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Connie Norman

Paul Morris Artist Interview

paulmorisMolto_Caldo_Ewer

Happy New Year!! 

Today’s interview is with Paul Morris he is sculptural ceramicist who is from in Fort Collins, Colorado and teaches at Front Range Community College. My friend Lili Francuz who was the Visual Arts person for the Wyoming Arts Council has had many shows with Paul. I’ve been getting show invitations from Lili with Paul’s ceramics sculptural forms for years. Then one day Paul and I became virtual friends on Facebook, I was pretty excited to see more of his work and get to know him. I love the internet. Ft. Collins is only 40 minutes from my residence in Wyoming. So I know that one day soon we will meet in REAL life. For now enjoy his interview he words and work is pretty fascinating.

Paul’s website: http://paulfmorris.com/

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Tell us a little about yourself!

We are originally from the midwest—the Missouri Ozarks—but my fibers artist wife, Paula Giovanini-Morris, and I have lived in Fort Collins, Colorado for 30 years. We moved to Colorado to be close to the mountains as we both were very involved at the time in alpinism, technical rock and ice climbing as well as backcountry skiing. Over the years I have worked in specialty outdoor retailing and commercial printing to make ends meet. At present I teach all levels of wheel throwing and hand building at Front Range Community College, Larimer Campus in Fort Collins and. My BFA is from Colorado State University with concentrations in pottery and sculpture and my masters degree is from the University of Northern Colorado in visual art, ceramics. Our son, Adam, is also an artist working in painting and relief sculpture and is an exceptionally gifted cook.

How did you become an artist?

My earliest memories of art involved making a pinch pot when I was about four years old. I recall the complete amazement of getting that pot back from the kiln and the magical transformation that had taken place from soft clay to durable, colorful ceramic. As I grew older I would spend many hours drawing and painting, thoroughly enjoying the bliss of being in the moment that such creative activity provides. I learned to throw in high school. After high school, I started a University BFA program in Missouri majoring in painting but dropped out of school foolishly thinking that I could make it as an artist without that degree. Later in Colorado, after realizing my paintings weren’t really all that good, I began to make sculpture by way of collages that morphed into assemblage/relief sculpture. I started to have some shows and sales and I became very serious about sculpture. I decided to return to school and finish my BFA. That program wasn’t quite enough so I went on to earn my graduate degree. In any event, to become an artist I had to persevere over the decades and continue to make art, to engage in art as a practice, and use art as a way of being in the world, of literally making my way in the world.

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How would you describe your style? One of the hardest things for artists to do is to stand apart from everyone else. How long did it take you to come up with your own style and signature look?

My current work is “sculptural pottery,” making ceramic pieces that are premised on historical pouring vessels, that is, ewers. My pieces can hold liquids, they do pour (some better than others), and have all the parts of such a category of pottery: spouts, filling funnels, handles, belly volumes and the like. But unlike strictly utilitarian wares made for such ordinary purposes, my pots are generally much larger than one user could comfortably manage. Therefore these pieces become about pouring, and the implications of pouring as a social, possibly even ritual, transaction/interaction. Too, the surfaces of my pieces are much more visceral, more obsessively textural than any “useful” pot would have. Another aspect of the work that imbues meaning are the titles of these ewers. Titles become like a caption for the experience of each piece. I try very hard to make work that is visually interesting, emotionally exciting, actively resonant, physically palpable, intellectually provocative, consistent with the long art history of pottery/ceramics while being suitably relevant to the human experience of our time. This body of work was incipient in the early to mid 1990s with some tall pouring pieces that I had made, but really didn’t start rolling out in earnest until the early 2000s.

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What is your inspiration for your pieces?

Formally, I am attracted to robust, natural shapes that we associate with plenty and sustenance: eggs, melons and gourds, ripe fruit, full pregnant bellies, shapely breasts, rounds of cheese and the like. These full shapes when hollow become strongly volumetric in their presence. The formal attributes of curvilinear things are also a huge turn on: chaotic tangled roots, the eroded sweep and visual flow of cross bedded slickrock, meandering rivers, traces of a receding tide on the beach, the taper and writhe of tentacles, the elegance of a beautiful head of wavy hair. Colors that I gravitate toward tend to be very saturated: the interior of hot kilns, neon lights and contemporary media, red roses, chile peppers, the rich blue of the sky at 35,000 feet, and so on. Conceptually, I am intrigued by a number of paired ideas that my work serves to explore: surface and shape, inside and outside, positive space and negative space; filling and emptying, giving and receiving, containing and dispensing, communication and understanding, presence and absence; male and female, touching and being touched, seeing and being seen, imposing and deferring, resisting and yielding, creation and destruction, etc. My most recent works are influenced by Art historical references that include horror vacui surfaces (Shang Chinese bronzes, Islamic tile work, Geometric Greek pots, for example) Eastern tradition ewers (vessels that have separate openings for filling and pouring,) and Japanese Dragonware with moriage decoration.

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What keeps you motivated?

It is always wonderfully motivating to have the work well received by audiences, but that alone isn’t a recipe for a continual, sustained, lifelong effort. For that sort of motivation I have to look within. The excitement, the expressive anticipation that is present during the hard work of making is so rewarding that it keeps me coming back for more. With the completion of each piece I feel a renewed desire to make the next one better and more aesthetically, expressively effective than the one just finished. Ultimately, I suppose the best motivator is my certain death, that sober realization that my life will be over one day and I have no other honest choice than to make every minute count in the interim.

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Are you a full-time artist? How do you come up with your creations? Can you walk us through your creative process when dreaming up new pieces?

I am a full time studio artist that teaches ceramics when college is in session. Over the years I have filled many sketchbooks with drawings of possible configurations, so I am never at a loss for what to make next. I simply don’t suffer creative blocks because a quick look through my sketches will always turn up a new twist on the old theme right away. Repetition with variation is a design strategy that has worked well for artists for centuries in individual compositions. This same principle has worked for me as a way to develop the serial body of work that I am becoming known for. The fact that my work is generally premised on the same general ewer form is kept fresh by the structural variations and revised surface treatments that are rendered with each successive piece in the series. The only arbitrary parameters I have to take into account are the interior dimensions of my kilns and the expressive limitations of pottery as an art vernacular. Everything else is open for exploration. The basic 3D shapes I use to configure my ewers are the cone, the cylinder, and the sphere or semi-sphere. I use plaster press molds to make some shapes, but may throw a part if a more specific shape is needed. I drape clay over paper covered traffic cones, and wrap slabs around paper covered dowels or tapered mandrel shapes for spouts and handles. Each of these basic parts can be modified from their severest geometric presence by distorting, bending, twisting or otherwise darting the part to become more biomorphic in shape. All of these pieces are then assembled from the tabletop up using a heuristic (as Philip Rawson describes) of “juxtaposed shapes with overlapping volumes.” I rely heavily on visual feedback as the works progress, very rarely following the source drawings for long, but only as a rough guide at the beginning. The work soon takes on a life of its own independent of the drawing. Gravity becomes the standard by which the work literally stands or falls, on the tabletop or later in the kiln. I bisque fire once I have enough stable greenware to fill a kiln. I usually have three or four things going at a time and will alternatively build, dry, glaze or fire pieces as the need arises and to keep me fresh for all the tasks that need to be done. When it comes to surfaces and glazing, I also rely on visual feedback, evaluating what has or has not been achieved in an open ended succession of layered glaze/slip applications with subsequent firings, repeated until I have taken the work to a satisfactory stopping point. Sometimes that end is elusive. The work may have to sit in the studio for a week or month or three before I know that it is in fact finished. If it isn’t as good as it gets after all that evaluation time it receives another round of layer of glaze and a trip back to the kiln.

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What was it that made you want to start creating? Did something specific trigger it?

There is nothing that has been as satisfying and life affirming to me as making art. I certainly have tried other ways of being in the world, in the past by foolishly trying to meet other people’s expectations for who or what they thought I should be, with limited or non-existent success. It was when I finally gave in to this calling, this yearning, the itching, the passion to make art that things finally came together. There were specific events that were memorable about the experience of art, like seeing a certain painting and thinking, I want to do something like that or a specific sculpture and feeling compelled to make something sculptural. In general it has been for me a long process of awakening to the fact that I, at my core, needed to make, that I am destined, that I have no other choice but to create art.

paulmorrisFurbastro_Ewer_(Arancio_e_Rosso)

What or who inspires you?

Travel is getting to be a bigger part of our lives as it makes it possible to witness so much great art in person. It is one thing to look at images of artwork in a book, but those pictures are not even close in impact as seeing those actual pieces a few inches or feet away. Collections of great art always serves as the standard to which I aspire to achieve in my own art, of making work that can stand alongside those time tested pieces and hold its own. There are a few artists, a few works that seem to resurface frequently in my imagination. Examples include the mannerist tour de force, Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time in the London’s National Gallery; Giorgione’s mysterious The Tempest, in Venice’s Academia; the works of Philip Taaffe; the installations of Judy Pfaff; Kiki Smith sculptures; and fiber works by Lissa Hunter. We have been fortunate to have been able to collect some wonderful pieces over the years for our personal collection, artworks to live with day in and day out. I have great, outstanding artists friends and their work and life stories are always inspirational. My immediate family are all artists and their critical takes on my work is very valuable. Certainly my students inspire me as I watch them grow as artists and they begin to achieve great things in their own work.

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How do you maintain a healthy work and life balance?

Clay work is a physically demanding activity. I mix my own clay bodies so moving bags of raw materials and hundred pound buckets of mixed clay every few months is an occasional although strenuous work out. I don’t have a pugmill so I wedge all my clay by hand. That is a bit more frequent than mixing clay, but not particularly aerobic as I pay close attention to good biomechanics in that task. I therefore try to exercise several times a week, daily when school isn’t in session, by either riding my bicycle or running. The benefits of aerobic exercise are many: it keeps me in reasonably good physical shape, gives me time to unwind outside in fresh air, and provides a time to think about events and circumstances in my life. I enjoy reading. As previously mentioned, I love to travel and Paula and I try to go abroad as often as possible. Getting away from home is so refreshing and is a welcome opportunity to see great art, and experience other peoples and cultures. We try to eat healthy foods and we garden in season. I really try to get enough sleep, although sometimes deadlines make it tough to do. Another bonus of plenty of sleep is the problem solving that can happen in dreams. The other thing we do that helps greatly in keeping things in balance and our lives focused is to ignore the telephone.

paulmorrisPerle_Sul_Porco_(Ewer)_2

You, like most people enjoy the process of making and crafting and didn’t get into it for the sake of “business”. But eventually you found yourself having to make the transition from crafter to a businessperson. What have you learned so far and what advice can you give others in the same situation?

I have never considered myself a “crafter” but an artist that happens to work primarily in the “craft” medium of clay. Craft is the nuts and bolts of making, the way to form these expression laden objects we call art. Howard Risatti’s thesis not withstanding, it is an arbitrary distinction to separate art from craft. They are simply aspects, character traits of the same one thing. That having been said, I have learned the necessity of an all business approach to promoting my work. It all starts with making the best work possible, where every detail is attended to and nothing really is left to chance. An investment needs to be made, both in time and money, to get the work seen. Studio production need to be documented with photography, making the very best images possible and adaptable to many uses which include websites, printed materials in a variety of sizes, portfolios, low resolution thumbnails for indexes, etc. You may have to buy a better camera as well as Photoshop and learn how to use both tools effectively and intelligently. That investment may include filling out entry forms and paying fees for shows, or compiling portfolios to be distributed to gallerists. It could be developing your website. I certainly entails preparing packages and paying for work to be shipped, or even schlepping your work around the country to venues where it can be shown. It might mean being interviewed with some tough questions and you having to think very hard about your answers. The list goes on and on. Without that considerable effort, and taking that effort as seriously as making the work in the first place, few will ever see your achievements, will ever get the chance to appreciate (or pan, even hate, for that matter) what you have devoted your life to as an artist. Plan on doing about an hour of promotion time for every hour spent in the studio making work. I suppose that once you are rich and famous enough to afford a publicist and accountant you can spend more time in the studio.

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What advice can you give aspiring artists struggling to find their own voice and look?

Preparation is first and foremost. The Arts are categorized as the Humanities for a reason. I believe that you need to become like a sponge and take in everything in life that provides insight to the meaning of being human. An exceptionally good way to accelerate that process is to get the best liberal arts education you can. Read the classics. Study the history of art in general and specifically the very rich art history of ceramics. Fill your memory with those resources from past and present so that they can be called up as guides when you need to solve problems. Along the way you are bound to find something you can be, or maybe rediscover what you already are passionate about. Expect to invest a considerable amount of time and energy practicing your art. There are no short cuts to doing the work and putting in the time. Since mediocrity initially feels safe and comfortable, expect and welcome spectacular failures because you will have a harder time recognizing real achievement without them. Develop a very thick skin and pay attention to ruthlessly honest criticism of mentors worthy of your respect. At the same time, forget about the uninformed comments of fools. Master the techniques necessary to craft your pieces, but don’t stop there. Use those methods to communicate significant self expressions to your audience. Be sure you know what significance really is. Ensure that you are saying something worthwhile and relevant with what you make. Focus on what you want to say with your art. Have a detached attitude about what you make and regularly smash the things that aren’t your best lest they come back to haunt you. Pay attention to the details without missing the big picture of what you are about. Once you are prepared, create fearlessly! Remember that life is short and if you live or make art without passion, you are wasting your time.

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2 Responses to “Paul Morris Artist Interview”

  1. Linda Starr Says:

    Oh, look at those textures and shapes, wonderful. Another great interview; I’ve learned from every one of your posts, thanks.

  2. Connie Says:

    Thanks Linda. Paul’s work is so intense.