Interviews By Larry Abbott
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George Morrison
Ojibwe


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LA: Could we begin to by talking about the Red Rock Variation series? You seem to use different techniques.

GM: In order to get a nice variation, I deliberately made an attempt to use all the techniques I picked up through the years in my own painting career, all the tricks of the trade and so on. I painted thick in some, but I painted thin in others. And some of them are almost a one-shot thing where you do it all as one layer of paint, but thick. That's another style. And then another style would be where you're layering it, layer over layer. In some of the paintings there are many layers, maybe two or three or four, up to twenty or so. I wanted to let the other colors show through on even that third and fourth layer, to gain a shimmering or textural effect. I find that to my liking. The texture was a characteristic all during my career, so I really made the attempt to get a variation on the textural effects that were coming through. Some of them were painted somewhat flat, but even the so-called flat ones were done in layers. They were layered over another color, and they appear flat, but they're actually not. Maybe there is very little color coming through from underneath, but it's still there. And then some of the shapes were butted up against each other to also gain that flatness. Some other ones had more subtle edges where the colors are more pastel in tone and lower in value so that they blend into one another.

LA: Do you paint on wood?

GM: All this series were done on canvas scraps that I've had. This is one thing that artists do. They utilize; they don't throw scraps of canvas away. The plywood backing was from a larger plywood piece that was being thrown out. So they're all cut from these various sizes and I adhere the canvas onto the wood and then flatten it out and let it dry. Then I trim the edges, and then just sand that and then trim that again when it's dry. It's all prepared surface. I find that very easy for these little paintings. It was a lot of fun, that whole process from beginning to end. And I had a lot of these things prepared, all in big batches at a time, so I had plenty of small canvas boards that I could work from.

LA: You've written that the Horizon paintings from '93 explore the many moods and colors that come from viewing Lake Superior from your studio window. But then at the same time, you write, "I'm not looking at what is in front of me. I'm a studio painter and I paint what is coming from my head." 1

GM: Right. Well, I mention, too, the so-called spirituality of the landscape there: the water and the air and the atmosphere. All those elements are coming into me from what I see. As I say, I'm not looking at it like I'm painting it. But all of these things are in my mind even though I'm not looking at the lake when I'm painting. I'm looking at the lake at other times, just for the sake of looking at it because it's there. I'm always very conscious and aware of this large body of water, which is like a presence in itself. It is alive and it changes by the hour. Perhaps that very thing has been transplanted into my head, and then I'm transforming that onto the canvas. I think that's the kind of transition or transformation that an artist does -- taking what's in his head and putting it on canvas to create his interpretation of what is there.

LA: That idea of transformation is important to you. You've transformed objects like metal forms and wooden gears. Could you talk about how the Solar Form and the small Steel Form pieces came about?

GM: It's kind of hard to explain it in the spoken word. The steel pieces were from dies that came from a friend's studio. He lived in an old textile mill and he took over a floor in the building and all of these remnants of the textile manufacturer were there, including the wooden gears and the dies that were used to stamp out the leather, I think, in this case. And these dies were like cookie cutters that had nice shapes to them and that appealed to me; just the idea of the object itself appealed to me. I had them lying around in my studio for a long time before I suddenly had the notion to cover both ends and then extend that form into a totem. And when I placed the smaller part on top of the one that I had made specially to fit it, it became a totem. And I like that whole idea of the transformation of a found piece which then becomes, in the end, a totem piece.

It was the same with the gear; it was an old wooden gear that they used in the early 1900's to do whatever they were doing with their textiles. And the gears were all oily and so on, but I liked the shape of them and some were half gears and some were whole gears with holes in them. The ones with the holes were about 9 inches in diameter with a 3-inch hole, and about 3 to 5 inches thick. That gave me the idea of some of the solar wheels that were reminiscent of the Mayans in Central America. I think some of their calendars were made out of stone engraved with their hieroglyphics. That reminded me of a kind of solar wheel, so that's how my piece got that title.

LA: The figure of the totem is an important part of your work and appears in different sizes, shapes and materials. Some are quite tall, fifteen feet and more. And then you have one that's in steel, very small, maybe 8 inches high, that replicates the same design that's in the bigger piece. Could you talk about the beginning of your interest in the totem figure and how you've tried to adapt it?

GM: My first three-dimensional piece was a result of an invitation to be in a Native American show in Chicago in 1977 or '78. Evan Maurer was then a curator at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and he invited some contemporary Native Americans, including myself, to submit whatever we wanted for that show. It was a major show of old and new art. This gave me the opportunity to do my first totem. I wanted to do a totem -- my version of a totem. Certainly the inspiration comes from many sources. The most common one is the big carved cedar poles from the Northwest Coast area. Mine were not images derived from human heads and animals and so on, but were more of an abstract version of a carved totem. Only mine were not carved; they were abstract or constructed as kind of shapes put on a plywood core. They were like mosaics, put together to give the illusion of being carved or incised. That was my version of a totem pole and I didn't paint them in bright colors at first. I stained the redwood a very, dark, rich earth red to give it an Indian-ness. That's why I gave it that earth red. And also to give it just the mere suggestion of being a pole that would relate indirectly to the big poles of the Northwest Coast. Subsequently, I became more interested in the idea of the "totem" itself, which is a very universal form used by Native peoples from all over the world. I gradually began to be interested in various kinds of totem images. I made smaller versions of my abstract tall totem. I did some out of brass and then I did some more vertical columns within the larger column that were more "constructivist" in their imagery.

I was also inspired by the Australian aboriginal "Chiringa" form which led me to create my own Chiringas. I didn't incorporate their exact form, but I made my own version. I also introduced my signature mark, which is a horizon line at the top, just to give it my "mark," instead of inscribing it with a history as some of the Native people did in Australia. I did the same with the "Linga" forms, which were inspired by the East Indian Linga, which is a sexual term. There was a cult in India that worshipped male and female sexual organs. So the Linga was very obviously a phallic shape. I like the beauty of the shape. I introduced the horizon line at the top. I use exotic woods -- padouk from Brazil or bubinga from Africa, and other foreign and domestic woods, to give a beauty that is very appealing. From my own standpoint, it becomes an art form or art object, or even a sculptural form. The tactile quality of the wood also gives it a certain kind of beauty.

LA: That horizon line figures in all your work, even in the sculptures and the collages. How did that become your mark?

GM: That has become a kind of a signature for me. But in the last twenty years, primarily, it became more obsessive. I've always used the horizon line one way or another because I think it comes from my own image of the lake where I live. I was born and brought up near Lake Superior, which I consider to be like an ocean. So that kind of image remains fixed in my mind. In the early paintings I did when I was in New York City, when I was doing my first serious paintings, I employed things that came from the ocean, like starfish and drift wood, which suggested a beach and water. Except for an abstract period between 1952 and 1972, on the east coast, I returned home to Minnesota and picked it up again by living on or near Lake Superior. Gradually it crept it into my imagery and it became a sort of fixed thing for the small paintings that were the beginning of the Horizon Series in the 80's. Then I also introduced it into my sculptures.

LA: You seem to have two ways of approaching your work. One is more spontaneous or organic, like in the big piece called Collage that's in the MIA. But other pieces you do are much more formal and planned out. Do you have that kind of two-sided approach?

GM: Yes. I sort of played out the big found and prepared wood collages after doing them for twenty years. I did a whole series of those and I got into some museum and many private and corporate collections here in the Minnesota area. So that gradually faded out and I stopped doing them. But I want to come back to do some more. I've gotten some commissions in recent years for some smaller ones, and they're ongoing now at my studio in Grand Portage [Minnesota]. But those collages are changing now, too. They're becoming more formal. I'm also employing newer wood and using shapes that are formally cut out and that would juxtapose against some of the found pieces. I'm using a combination of both and they contrast very nicely. I think that's going to work out. That'll be another kind of a twist for some of the collages, using both older, found wood and prepared new wood.

LA: You've created three coffee tables using structured patterns of different kinds and colors of wood. Did you plan the design of those?

GM: Yes. The tables are more formal and I plan them on paper. I'm fortunate to have assistants now who do things for me. I've been doing the cubes, too, with the same idea. They're mosaic kind of formal shapes that are glued over a core. And it's all natural and exotic wood. The woods I use for the cubes make a nice, beautiful contrast so the whole thing becomes an art object, or what I call a sculptural object. It exists for itself.

LA: You're primarily a painter, but could you also be considered a sculptor?

GM: Yes, I think that's okay. But I do feel that I'm primarily a painter. That's how I started out. I think it's safe to say that many painters are going into three-dimensional work and vice versa.

LA: Recently, you've been creating what you're calling "magic boxes." Could you talk a little bit about how those came about?

GM: Well, an artist, Maria Mazzora, gave me what she calls her magic containers, which are slabs of clay that are rolled on a table with a rolling pin. She stains the colors in certain ways and uses raku firing. She rolls out these slabs like a piece of pie dough, very much similar to rolling out a kind of a irregular roundish shape that could be like the bottom part of a pie. She'd also cut out little hearts and then put them on top of the slab and then folded them over four times with the hearts inside. And then she'd use very low-temperature firing. So they're fragile. She gave me one several years ago as a gift and it was a very nice piece, terra cotta in this case. I had that around sitting in my studio for several years. And I finally got the idea that maybe I'd like to make some kind of magic containers. I made a box and then decided I would engage Maria to make me thirteen more. So I bought fourteen from her of various shapes, roughly the same size with different colors -- dark, nice colors, all with the hearts inside and so on. I based my boxes on her sizes, and made my boxes so hers could fit into mine. Then I drilled a hole on the bottom of my box and I put my own so-called magic in that hole and then I sealed it up. So my box became a magic box and the whole thing was a magic container within a magic container. And I've talked about these kind of boxes to various people and I like to look on these as very special kinds of boxes that let you relate to the very idea of magic itself. Maybe it can be a so-called magic box that you can put on your mantle, like someone would put a horseshoe over the door, or to gain a certain kind of a wish . . . it has many connotations. Certainly my own definition of magic comes in different ways through my own spiritual beliefs. So I do regard these as a very special kind of magic coming from me and from Maria and, therefore, the box becomes a simple box which can be regarded as a very special object. Not specifically a sculptural object because it's a very simple box, but one has to regard the contents and what it means. I still have all my boxes, and I don't know if I'll ever sell any, although I've had them in shows and they are for sale and maybe, hopefully, someone will buy one and have that kind of reference for that piece of work. So it's a magical box but at the same time it's a sculptural box and a piece of art.

LA: Do you approach your work in a spiritual way?

GM: More so in recent years. It's starting to come more and more into my work. I have some work by Frank LaPena, and he is a very spiritual man in his own sense. He sings and dances and he's into his people, his own tribe, the Wintu. Much of his imagery comes from his own kind of magic or spirits. They have names that are spirit names, and maybe Frank, in his own way, before a painting is even started, might have a certain kind of a prayer that might go along with it. I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case. To my own mind, that's very good, because it relates to my own kind of interpretation of magic. I think that Frank, by doing what he might do, would give that particular piece a power of its own.

I think that all art from every source has a certain element of magic. I like to feel that every work has that kind of special quality by virtue of the artist doing it in some reverential manner. And I'm preparing myself to try to explain that whole idea. When I say that, more and more of that word "magic" is coming into my own head. It's not like I'm saying that I want to do a magic piece today, but by and large, in the back of my mind, I like to think that way. Even in the Horizon Series there was a certain spirituality coming from the subject matter that somehow is thrown into the work by my head and through my hands, and then the images come and they give forth their own kind of power by what the subject is. Therefore, there is a certain religious element.

LA: Who were some of the artists that you were influenced by earlier in your career, or that you gained something from, either stylistically or visually, or you thought had an interesting look to their work?

GM: When you're a student you have many, many likes, and my own training is basically academic in a way, and then when you're getting into painting, you also have lots of likes. I very quickly I got into so-called contemporary art. My training here at the Minneapolis School of Art was very academic. I got into fine arts and then my dreams began to broaden and then I got thinking of New York and Europe, and I liked the moderns, you know, Picasso and Matisse. I began to like Paul Klee, and people like that. And then it sort of branched out into many other areas: European art and then it broadened some more, to the arts of Central America, the Aztecs and Mayans and to indigenous art from all over the world. So many interests became very broad.

LA: You also studied at the Art Students League in New York. Did you have any mentors that pushed you in one direction or another, or who you drew from?

GM: Well, I had teachers who were primarily American-trained, but I think going to New York opened up other doors. There were European surrealist influences also. Then I got into surrealism, too, and that whole element of abstraction that was coming from Europe at the time I went to New York, right during World War II. So that opened up other doors for me.

LA: Do you feel that the influence of surrealism can be seen in your work today?

GM: Yes. I think that my Horizon paintings are surrealistic, in a way, because they're not literal. There is no evidence of sentiment in a literal sense. There is no literal translation of people, sky or water. Mine are interpretations of sky and land and water and organic elements, but they're translated into so-called contemporary terms, into my sense of surrealism. The landscapes, by definition, are the horizon lines. We only know it's a sky above the horizon line because the sky is above the water line. And the organic constructural elements are being spelled out in color in different ways, thick colors, bright colors and so on. I think it's more surreal than literal or realistic.

NOTES

1 George Morrison, George Morrison: Horizon Series, exhibition

brochure, Dolly Fiterman Fine Arts, 1993, unp.

SELECTED INDIVIDUAL EXHIBITIONS

1995 George Morrison: Recent Acquisitions, The Minnesota Museum of American Art, St. Paul, Minnesota

1993 Johnson Heritage Post Art Gallery, Grand Marais, Minnesota

1993 Horizon Series, Dolly Fiterman Fine Arts, Minneapolis, Minnesota

1992 Drawings and Small Sculpture, Bockley Gallery, Minneapolis, Minnesota

1990 Standing in the Northern Lights, Minnesota Museum of Art, St. Paul, Minnesota

1987 HORIZON: Small Painting Series, 1980-1987, Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota, Duluth, Minnesota

1981 George Morrison: Entries in an Artist's Journal, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota

SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS

1991 Shared Visions, The Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona

1990 Our Land/Ourselves, University Art Gallery, State University of New York, Albany, New York

1981 Magic Images, Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma

BIBLIOGRAPHY

George Morrison (as told to Margot Fortunato Galt), Turning the Feather Around: My Life in Art. Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, MN, 1998.

"George Morrison," in The St. James Guide to Native North American Artists, St. James Press, Detroit, MI, 1997

transcription of recorded remarks in Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the Twentieth Century: Conference, May 8-11, 1991, Phoenix, Arizona: Proceedings, the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona, 1992;

Katherine Van Tassell, "Standing in the Northern Lights," in Standing in the Northern Lights, Minnesota Museum of Art, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1990

Elizabeth Erickson, "An Interview with George Morrison," Artpaper, Summer, 1987

"George Morrison," in This Song Remembers, ed. by Jane Katz, 1980 "Artist's Statement" in The Sweetgrass Lives On, ed. by Jamake Highwater, 1980

Films About: Standing in the Northern Lights, produced by Linda Kuuisto and Daniel Gumnit, Grace Productions, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1991

George Morrison: Indian Artist, KTCA-TV, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1978

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