creating illustrations for her father’s clients. After graduating summa cum laude from Columbus School of Art and Design, she earned a master’s degree in illustration from Syracuse University.
Illustration served as Comport’s lifeline to the working world, as she and her husband juggled life with two young daughters. She created a home studio, squeezing in hours there as time permitted. Over the years, she has built a massive portfolio, winning awards for her illustrations, and landing work in the permanent collection of the Museum of American Illustration in New York City.
Comport opened Art at Large, Inc., an art consulting and production company, at its current location on West Street in 2005, before the area was designated as an Arts and Entertainment District in 2008. Over the years, more art and design-oriented business flocked to the area, along with restaurants and bars that cater to the creative community. “It really is wonderful to see the artistic community grow in this section of West Street,” she says. Under the umbrella of Art at Large, Inc., which Comport runs with the assistance of Lowery, the company takes on a wide range of design and art work, from illustrations and logos to large-scale public and commercial art installations, community-based art projects, and more.
Through her work with ArtWalk, a nonprofit organization she founded with Chuck Walsh in 2007, Comport has had a profound impact on the presence of contemporary public art in Annapolis. Since its inception, ArtWalk has installed large-scale reproductions of original art, which are printed on weather-resistant substrates and attached to buildings in Annapolis’ Historic District and beyond. The installations have featured local artists Sy Mohr, Greg Harlin, Marion E. Warren, and George Belt along with children from Stanton Community Center. The organization has also identified and worked with diverse local art programs, promoting awareness and support for some lesser-known programs, and Comport’s pleasure in such community-based work is apparent. She beams as she recalls a senior whose work was featured on a banner in the Market House and who wanted to sign her banner. “I see a lot of pride in people when they get their work reproduced and it shows up large.” The woman ended up climbing a ladder, Sharpie in hand, to sign her artwork.
Her own art has also been featured in ArtWalk installations, most recently right around the corner from Art at Large, Inc. on the wall of the Light House Bistro. The piece pays homage to the building’s history as a community gathering place. Helene Sachs, whose grandmother opened Levy’s Grocery Store and Capitol Drug there in the 1930s, inspired Comport with a picture of herself as a child, perched atop two large baskets of cabbage in front of the store. With a nod to the lighthouse motif, Comport used the concept of refracting beams of light crisscrossing her composition, creating a structure within which she highlights Sachs, her family, and other figures who contributed to the building’s history—and the ones creating its future.
Comport is a bit of a stylistic chameleon, as her job indeed demands—she is called upon to depict myriad cultures and eras, and rigorously researches every subject. In her recent illustrations for a children’s book, Nile Crossing, set in ancient Egypt, she studied and emulated the flattened perspective of ancient Egyptian art. No detail is too small for her consideration.
The story takes place over the course of one morning. An ardent morning person, Comport used her familiarity with the unique qualities of early daylight to complement the action of the story. “I usually choreograph a book,” she says, “so it moves in a certain way, just like a play does, so the light moved in the way that a morning takes place.”
Despite the incredible range of projects that comprise Comport’s work—from her illustration jobs for books and other publications, to public and private art and graphics installations, to museum exhibits—there is a tangible artistic thread that ties it all together. In every work is a clean sensibility, whether she is working with minimal graphics, rich layers of color, or texture. Her rendering of light creates dynamic atmosphere in her compositions. She draws inspiration from the social realism of the Works Progress Administration-sponsored mural projects and other artists of the era, such as Ben Shahn and Thomas Hart Benton. Every work starts with a drawing and then progresses to a digital version, which she may colorize, print out, then work on by hand. This layering process may repeat many times, with many mediums. “I honestly don’t care what [medium] I work with, you know?” she explains. “If you keep layering, your mind refines [the image], too.”
Between her numerous projects and caring for her older daughter, Taylor, who has a developmental disability, Comport doesn’t have time for much else. But she and husband, Allan, who teaches and is department chair of the illustration department at Maryland Institute College of Art, enjoy sailing with Taylor, who loves being on the water.
Comport gets up at 4:30 a.m. to work out. She has to stay strong for her daughter, who needs to be lifted every day. “But it also turns out to be good for me,” she says. Her mind is constantly on her many projects. Sometimes this tendency makes it hard for Comport to sleep, but she relies on those early morning hours for her physical and mental sustenance.
She and Lowery share a motto: Work is redemption. Comport’s work is constantly presenting her with new challenges. “No day is the same,” she says, “and that’s why I think it works for me.” █