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Loring Cornish: In Each Other's Shoes

Visionary artist explores the struggles of African-Americans and Jews

Photo: Photograph by Will Kirk, License: N/A, Created: 2009:07:19 10:39:43

Photograph by Will Kirk

Loring Cornish’s “Fire of Life


“Target/Shalom,” the first piece you see in the exhibit Loring Cornish: In Each Other’s Shoes, stands in the central gallery at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. On the “Target” side, you see sepia photos of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy repeated Warhol-style. The dozens of faces are behind irregular rectangles of glass framed by shards of mirrors decorated, 1960s-like, with red bubbles; it’s as if the men are staring at you across time through the windows of a high-rise housing project.

On the first Thursday afternoon of this month, Cornish himself was standing next to the piece, explaining that it was intended for a major show at Morgan State University the same month as Barack Obama’s inauguration. The exhibit was meant to be a reflection on the struggles of African-Americans, with pieces about the March on Washington, lynchings, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But an unexpected incident altered the focus of the whole show.

“I drove out to the home of Ellen and Paul Saval to install two pieces of art they had purchased,” Cornish says. “And during the few hours I was there, I felt like I had gained two close friends, like they were kindred spirits. Ellen had cooked a meatloaf dinner, but I had to get back home to work on the Morgan show, so she packed it up as a sandwich. As I drove home, I took one bite of that sandwich and I knew I had to include the Jewish struggle in my show. We hadn’t even talked about anything Jewish, but just being in their presence let me know that the Jewish struggle was the same as our struggle. The first thing I did when I got home was take this,” and here he gestured to “Target,” “off the wall. I flipped it over and started working on a new piece on the other side. I had a feeling I couldn’t negate, and when I have an idea like that, I don’t question it. I just go with it.”

Cornish, a tall, trim man with a bald dome and a green South Beach T-shirt, walked around the piece to the “Shalom” side. The title word was spelled out in colored glass marbles, surrounded by wiggly strips of mirror and glass, the latter painted on the underside in bright blotches of color. The same red-bubble mirror from the other side formed three doves flying above the letters. The large, two-sided mosaic was mounted on a rusty, wrought-iron stand with a metal wreath that echoed the peace sign in “Shalom.”

“I thought the word ‘shalom’ was so appropriate because that’s what those three men were all about—bringing peace to the land,” Cornish says. “The second side felt like a completion of what I had started on the first side. I had wanted to make a big statement as an artist, and by adding the Jewish aspect, it didn’t seem so one-sided, so selfish, just about me. It seemed more universal.”

Cornish is often—and accurately—described as an outsider or visionary artist. His first big break came in 2006, when he was commissioned to create an entire room of artwork for the American Visionary Art Museum’s Home and Beast show. Though he’s college educated, he’s largely self-taught as an artist and specializes in recycled materials: window glass, mirrors, marbles, house paint, shoes, jackets, upholstery, wire, stones, dirt, costume jewelry, and grout. He may be uncredentialed and unconventional, but he’s still an artist and has the same ambitions as any other. And his Morgan State show, which has been carried over and significantly expanded for the new exhibit at the Jewish Museum, represents a big leap forward in his career. The pieces are bigger, the themes bolder, and the use of glass more arresting.

“Although our artists are very largely or wholly self-taught, none of us lives in total isolation,” AVAM founder Rebecca Hoffberger says. “What drew me to Loring was just how fierce and authentic his need to express himself was. His rowhouse in West Baltimore is one of the most astounding things I have ever seen an artist do. But when I go back six months later, it’s already something else—a new wonder—because Loring never stops creating. Like Simon Rodia, who labored for many years to build his Watts Towers, Loring is the real deal.”

“It was like falling down the hole in Alice in Wonderland,” Ellen Saval says about her own first visit to Cornish’s home. “The exteriors are glass mosaics—you walk in and the floors, the walls, and the ceilings are glass mosaics or covered with art. It was definitely a sensory overload. He was a very green artist, and that appealed to me. He had taken things other people had discarded and had incorporated them in his art.”

Saval first encountered Cornish’s work in the huge piece, “Downtown Rain,” he had created for the Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel. Saval, a long-term-care insurance specialist, was at the hotel for a conference and found herself in a group of people staring at and touching the 10-foot-long glass mosaic. She didn’t know if the artist was a man or woman, American or Chinese, trained or not, but she did a Google search and discovered that Cornish was an African-American man living in West Baltimore. When their fateful meatloaf encounter altered the Morgan State show, Pre-Inaugural America: Jews and Blacks Ascending, Saval made the connections that led to the Jewish Museum show.

One of the most striking pieces added to the Morgan show for the new exhibit is “Menorah,” which overlaps two different Jewish candelabras, one made of fragile glass and the other made of indestructible metal—leftover pieces from the wrought-iron stands. A gorgeous field of glass rectangles, all painted on the underside in pink and purple swirls, serves as the piece’s background.

“I’ve gotten on this kick of painting glass,” Cornish says. “I really like the look of the unpredictable patterns under the polished surface. It’s almost like creating my own stained glass—I can do any color, any shape, any size. Look at those purple swirls—if I had to buy glass like that, it’d cost me a fortune. But it’s easy to get broken glass and house paint. I like seeing an object on the street and seeing the beauty that no one has seen before in an object; it’s almost like bringing something that has lain dormant back to life.”

Nearby is another two-sided piece on a wrought-iron stand, “March on Washington.” On one side, the title is spelled out in sinuous glass strips, painted green and orange underneath. On the other side, more than 100 shoes are crammed together, night-black soles outward; tiny rectangles of white have been affixed like, as Paul Simon once sang, “diamonds on the soles of her shoes.” The sheer physicality of the image reminds us that the 1963 event was not about one man making a speech, but about thousands of people putting their feet in motion.

“I was walking around the neighborhood when I first moved back to Baltimore from California,” Cornish says. “I saw a box of shoes someone had thrown out, and I said, ‘Oh, I can do something with that,’ though I didn’t know what yet. I was so determined to make it as an artist that I was living in my rowhouse with no gas, water or electricity. I was living by candlelight, and I started cutting up the shoes. I used the tops for a piece called ‘Journey’ that’s now part of the permanent collection at the Reginald Lewis Museum. Then I had all the soles left, so I glued them together and painted them blue. That hung in the window of the Urban Outfitters store downtown for a while. Then I decided, no, it should be a black-and-white piece. When I finished and looked at all those black shoes with white squares, I said, ‘This is the March on Washington.’”

After Loring Cornish: In Each Other’s Shoes closes at the Jewish Museum of Maryland July 17, in September it travels to Annapolis’s Banneker-Douglass Museum. On October 9, Cornish opens his new studio/gallery at 817 N. Howard St., half a block from the Eubie Blake Center.

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