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From cold police substation to uplifting sign of hope

Dressed in cut-off shorts with Superman boxers peeking out, artist Loring Cornish sat on a plastic pail and attached colorful shards of glass to an old police substation at North Charles and East Lanvale streets.

Before he started work on the structure in the Station North arts district the week before, its steel exterior looked to him drab, cold and menacing, much the way he views the police these days.

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It's now covered in uplifting colors with messages of hope. The street-art project is meant to address police brutality head-on in the wake of the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and other black men around the country.

It's among many message-filled murals, gardens and other projects that have evolved around town in a form of artistic protest and expression.

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In Cornish's project, which he named "Change for the Better," the glass symbolizes a city in shambles. But the bright colors are meant as a sign of hope that the community can come together and rebuild. The word "please" is spelled out several times on all the walls of the building.

"Please is such a warm and pleading word," Cornish said. "I'm pleading with the police to make things better. I don't know what else to do."

In the early aftermath of Gray's death, Loring constructed glass projects on two houses in West Baltimore that reflected the anger he felt at the time. A sign on one likens police brutality to legal lynching and features black dolls hanging from trees.

For the police substation project, Cornish wanted to strike a more conciliatory tone.

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"I wanted it to be hopeful and uplifting about the situation, but yet still strong about the message that police brutality is wrong," said Cornish, the owner of a Fells Point art gallery known for his distinctive glass mosaics.

Cornish received a grant from Station North Arts & Entertainment Inc. to transform the substation. The group has produced temporary installations and performances at the substation since 2013, but said Cornish's creation will be permanent. It should be completed in time for the July 17 start of Artscape, the city's marquee arts festival and celebration.

Station North executive director Ben Stone had admired Cornish's artwork for years and was especially moved by his Freddie Gray-inspired work.

"It was bold. It was uncompromising. It was very emotional and real," Stone said. "It wasn't, 'Let's stop and think this thing through.' It was a visceral reaction to what he was seeing around him."

Stone hopes the project drives people to pay more attention to art that isn't encased in a museum and that it opens up a dialogue about police violence in Baltimore.

"We want to jar people out of their daily routine and pay attention to what is going on around them," Stone said.

As Cornish worked on his project recently, several people stopped to take photos and figure out what was going on. "Beautiful, man," a man dressed in khaki shorts and a burgundy shirt called out as he walked by.

Edwin Zhao, walking from the train station, stopped in his tracks when he saw the colorful glass.

"This is cool," he said.

Cornish doesn't reveal too much about the meaning of what he is doing quite yet. It's still a project in the works. But he hopes it will eventually make a difference.

"There's a broken spirit about Baltimore," he said, "and we have to rebuild it."

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