Spirited #3 [Archive: Museum of Innocents]Interview with Heather Morgan
by Amanda Dugay Forrester
Once in a great while I see a gal at a party I must get introduced to. Sometimes she’s the loud one, or the one hogging the karaoke mic. Sometimes she’s the mysterious one wearing a costume and flirting with all the boys. This time she was the one I heard was wild and silly and a fantastic New York City girl who paints. Heather Morgan’s work is stark and seductive, her subjects reek of sensuality yet somehow also of innocence, and are often as she puts it “in the midst of a manic celebration– in the face of death.” Isn’t that what we’re all doing, both inside and outside of art—celebrating the mere fact we are still breathing and able to celebrate both life’s decadences and miseries? I had the distinct privilege to sit down with Ms. Morgan and pick her brain about her life and work.
A. I’d love to hear a bit about your background and your childhood.
H. I moved around a lot as a kid, finally settling in Jersey City. I struggled with isolation because my parents were very strict and frankly, very cruel. I lived very much inside my own head since I was often retreating internally from miserable circumstances.
A. Do you think the suffering and isolation you felt back then finds it way into your work?
H. That kind of upbringing definitely informs my work. I am very much interested in how struggle empowers us, and how our frailties make us beautiful.
A. Did you always love art when you were a kid? What did you want to be when you ‘grew up?’
H. I loved to draw when I was a kid. I had a distinct fantasy about life as a painter, a painter as one who could weave something compelling out of suffering. I did not have a particular vocation in mind, but I wanted to use my brains to escape and achieve brilliance at something. I focused in school on the sciences and dreamt of carrying my teddy bear around at Oxford like Lord Sebastian Flyte in “Brideshead Revisited.”
A. What were you like back then? What were your interests? Are any of them still the same?
H. I was a pretty moody kid. Sometimes I would scream and pound my head in the floor because I could not understand the sadness I felt. My favorite things were playing with Barbie, roller-skating, and reading voraciously. I still love to read and to shape-shift my identity through fashion, but I’m afraid roller-skating has fallen by the wayside.
What do you think led you to painting? Have you worked in other mediums?
H. I wanted to study painting because of romantic ideas about the life of a painter– swanning around the city drunk, with prostitutes and various miscreants, creating myself, being independent. Things that I think bear a very indirect relationship to the actual practice of painting. I also enjoy writing a great deal, and have done some photography and acting. I love collaborating with artists in all areas.
A. I get struck by just how frail many of the subjects in your paintings seem, and yet there is this fire in their eyes too—this fierceness or power. I love that contrast. What would you say are the underlying themes of your work?
H. My work depicts mainly women in the performance of their identity, their gender. They are in the midst of a manic celebration in the face of death, the essential dilemma of living as conscious, existence-craving beings.
A. So, painting is what gets you out of bed in the morning?
H. I have a very hard time getting out of bed in the morning. I have a terrible habit of at first cursing the day before properly seizing it.
A. I’m the same way. I bet it’s because we stay up way too late wandering the streets! Ha. What do you think your art does for you?
H. I began studying and practicing art as a way to feel as though I had something worth living for. It still works, so I am very dedicated to it. Art making offers much more to me now than just a lifeline, it is the language for creating and reinventing myself.
A. How would you describe your paintings to someone who was blind?
H. I would punch them in the face and then try to make out with them. But that would be very, very wrong.
A. What is your take on or your relationship with color? I am in love with the bold colors in your paintings, especially all the reds and pinks.
H. I look for color everywhere and exaggerate it. I operate most fluently in the warm range, with pinks and reds and yellows all setting a scene of ardor and defiance.
A. I find your paintings to be sexy and yet somewhat disturbing at the same time. Would you agree?
H. My work can be appreciated as sexy. I find beauty to be no small feat. But more than a momentary glance will tell you that a dark heart beats within, that these figures are rather deranged, icons that embody struggle.
A. Also, I notice you paint mostly women, did that start intentionally or did it evolve from something else?
H. I am interested in embodying the most appealing qualities of both genders- beauty, strength and frailty. I often imbue my female figures with characteristics seen as typically masculine, even if they retain a feminine appearance. The men I paint tend to be somewhat androgynous. I am interested in how we perform the perceptions of who we are, including our genders. I think I mainly paint women because I happen to be one.
I heard through the grapevine that once upon a time you lived in Germany. What was that like? Did that experience find its way into your paintings?
I lived in Berlin for four years after finishing grad school. This was before the Euro was built, and before the art scene was so red hot there. I was there to learn German and live in a squat in the former East. My work there portrayed the life of a young Berliner, as hip and damaged as the city itself.
Are there any places you’d like to travel to that you haven’t visited yet?
I really want to go to Asia: Japan, China, and India. This gives me a heavy heart in light of all the devastation in Japan.
Tell me about your typical day in the studio. How often do you go there? How about a typical day when you aren’t working on art? What’s your life in NYC like?
I work in an office during the day. I go straight to the studio in the evenings, stopping for some cheap food on the way. I stay there until about 10 or 11. If I don’t get in there at least three nights in the week, I come in on the weekend as well. I am lured away from the studio some evenings by art openings, rock shows, and occasional fancy dinners. I hope I am living the art life, running around in crazy outfits and hairdos to parties and openings, biking at 4am in stupid shoes when no one else is around, dragging myself out of bed anyway for photo shoots and studio time.
Can you name some of the artists you admire or ones who have influenced your work?
It is pretty evident from my work that I have looked a lot at the German Expressionists (Otto Dix and Max Beckmann) and also Alice Neel and John Currin. But today I find I am most influenced by the music I am listening to, as well as my collaborations with friends.
How about naming some films/bands/writers who inspire you or whom you just adore?
I am inspired by David Bowie, Jim Jarmusch, and Jarvis Cocker. I love Oscar Wilde, Baudelaire, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. I love Morrissey and the Arcade Fire. Dorothy Parker and Jane Austen.
Can you tell me about the nun paintings? They’re my favorites I think.
I am fascinated by the habit. There is a curious effect achieved by masking some portion of the body, and highlighting others. The starkness and graphical quality of the black and white adds another visual layer. I was not raised with any religion so I look at the habit purely visually, mysterious and with erotic potential. This is why I painted half dressed “nuns”. I also enjoy subverting religious symbolism, turning an icon of repression into an object of freedom of sexual enjoyment.
You’re very much into fashion, as evidenced by the many photos I’ve seen of you– do you find your art affects your fashion choices or vice versa?
Both. Sometimes I am keying the scenes in the paintings to something I am interested in, and sometimes I am following them.
When are you wild and when are you calm and focused?
I am always calm and focused when I am working, though I can sometimes be giddy late at night. Wildness is saved for the streets and bars and living rooms.
What did you learn in the last 10 years of your life, you only could have learned during that time?
In the last ten years I have perceived time moving more rapidly, as each day becomes a smaller portion of the whole. This has taught me to view my crises as temporary, my troubles not insurmountable. It is still hard for me to see this at times, but it was absolutely impossible when I was younger and every moment comprised the whole world to me.
Where do you hope to be in the next decade?
I am doing everything I want to be doing in life, though I would like to work less and travel more, ideally. So, I really just hope for dull things like more money and fewer worries.
Lastly, what is it you hope people will get from your work?
I desire my work to provide an experience of the beauty and terror of existence. This should be ultimately uplifting.
Thank you Heather, you are awesome. I am so glad we got to discuss your beautiful paintings in more detail.
Thanks darling, you are welcome in my studio any time!