Many fans of celebrated author and social critic Toni Morrison, who died on Monday at age 88 from complications of pneumonia, consider her passing a substantial loss. Baltimore artist Ernest Shaw Jr. isn’t one of them.
“I consider it an acquiring of an ancestor,” he said Wednesday — his own 50th birthday. “She’s now doing the work that needs to be done with the other side. There’s no death in dying. She’s just transitioned to another round.”
Shaw said this while standing adjacent to a new mural he created in tribute to Morrison the previous day. It occupies a wall in Graffiti Alley by the back entrance to Motor House, the Station North arts center where Shaw works as senior artist-in-residence.
The West Baltimore native recounted finding out about Morrison’s death Tuesday, while listening to WEAA. He felt moved enough by the news to, without any prior plans, create the mural. It features the “Beloved” author’s face next to maroon text that reads “FOR: TONI M." The whole process, which fellow artist Charles Mason III documented on Shaw’s Instagram, lasted from about 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
“This is my way of pouring libations,” he said, referencing a ritual that many cultures, including those of the African diaspora, perform to honor ancestors.
Shaw honored another ancestor and inspirational artist, author James Baldwin (whose eulogy Morrison wrote), in “Testify!," his exhibit now on display at Motor House. He said that the three constituent projects within “Testify!” relate to several aspects of Morrison’s own writing.
“Her work touches on each of those projects: talking about the dehumanization of black men and boys, sexual assault and abuse of black girls, and specifically, blackness, manhood and black masculinity,” he said.
Shaw also noted that Morrison’s words and public commentary influenced his personal and creative growth, especially over the last five years. He referenced her exploration of the “white gaze,” the idea that the person looking at a piece of art is presumed to be white and what that means for the creator.
“Once she became aware of the white gaze, and learned how to write and create with no regard for the white gaze, [it eventually had] no influence on her creative process as a woman of color,” he said.
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Morrison’s previous commentary on Baltimore includes a 2015 appearance on “Charlie Rose,” in which she discussed black communities’ responses to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and similar events. She also praised author Ta-Nehisi Coates for fulfilling Baldwin’s literary legacy. Shaw said that this endorsement meant a lot to him as a fellow West Baltimorean whose work highlights black identity.
Shaw held no illusions about the possibility that his mural, per the culture of Graffiti Alley, will be painted over or tagged. This realization didn’t bother him, he said, as the work served a much larger function.
“This is my ode to her, to help her maybe, potentially, usher her to — or to assist in her having a peaceful and smooth transition to her final destination," he said.