As you walk down the 800 block of The Avenue in Hampden, you may see prisms of light reflecting onto the street. Look up, and a reflective mosaic that reads “shalom” may beckon you in.
A Loring Cornish gallery has arrived in the neighborhood.
The newest outing from Cornish, a well-known Baltimore mosaic artist, is filled with pieces he hopes will serve in the fight against antisemitism.
“I just have had such good relationships with the Jewish community. I don’t understand ‘anti,’ so I wanted to put that in my work,” Cornish said.
The Shalom gallery is filled with large mosaic sculptures, including a few that have the phrase itself embedded, like the sign outside. Words like “bashert,” which is Yiddish for destined or ordained by God, get the Cornish treatment, too, as the artist calls in Jewish ideas of peace and divinity to invite visitors to reflect and realign with a higher calling.
Antisemitism is on the rise, with its most popular mouthpiece of the moment another artist: Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who has doubled down on his bigoted remarks. Hate crimes against Jewish people are also peaking. The Anti-Defamation League found that 2021, the most recent year for which there is data, had the highest number of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. on record.
It’s baffling to Cornish, who says he has had transformative relationships with Jewish friends who inspired him to see the similarities between Black and Jewish struggles for liberation. His first museum show was at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in 2011 after a friend helped educate him about the history of Black and Jewish people in Baltimore; the show, “In Each Other’s Shoes,” focused on the history of the two groups in West Baltimore specifically. Cornish’s “Shalom” exhibition serves as a continuation of that work.
Featured at the gallery are mosaics of Black leaders such as James Baldwin, Nina Simone and Angela Davis. His renderings of the latter focus on recreating her signature afro with found objects. In one portrait, “The Sweet Smell of Victory,” Cornish used locks to design her fro with locks and filled her neck with keys.
“It speaks to how Angela Davis no longer fights for freedom … she has the keys,” Cornish said. “Have you seen her recently? She is free!”
Davis was perhaps an even more apt choice for Cornish’s exhibition than he realized when creating the piece. In 2019, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinded the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award from the activist after she expressed support for the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Jewish Voice for Peace chapters around the country held a Shabbat for Angela Davis in solidarity with her work. Cornish, who did not know about the revoking of her award and consequential support, simply shook his head upon learning that fact.
“Isn’t it crazy how it’s all connected?” he said.
The “Shalom” exhibit has other works that continue along the theme of religion and freedom, and also touches on the tension between religious freedom and choice.
In “Choice,” a mosaic of spoons construct a womb. If examined closely, you can see some of the utensils have the word “choice” engraved on them. Cornish found the spoons as they are, which inspired him to make a piece on “a woman’s right to choose.”
“I just feel like anti-abortion is intertwined with all the other antis like antisemitism,” Cornish said.
The artist is no stranger to political work. After Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, Cornish installed a piece in front of his home on Parkwood Avenue of black baby dolls hanging from trees with a sign that said, “Lynching still exists, white police use bullets and law to lynch blacks legally.” He also used his talents to cover a former police outpost in glass with the word “please” emblazoned. “I’m pleading with the police to make things better,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “I don’t know what else to do.”
Cornish lives among his mosaics as well: His house is completely covered with them inside and out. For him, the artform is a lifestyle. Even when he lived in Los Angeles in the ‘90s, his rental bungalow was covered in “religious mosaics,” according to the L.A. Times.
The sparkling “Shalom” on the exterior of Cornish’s gallery has encouraged conversations with passersby, as the artist typically emerges from his gallery to ask why they stopped.
“Sometimes I meet people and they give me insight beyond my own thinking, just taking me on a whole other train of thought,” he said. He feels art is an open landscape for people to process their emotions. Even when it comes to someone like Ye, who is known for espousing hateful views, Corning said he still has love for the rapper.
For Cornish, hatred is a small piece of a human, but is still an active choice they are making.
“No one is born antisemitic,” Cornish said. “They have to choose that.”