Artist Interview with Distinctly Montana
Barbara Morrison graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Mexico and received her Teacher Certification from Rocky Mountain College, Billings. She is married with four children. She started with textile art—embroidery that included hand-sculpted clay pieces, then moved onto doll making. Her dolls were featured in Contemporary Doll Magazine for a series of fantasy dolls based on commedia dell’arte figures as well as an article about her Day of the Dead figures. All along she painted in gouache (opaque watercolor). Her work is published in two books on Polymer Clay Designs. In 2015, TOSCA Magazine named her Montana Artist of the Year.
Her gallery affiliations include the Toucan Gallery in Billings and the Montana Gallery 709 in Missoula. She has shown around the country, plus Belgium.
Let’s start with “now.” What are you exploring in your art these days?
I’ve been playing for the last few years with adding encaustic to some of my small gouache paintings, and this summer I’m working on some very tiny delicate paintings, almost like illuminations, on vellum, featuring Montana wildlife and flowers. I just started to have some of my designs made as a greeting cards, and I have a children’s book in mind.
Naif, as you describe your work, is art that is free of convention and has been described as painting with your soul, not your brain. Rousseau comes to mind. Tell us more about this approach, and why you have chosen it as a means of expression.
The simplicity, playfulness, and clarity of Naïf art have always attracted me, and I started working with gouache because I like the flat, velvety look of the surface. I connected to other naif artists from around the world a few years ago, and it has been very inspiring to see work in this style from other countries, and to be included in some shows in Europe last year. The genre has its roots in folk art, which I love, and while there are many deservedly famous naïf artists (Rousseau, Grandma Moses, Mattie Lou O’Kelly to name a few), it remains a style that is understandable and accessible to everyone.
One distinctive element of your work is your choice of bright colors. Why do you think you are drawn to them?
Color has always been a visceral source inspiration for me. I like strong bright colors that clash and enhance each other. It’s very ingrained and intuitive in me.
Your parents were both artists of a sort. What was their lasting influence?
I grew up in a family where we made things all the time. My father was a painter, calligrapher, and printmaker, and a wonderful teacher. He always encouraged me to learn how to use tools, run a printing press, and participate in any projects that he had going. My mother was an amazing knitter and spinner who loved natural dyes. She was named one of Montana’s Living Treasures for her skills. Although I never learned to knit very well, she did pass on to me her love of textiles.
What have been the most inspirational occurrences in your life as an artist?
I have four wonderful children, and the years that I spent doing art during their childhoods were formative. I learned to use whatever bits of time I had free to work, and to fit whatever I was making into odd corners of the house. Also they were lots of fun to do art with. Since they grew up, my husband has started to work overseas, and we have lived in China for several years, and spent time in Hungary and Vietnam. The folk art of those countries is fascinating, and I have tried to learn everything I could about the local traditional crafts in the countries we have stayed in, and I have been so inspired by those, especially as many of those crafts are disappearing quickly in the modern world.
Your approach to painting has taken you into different directions…masks, sculptures, dolls, even hats. How do you explain the connection and your interest in these different art forms?
Making dolls for my children started me in the direction of making figures, which developed into the small sculptures that I make using beads, fabric, wood, and found objects, then adding environments around the figures, and also into making tiny dolls to use as jewelry and decorations. The idea of making masks came from a benefit auction in Missoula some years ago, called The Bra Show, in aid of breast cancer research. Artists were asked to make or decorate a bra to be auctioned, and I made a mask with a beach scene featuring a tiny doll in a bikini, and another mask with ladies in corsets and bullet bras. Then I started making masks with all kinds of scenes and different characters on them, and then masks that are personifications of nature. Not sure where they’re going—I made one recently with snakes growing out of the mouth.
Describe your creative process and work during a typical day at the easel or workbench.
Sometimes my ideas come from things I read about. I’m a huge fan of the library as a way to feed my book addiction without going bankrupt, but there are interesting things everywhere: farmers’ markets, train stations, houses, any place where there is color and activity. I keep a sketchbook of things that I would like to paint or make. Every day, I do errands, appointments, etc., before noon, then I work all afternoon. Since I work at home, and I really need to be alone to be productive, I’ve learned to be territorial about my time, or it dissipates quickly. I work in spurts, doing a bunch of one kind of thing, four or five paintings, for instance and then some small sculptures or a series of jewelry or masks. One idea seems to lead on to another. I usually have several different paintings or sculptures in process at one time, and change from one to the next. When I finish them all, I change focus.
And away from the easel? What else brings joy to your life?
I love to read, garden, travel, and I really like fixing things, also sewing and doing obscure textile crafts.
Barbara L. Morrison
Missoula, Montana 59804
Email: [email protected]