Eddie McKinnon had a dream.
It cost him dearly: His marriage dissolved, he spent some time in jail, was hospitalized and was nearly evicted.
But McKinnon has transformed a long-abandoned boiler room at the Mayfair Mansions apartments in far Northeast into a three-story art studio where 60 to 80 neighborhood children take art lessons and create pottery, sculpture and paintings.
Mayfair Gallery was a dungeon, when McKinnon first tackled it two years ago, he said. The obsolete coal-burning facility had 30 years worth of trash piled in it, a homeless man sleeping there and drowned rats floating in 15 feet of stagnant water.
Now, with McKinnon's huge wood sculptures set in its front yard against the backdrop of a sky-blue mural that splashes the color of hope on the grim tenement landscape, the gallery is preparing for its first art festival on Aug. 21.
"I have a vision when I look at isolated areas of the city with kids growing up in single-parent families," said McKinnon, 27, a Bowie State University art graduate. "I feel I can teach them culture, teach them how to think."
Building the studio became an obsession, McKinnon said. He and his father, a retired engineer, spent 2 1/2 months bailing water out of the boiler room. They fumigated the hole with "20 grocery carts of bleach and ammonia," he said. "I worked all winter in snow, rain, 24 hours a day."
"He nailed night and day. For two years I wouldn't be able to sleep," said Matilda Wells, an elderly resident who lives in the apartment above the studio.
"I saw beauty going up," said Ally Holmes, 88, who watched McKinnon's effort from her kitchen window across the street. "And I'm hoping it will help some of these devilish children around here."
"People around here had never seen a black man--an artist work that hard for his dreams," said McKinnon, who does not live in the complex.
Some residents harassed him and tried to disrupt his efforts, he said, and the studio was burglarized once.
In May 1982, McKinnon said he and his wife were "beaten in the head" by police and arrested for disorderly conduct when they denied police entry to search the studio. Police and firemen had been summoned by neighbors who spotted flames from a fire McKinnon lit to melt tar for the first of 10 tarrings that the building's leaky roof required.
"Every time the firemen put a ladder on the roof he would throw it down," said Police Officer Ronald Williams of the Sixth District. "McKinnon may have been hit when he and his wife resisted arrest and struggled with police, but his wife was not hit and no one was injured." McKinnon was fined $10 and released.
McKinnon said he was arrested a second time, but the charges were dropped. He said he has clashed with police at least 13 times since starting the project.
He calls his studio the beginning of a "Kenilworth Renaissance." "It's starting in the ghetto just like the Harlem Renaissance," he said.
The most traumatic loss, he said, was the breakup of his two-year marriage. His wife had provided the morale and financial support for the dream, working overtime as a cashier at Hechinger's store to pay for supplies he needed, he said.
"This floor cost about $15,000, that ceiling $2,000, $300 for a chain saw, three truckloads of lumber. . . . One woman paid for it all," McKinnon said.
"All I did was work in the studio and all she did was work to pay for it." After they separated, he said, he was hospitalized a week for severe depression.
In May, just as McKinnon was finishing his two year's labor in preparation for the studio's grand opening, the property's managers ordered him out. Urban Realty and Development Corp., the management firm that had given McKinnon free use of the space, wrote him in June that his operation posed a fire hazard because of "excessive use of extension cords."
McKinnon said safety inspectors ignored the breaker box he had installed to prevent danger from the extension cords. In June, as a last resort McKinnon barricaded himself in the studio for 24 hours refusing to come out until the eviction order was rescinded. He emerged only after City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) intervened.
According to Crawford, the order was rescinded after McKinnon removed cords that overloaded circuits. "Eddie has a great deal to offer," Crawford said. "Through his art he is helping the community so I offered him all the assistance my office could render."