Many artists use a room in their home as a studio. Not Loring Cornish. Cornish makes his studio out of two entire Baltimore rowhouses that he has covered – inside and out – in kaleidoscopic patterns of glass mosaic.
Along an otherwise mundane block of rowhouses, they radiate light and color, reflecting the sky, autumn leaves and the awestruck faces of first-time viewers. This Saturday and Sunday his glass houses, located on the 2700 block of Parkwood Ave. near Druid Hill Park, will be open to the public between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Finding his inspiration in the commonplace, Cornish creates visual stories through objects he plucks from neglected corners of the city.
Just about every morning he scouts around the alleys and vacant lots of West Baltimore in his white pick-up truck looking for interesting cast-offs. Some – battered Venetian blinds, a baby doll, broken Noxzema jars, a baseball mitt, a box of marbles – make their way into the walls, doors, stairwells and windows of his houses. Others are recycled into wall-sized installations marked by allegorical, often religious words embedded in his trademark glass mosaics.
“I just drive around, no particular place, and I just see stuff,” Cornish says. “I was asked why I thought Baltimore helped make me a visionary artist, and my remark was, ‘Because of the trash.’”
It’s always a pleasure catching up with this uniquely gifted artist. With his ready smile and soulful voice, he’s an excellent host while giving me and two first-time guests — Brew Editor Fern Shen and filmmaker Bill Hughes — a sneak preview of some of his latest pieces.
He tells us about the transformation of 2714 Parkwood, which he bought in 2003, from a regular two-story brick rowhouse into a jubilant swirl of blue, red, pink and green glass bits centered on the word “Faith.”
“I couldn’t really do a lot of work outside during the day because people were always stopping me and asking questions. It was like putting my studio out on the street. But my work doesn’t mean anything unless it inspires people and inspires the neighborhood. If someone walks by the house and doesn’t feel a sense of hope, I feel like I’ve done nothing.”
Not to worry – the neighborhood responded enthusiastically. In 2008, he bought a rowhouse four doors down the street. Soon it was cloaked in reflective glass tiles and grouted stones with “JESUS” emblazoned above the front window.
Cornish is not a trained artist. He sees his art coming directly from his relationship with God. “While I worship, I create, and while I create, I worship God,” he wrote in an artist’s statement.
He was born and raised just a few blocks away. He graduated from Polytechnic Institute, pursued an associate’s degree in mass communications at Baltimore City Community College, and hosted a gospel radio show at Morgan State before heading West to try his hand at acting.
While tending to a sick friend in Los Angeles, he had an epiphany. “My friend Paul had given me all these broken tiles. Where I was renting, there were holes in the floor. So I put the tiles in the floor. One thing led to another. I covered one whole wall with pennies. I covered the ceiling with concreted words.”
Realizing that God had given him a gift, he decided to come home and pursue his art.
His houses are even more startling inside than out. Walls, ceilings and even floors are made of glass. “People say, ‘Oh My God, can we walk on it?’” The answer is yes, although sometimes the glass crunches underfoot.
When he started doing art, everything had a religious meaning behind it. He made hundreds of crosses, and scripture was embedded in many of his works. Since then, he has let the creative process take him to other subjects, such as the civil rights movement.
One striking two-sided piece has the words “March on Washington 1963” in vivid orange tile on the front side and hundreds of white-tiled shoes on the back, forming a powerful image of a determined crowd.
More recently, the Jewish experience has exerted a powerful hold on Cornish. He shows us a piece he’s not yet finished. It’s a metal installation about eight feet high composed of words that run amidst a puzzle of balusters, pipe fittings, rosettes and rusty industrial springs.
The bottom half spells out “holocaust,” “slavery,” “Jew” and “Negro.” Intermingled with these words are “hate” and “love.” Above the word Negro is “hang,” and on top of them all is “respect.”
As his art became all-consuming, many of the trappings of everyday life became burdensome. Even furniture. Unless something can be turned into art, it’s pretty useless to him.
He purchased a bedroom suite, but quickly donated it to a friend because it took up too much space he could use for art. Now he sleeps in a chair.
Not that he sleeps much. He recently stayed up 72 hours to finish a group of commissioned mosaics. The only drawback, he says sheepishly, was that he crashed his Land Rover (not seriously) when he fell asleep after the job was done.
A typical night finds Cornish playing gospel music at high volume. While working, he’ll shout out “Hallelujah” or “Thank you, Jesus.” During our mid-morning tour, using a vintage record player he had acquired, he struck up Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band doing “Cherchez La Femme.”
His new bathroom is a sight to behold. To show it off properly, Cornish ushers us into the darkened room and shuts the door behind us. With an excited tah-dah, he switches on the overhead light to reveal cut mirror glass shimmering like a 1970s disco ballroom.
Not only does the glass cover the walls and floors, but it follows the contours of the toilet tank, washbasin and clawfoot tub.
“How do you put all these pieces together?” I asked him.
“I just do it. I don’t plan it. I pick it and place it.” For example, he wanted to arrange the bathroom ceiling in a sunburst pattern, so he looked for curving pieces of glass from his piles of recycled material.
We wondered if he gets cut working with so much glass.
“Yeah, I do, I do,” he says abstractly, his mind fixed on some new idea.
After years of toiling mostly in obscurity, Cornish has gained a growing reputation. Aided by his business agent, Ellen Saval, he got a commission to produce an abstract mosaic triptych for the Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel that measures 80 x 120 inches.
Saval says she watched about 20 women approach the piece after it was installed. “They were all doing the same thing. Touching it and moving back 10 feet to get another perspective and then walking up to it and touching it again.”
He has exhibited at the American Visionary Art Museum, Reginald F. Lewis Museum and Morgan State University. He’s scheduled for a one-man show at the Jewish Museum of Maryland that’s tentatively titled “Jews and Blacks Ascending.”
On November 17, his work will be seen for the first time in Manhattan as part of the Global Africa Project at the Museum of Arts & Design. He’s already gotten his bus ticket to New York City and plans to attend the opening-night gala in a cowboy hat and a shirt decorated with half-dollar coins.
Here’s a video Bill Hughes made of our visit with Loring Cornish:
And here are some more photos from us.