Six years ago, Loring Cornish faced eviction from his house in Los Angeles. He hadn't paid the rent in months, and the situation was dire. So what did he do? He went on The Price Is Right.
"I auditioned, and out of 300 people they picked me for the show that day," he recalls. "I can get on any game show."
Cornish certainly presents well. Tall and trim, with an easy smile and a resonant voice, he projects a camera-friendly aura. "I know how to act," he explains. "You gotta be really excited, sure of yourself, and articulate. And you have to look fresh. I knew I would get on."
At the taping, he was, indeed, called to "come on down!" The only problem was that the previous contestant had already played for the big money, and Cornish never got a shot at the $10,000 prize. He came home with a grill instead.
"The day I got evicted, my grill was in the house, still in the box," says Cornish, shaking his head. "It was as big as a car."
He then drove across the country and returned to Penn North, where he grew up. It wasn't long before folks in Los Angeles, after peeking inside the house Cornish left behind, learned they'd lost more than just another game show contestant. And the residents of Penn North found that a visionary artist had moved in down the street.
Turning onto the 2700 block of Parkwood Avenue off North Fulton Street, it's impossible to miss Cornish's home, or homes, since he bought a second house on the block in March 2008. Amidst the rows of brick facades, two mirror-tiled, mosaic-covered house fronts shimmer radiantly on the left side of the street. Colorful, mosaic figures stand curbside.
Cornish appears in a doorway and beckons a visitor inside one of the homes. The interior is even more startling than the exterior. A mosaic of broken ceramics and mirror tiles has been grouted into the floor—some of it crunches underfoot—and glass shards dot the ceilings and doorways. Mosaics also line the baseboards. Some walls have been painted bright green; others are red. Large artworks (some measuring 3'x6') made of scrap wood and other found materials (spoons, shoes, letterpress type, baby dolls, marbles, etc.) hang on the walls. Everywhere, words such as "prayer," "life," and "peace" have been embedded into the work. The stairs are painted silver.
Cornish works on the second floor, which he's converted into a studio/gallery. He listens to gospel music by the likes of Yolanda Adams and Amy Grant and occasionally shouts "Glory, hallelujah!" or "Thank you, Jesus!" for no obvious reason. Like downstairs, the walls and floors are a jumble of sparkling glass and shimmering tiles. The words "love God" are embedded in the floor. "This was a clean, plain, simple house when I moved in five years ago," says Cornish. "It had all white walls, and I thought, 'I've got to get rid of these walls. I need some color.' So I immediately started working on the house, and I haven't really stopped. As a result, the house has become more than just a house; it's become mine. It's more than just a place to live; it's an expression of who I am."
Old friends around the neighborhood know Cornish as Van Freeman, the name he was given after being adopted by his stepfather. He went to a Pentecostal church—"religion was embedded in me from a very early age," he says—attended Douglass and Poly, got an associate's degree in Mass Communications from Community College of Baltimore, and took some classes at Morgan State, where he hosted a gospel music show on WEAA. He changed his name to the name on his birth certificate after returning to Baltimore from Los Angeles, where he'd undergone something of a transformation.
While living out West, Cornish cared for a friend who was dying of AIDS and rented a house in Silver Lake—that's where the visionary art started. "When I moved into the Silver Lake house," he recalls, "my landlord hired people to fix up the place. The workers were moving too slow for me, so I asked if I could work on the house instead. The landlord said, 'Sure.'
"When I pulled back the shag carpet on the floor, I saw that the floor had been damaged by termites. There were holes throughout the floors, and I didn't know what to do. My friend had given me some broken tiles, so I began to cover the holes with tile."
Cornish figured he'd embed a Bible verse into the floor while he was at it. He chose "And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper" [Psalm 1:3]. "That was my first official art project in the house," says Cornish. "Then, God kept telling me to do other things, and one project led to the next and the next and the next."
One day, he was driving to Bible study and passed a pile of window frames on the sidewalk. He says God told him to get the window frames, but Cornish wasn't so sure. He needed a sign—if the frames were still there on his way home, he'd get them.
Sure enough, they were there. He took them home and made what he calls "word pieces" out of them, incorporating words like "merciful" and "hope" into his designs.
Another day, Cornish spotted a penny on the floor while working on the baseboards in the dining room, which triggered another conversation with the Creator. "I said, 'God, the baseboard in pennies?'" recalls Cornish. "He said, 'Yes.' So I covered the baseboard with pennies, and as I was putting the last penny on the baseboard, I looked up and saw this empty wall. I said, 'Oh no, God, not the wall. Not the wall. Aw, man.'"
Cornish scraped together the money and covered the entire wall in pennies. He also covered the floor in lace. "I polyurethaned it down," he says. "It was the most beautiful thing you've ever seen."
But as Cornish became increasingly consumed with making art, he found it difficult to hold down the nine-to-five jobs and occasional acting gigs he'd get. He recalls saying, "God, I just want to be someplace where I can be creative and worship you whenever I want to. I want to do my artwork and praise you throughout the day. I can't do that in corporate America."
He posted an "Art for Sale" sign in front of the house, but sales were slow. As a result, he couldn't pay the rent, and after The Price Is Right scheme didn't pan out, got evicted. He loaded three paintings into his car and made the long drive back to Baltimore.
Meanwhile, nurse Marilyn Downey moved in across the street from the house Cornish vacated. She spied the "Art for Sale" sign and went over to investigate. "I looked in the window, and it blew me away," says Downey. "I thought, 'What the hell is this?' Every surface of the house was covered with art. I was entranced and completely taken by it."
She contacted the landlord and convinced him to rent her the house, as is. "I wanted it to be saved," she says.
Downey began searching for the former occupant, which proved to be difficult because Cornish left no forwarding address or contact information. Downey contacted friends at The Los Angeles Times, and on November 14, 2001, the paper ran a story titled, "The Mystery Gallery: [Loring Cornish] decorated his rented home with crosses and biblical mosaics, then vanished. What will happen to his work?" The local media picked up the story, and Downey, on her days off, opened the house to the public.
Meanwhile, Cornish was in Baltimore, unaware of all the fuss.
Three months after he left town, Cornish called his sick friend in Los Angeles, who told him what was going on and put him in touch with Downey. Intrigued by what he heard, Cornish returned to L.A., and Downey handed him the key to his old house. "I got everything back that I thought I lost," he says. "Everything that was important to me was still in the house—all my art was there. Of course, the grill was gone, though."
He made mosaics and paintings and worked on the house for another two years—filling the front yard with 100 crosses and painting all the cactuses on the property different colors—and says he sold "a lot of art" before deciding to return to Baltimore. He wanted to be near his elderly parents. This time, he took as much art with him as possible. "The art must have been piled five feet high on top of my car," he says. "And I could barely fit inside. The only other thing I brought back was a heating pad."
On July 4, 2003, Cornish moved into the Parkwood Avenue house, which he'd bought. The next day, he began tiling the floor.
But with little money and few connections, he struggled for awhile. "I was gathering and collecting materials with a shopping cart," he says. "I took junk and trash off the streets and alleys and turned it into something phenomenal. Some of that junk and trash is now hanging in museums."
Cornish has, indeed, landed some high-profile gigs, using the house as something of a calling card and custom gallery. In 2006, he created an entire room of artwork for the American Visionary Art Museum's Home and Beast exhibit. "We were honored he let us show his work," says AVAM Founder Rebecca Hoffberger. "He's a magnificent talent."
Last summer, he exhibited five pieces in A People's Geography: The Spaces of African American Life at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, a show that was part of the city's Festival of Maps. "He has an impressive body of work—imaginative, personal, and spiritual," says Michelle Joan Wilkinson, curator of the People's Geography show. "His works may draw on aspects of African American experience, but they are based on universal human values." The Lewis Museum recently acquired one of Cornish's pieces for its permanent collection.
Cornish also created a glass mosaic for the Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel. The finished piece, "Downtown Rain," measures 80" (high) by 120" (long) and hangs near a second floor window overlooking Paca Street. "Reaction to it has been spectacularly positive," says Susan Perrin, the art consultant on the Hilton project. "The piece is dazzling and reflects Loring's world view—he's so positive and engaged in life. We wanted truly engaging artistic expressions, and Loring's artwork fit that exactly."
An exhibit of Cornish's latest work, much of it inspired by civil rights struggles, can be seen this month at Morgan State. Pre-Inaugural America: Jews and Blacks Ascending opens January 17, at Morgan's Schaefer Building.
"I never even thought that some day my art would be in hotels and museums," says Cornish. "All I really wanted to do was worship God freely."
He recalls scripture that has helped him through hard times: "It says, 'Your gifts will make room for you.' What that means to me is that regardless of the bad times, your gifts will create the ways and means that you need to survive. You may lose some things. You may not have a phone or a car. You may not have all the luxuries of life. You may not have the blue shirt and the red. You may just have the blue. But I believe if you stick with your gift, no matter how hard it is, eventually it will come to fruition.
"Now what about all those artists who died poor? I don't know about that," he says, laughing. "But I'm holding fast to that scripture."