Ernest Shaw heard the news that Toni Morrison had died while he was driving to Station North Arts Café Gallery for breakfast.
“It’s a family atmosphere there, and that’s all everyone was talking about,” Shaw says, noting owner Kevin Brown had founded the James Baldwin Literary Society in Baltimore decades earlier. “As I was listening to the conversation, I started searching images on my phone.”
By afternoon—following a stop for spray paint at nearby Artist & Craftsman Supply—the muralist and longtime city arts teacher found himself in North Howard Street’s Graffiti Alley, putting the finishing touches on a large-scale, pop-up work of Morrison, who won a Pulitzer for her novel Beloved.
By evening, the soulful portrait had gone viral, and Shaw spent the next two days, including his 50th birthday, in the alley-turned-tourist-attraction doing interviews. “I’d found a photo when she was younger I liked initially, but I wanted something instantly recognizable—from the period when she became known to the world,” Shaw says. “I consider [her death] the acquiring of an ancestor. She earned that status. The portrait was my way of asking for permission to move forward.”
Situated behind Motor House—the arts venue where Shaw maintains a studio—Graffiti Alley, as one might anticipate, has a colorful history. Not visible from the street, the L-shaped alley had long been a receptacle for trash, used needles and condoms, and, occasionally, graffiti before artist Sherwin Mark bought the abandoned Lombard Office Furniture building and transformed it into the Load of Fun complex in 2005. (Burlesque star and then-tenant Trixie Little suggested the moniker, pointing out Mark only needed to remove some Lombard Office Furniture lettering.) Taking over in 2015, Motor House’s name pays homage to the city’s first Ford dealership, which predated the furniture store.
Immediately after Load of Fun opened, more graffiti writing began appearing in the alley. Mark appreciated the artwork; City officials did not. He was cited for refusing to cover over the graffiti and eventually a City crew took matters into their own hands with white primer. When racist slogans and gang symbols shot up on the suddenly stark canvas, Mark, with the support of local business owners, convinced officials to allow the graffiti writers to return.
Today, while the penalty in Maryland for graffiti can include a sentence of up to three years and a $2,500 fine, Graffiti Alley remains the one place in the state where the practice is tolerated. Attracting artists on a daily basis, the work in the alley remains almost constantly in flux. In recent years, the space has hosted a chamber music concert, an aerial arts festival, and too many weekend dance parties to count.
It’s by coincidence Shaw’s portrait of Morrison serves as an outdoor extension of his show inside Motor House—Testify! A Life’s Time of Emerging Blackness—which includes paintings of Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Thelonius Monk.
“I’m not used to spraying paint. When I do a mural it’s brushes and rollers, but I can practice here,” Shaw says, gesturing toward the Morrison wall, adding he’s picked up tips from accomplished Baltimore street artists Nether and Gaia.
He notes graffiti writers don’t typically appreciate the realistic portraiture work he does—particularly in a space like Graffiti Alley that they’ve claimed for themselves. “I did a Pablo Picasso that got covered right away,” he says. “Same with a blue-on-black John Coltrane portrait that was framed in a nice spot. Same with a [Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter] Roy Hargrove that I did after he died. That one meant a lot to me, because we were the same age and I’d followed his career. The next day, my signature was crossed out and someone had taken my Roy Hargrove portrait and put a different portrait on top of it.
“What can you do? You get used to it because you have to. Everything in life is changing all the time,” Shaw says, taking a long pause. “But yeah, truth is, I’ve been peeking out of my studio and checking every morning to see if the Toni Morrison portrait is still up.”
Ernest Shaw will host a guided tour of his solo exhibition —“Testify! A Life’s Time of Emerging Blackness”—at the Motor House, 120 W. North Ave., October 16, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.