Margaret Morrison traces her love of painting back to a childhood of visiting museums with her family--decades later, she still has vivid memories of standing in front of a Dutch still life and vowing to learn the techniques behind bringing drops of water and luminous reflections to life on canvas. A professor at the University of Georgia, Margaret continues to keep her art and her family life happily intertwined: she and her husband, a fellow UGA professor, teach chemistry through art in a course that they developed together. Agave Magazine is proud to feature her painting, Both Ways: Drive Home in Vol. 3, Issue 2, and thrilled to speak to this overwhelmingly talented artist about her still-lifes, her departures from them, and her incredibly fulfilling artistic journey.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: Your recent works are meditations on the zenlike aspects of driving and that point just beyond the horizon. How much time do you spend in your car, and what ideas do you tend to contemplate while you're behind the wheel?
MARGARET MORRISON: These little meditative paintings were a departure for me, a returning homeward, literally and figuratively. My parents had always been the center of the family solar system, with a gravitational pull so strong that my sisters and I orbited around them. As my parents reached their nineties, their health declined rapidly. It's funny, but we all thought they were immortal. My father passed away in 2013 after a brief illness and not long after, my mother’s health began to fail and she passed away the following year. During those two years, I made the cross-country drive a number of times from Georgia to Utah. I felt compelled to say goodbye to my parents and to spend whatever time they had left with them. Over hundreds of miles, I had the time to meditate and reflect, to rehearse all my memories. I suppose you could call it a melancholy life review. As I traveled, I found a profoundly rich, yet bittersweet closure.
Your series have examined everything from the glistening comfort of sweets to child's play that reflects an adult world to your extensive travels as a child. Have you already had any thoughts about the next theme you'd like to investigate in your work?
Right now, I am almost finished painting an enormous six-foot high, eight-foot wide still life jammed with dozens of sterling silver objects from the famous antique market in Arezzo, Italy. Gorgeous, super shiny silver bowls, pitchers, and candelabras are packed so tightly together that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The reflections are fascinating to paint! Not only are all the objects reflecting each other, but they reflect the cityscape, sky and people too. It’s like working on a five thousand piece jigsaw puzzle and is, quite likely, the most complex and challenging painting that I’ve ever attempted. I’m planning to build my new body of work on more of this subject matter: reflections, transparency, eye-popping highlights tied up in a dense tapestry of “bling.”
Painting realistic reflective and transparent surfaces is a major analytical challenge, and one that you seem to take on with aplomb. What do you enjoy about this aspect of your work?
Oh my goodness, I LOVE painting bling! It’s the greatest logic puzzle I can possibly imagine and I’m absolutely addicted to it. And yes, it is very much an analytical challenge, but so very satisfying when I get my head wrapped around it. I love it when people ask me how in the world I paint glass. “Is there a particular kind of paint you use?” The answer is no, there is no tube of paint out there that says “glass” on it. I explain that I don’t paint the glass, I paint the distortions that I see through the glass and then it materializes on its own… like magic. As I’m working, I’m completely absorbed in creating a lush, juicy surface using plenty of wet oil paint. I work with a sense of immediacy so that I can lay down a particular field of color and then start pumping more paint right onto of the surface of the painting. I’d say that most of the color mixing in my paintings happens on the canvas rather than the palette. I work from general to specific, dark up to light. I think of the highlights as the frosting on the cake.
How long does it take you to complete a painting?
Truth be told, I’m actually a pretty fast painter. I’ve got a lot of pent-up energy and I throw the paint down as quickly as I can before my ideas evaporate. Nothing shuts me down faster than a pristine, white canvas, so I cover the entire canvas with paint right away. It helps me to see if the piece is holding together from the start and establishes a visual language that I can hang the rest of the painting on. For me, starting a painting is much more challenging than finishing a painting. Often I’ll juggle several paintings simultaneously in various stages of completion because, once my ideas are fleshed out, I can set them aside and come back to them later with renewed energy. I’ve found that if I’m working on one painting at a time, I run the risk of getting bored or overworking it. I also prefer to paint while standing up because it allows me the freedom to pace around and to step back to check the “gestalt.” I probably log a few miles a day just pacing up and back as I paint. One painting that I remember coming together faster than any other was Candy Apples. At the time, I had been working hard on a body of paintings for my Larger Than Life exhibition at the Woodward Gallery in NYC. The week before shipping my paintings to the gallery, I decided that I just HAD to paint ONE more for the show. I had so much built up angst that I started and finished that massive painting in three days.
What has been the most valuable thing you've discovered through your art so far?
This whole journey of mine has one of deep satisfaction and joy. I’ve seen all my dreams as an artist and a mother come to fruition. Years ago, as a newly married couple, Richard and I flew to Chicago to see a John Singer Sargent exhibition. One early evening, while strolling through the campus at Northwestern, we chatted about our respective “bucket lists.” We both dared to dream of being old college professors teaching at the same university and laughing at the improbability of it. As we walked, I clearly remember seeing a row of glass front galleries on the next street over. And as the sun went down, and the lights came up, I could see an art opening going on in one of them. People were crowded into that little space with glasses in their hands, deep in conversation with track lights sparkling. I remember a twinge of longing, wondering if someday I might have a opening just like this, filled with people who had come to see my paintings on the wall. Now in hindsight, what I thought was unimaginable all those years ago has come to pass for me. Not only have I seen my dreams become reality, but I’ve been able to include and share them with my husband and children. As a mother, the first time I held a newborn in my arms, I experienced the ultimate expression of the sublime. My work has become my vehicle for channeling and expressing this sublimity.