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How an artist turned a rundown Baltimore auto shop into an urban oasis home and studio

Luck follows Kelly Walker.

When she hitchhiked into Baltimore as a teenager, the North Carolina native was addicted to drugs and alcohol and living out of a backpack. But she found recovery services that saved her life.

Then she stumbled into an apprenticeship that led her to start her own decorative painting and faux finishing company, Art Star Custom Paintworks, in 2002. Today her work can be seen in such places as the Sagamore Pendry hotel, Cinghiale restaurant and the new Hotel Revival.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that she lucked into her Mount Vernon home and studio, too.

“Luck has played a huge part in my life,” says Walker, 42. “I’m still so blown away by my life and how this all happened.”

An avid cyclist, Walker was out for a ride when she bumped into a friend who set it all in motion. At the time Walker was living in Hamilton, but her basement studio was too small for her large-scale works. The friend told her of a former auto garage that had already been semi-converted into a home.

“As soon as I walked in, I knew this was the place,” says Walker. “It had everything I needed – showroom space, storage space, production space and parking, because we drive my trailer and two cars right into the building.”

In 2013, she bought the property out of foreclosure. It had been abandoned for four years. Holding the keys, Walker panicked. Behind a screen of weeds there were some bullet holes in the walls, and the roof needed replacing. Although a portion of the interior was renovated, it was cut into two oddly configured apartments. All the exterior brick needed to be repointed and painted.

Luckily, Walker works in the trade and knew plenty of architects and designers who could give her advice. She removed the vestiges of the old apartments, creating a loft-like space with high ceilings and interesting niches. She did much of the renovation work herself with the help of a contractor friend, Brennan Gunther.

Bringing it all together is a point of pride: “I know where every part of this house came from. I saw it all come together, every detail,” says Walker.

The once nondescript, even ramshackle, exterior is now a bright spot on the block, with its striking charcoal-colored brick painted Benjamin Moore’s “Cheating Heart.” The entry foyer is just as dramatic, featuring a mural by Walker’s favorite tattoo artist, who inked his design over gold foil Walker applied to the wall.

The entry empties into Walker’s vast and busy studio. (In yet another karmic win, business has doubled since the move.) There’s also a comfortable showroom seating area featuring a vintage sofa Walker silver leafed and side tables salvaged from the former Pazo restaurant. A spiral staircase leads to a rooftop oasis shaded by a large canvas canopy and protected by a 15-foot, horizontal wood privacy wall.

With her voluminous reserve of artistic energy, Walker finds it beneficial to have the studio next door. Yet when she crosses the threshold to the home portion of the building, that is a sanctuary for her, her partner, Tess Mosley, and their BARCS rescue kitty, Fern.

“This house is a work of art,” says Walker. “It took a lot of creativity, including repurposing things that were already here.”

In the master bath, for example, she kept an existing claw-foot tub and turned an inexplicable hole in the wall into a laundry chute. She also kept an accent wall in the front sitting room that’s reminiscent of one of her own creations. Her new additions are a combination of splurges (new kitchen countertops) and bargains from Ikea (the kitchen cabinets). The powder room tile came from Home Depot, but Walker had it installed in a herringbone pattern that gives it a luxe look.

Walker also painstakingly hand-painted the floors. The guest bedroom features a lacy medallion pattern that is a feminine foil to the room’s salvaged lumber accent wall. In the master bedroom, Walker painted the floor fuchsia, the same vibrant pink found in the Parkway Theatre lobby. Yet the walls are intentionally neutral to create a backdrop for the art the couple has begun collecting, like the large work overlooking the kitchen by New York-based Penn Eastburn. Another favorite work, the racy cowboys in the living room, Walker obtained in a trade with artist Renee Trevino for one of her original artworks.

With its concrete floors and exposed air ducts, the home has the feel of an industrial loft, so Walker added softening touches like the custom round dining table. A wood stove and firewood boxes, all built and installed by O.E. Custom, warm the space that, with its comfy red wing chairs, is Walker’s favorite place to meditate, often with Fern.

In those moments when she isn’t stressed or restless, she feels awe as she looks at her home. There’s a methadone clinic just around the corner from her house, a reminder of how far she’s come.

“My house and my life are a reflection that miracles can happen,” she says. “This house is kind of like my life – you can take something so broken and create something so amazing.”


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.