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Art: Interview with Thomas Morphis

By Sharon Fujimoto-Johnson
Spectrum readers are likely familiar with the work of Thomas Morphis whose art has graced the cover of the magazine several times already. Besides teaching art at Pacific Union College (a position he has held since 1986), Morphis is a working artist whose work has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions.
Currently, Morphis is working on a large series of mixed media paintings based on the word “Peniel,” the name of the biblical place where Jacob wrestled with the angel. The overriding theme of this series is struggle, and each Peniel painting incorporates an image of wrestling figures.
Other ongoing projects include “Fragments,” which grew out of the “Peniel” series, and “Architectonics,” a series of vivid watercolor paintings “somewhere between sculpture and architecture.” In 2005, Morphis installed “Sky Parabola,” a 4’ x 18’ abstract stained glass window at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Upcoming in 2007, Morphis’ work will be on display at the Morris Graves Museum, Eureka CA, and the Red Mountain Gallery at the Truckee Meadows Community College, Reno NV. Morphis holds a B.F.A. degree from Pacific Northwest College of Art and an M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Morphis (via email) about his work as an artist. Here are some highlights from the interview:
SF-J For me, your artwork is distinguished by texture created with active lines and amazing color combinations. I especially love the vibrant yellows and oranges against the icy blue that I often see in your art. What is it that you especially love about the process of creating art? Is there some underlining theme to your work as a whole, or do you try to avoid defining that so as not to limit the breadth of your work?
MorphisThe creative act—when you put something down, whether a scrap of paper, a line, a color, and it clicks, it works—it surprises you. There’s something about discovering the life of the artwork. I want each piece to come alive, to grow, to evolve, to assert its own identity. I don’t have a precise or concrete preconceived picture in my mind of the final product, only a general direction or feeling or idea. I try to be open to making things happen visually that are unexpected. Again, discovery comes to mind. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes you try something and then need to take it out, cover it up, but that act can also lead to something else that works.
So, my abstract collages are primarily about this act of creation, aesthetics of form. The watercolors are based on the collages, but at that point it’s more of a technical challenge to translate the collage into the colors and textures of watercolor.
The mixed media works (“Peniel” primarily, and “Fragments”) come very much out of this process. Compared to the watercolors, they are much more improvised and spontaneous. But an added difference is the introduction of more organic shapes and (something I’ve been thinking about for a long time) the inclusion of the human figure, which opens up huge possibilities as to content/narrative. I include just a bit of found text (clippings from book reviews, evocative words and phrases, from books, from foreign language texts), which adds more narrative suggestions to the work.
I should add, with the mixed media pieces, I really try to be as inclusive as possible, not only in putting together imagery of all sorts and sources, but also to mix media, to remember to drop the brush and pick up the charcoal/ink/glue stick/china marker, etc…. I suppose a challenge I enjoy subconsciously is to make this diversity coalesce, to throw a wrench into the works and make it “fit.” But now we’re back to the topic of surprise/discovery.
SF-JOn your web site, in your discussion of the “Architectonics” series, you mention being inspired by deconstructive architects like Daniel Liebeskind, Zaha Hadid, and Rem Koolhaas and also by your reading of Don Quixote. What are some of your other influences, artistic and otherwise?
MorphisA few of my earliest major influences that come to mind are, first and foremost, Pablo Picasso and Kurt Schwitters. Other influences include painters Richard Diebenkorn and Giorgio Morandi, sculptors Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore, and although I’m not a big reader, early favorite writers were Gertrude Stein, Richard Brautigan, and Carlos Casteneda. Looking back, I see that they have in common an interest in alternate realities, or in Stein’s case, an alternate way of presenting reality. As for visuals in life, I’m influenced by construction sites & demolition sites.
SF-JHow do you work as an artist? What kind of physical space do you work in?
MorphisI built a 24′ x 36′ studio over a garage, with a wood stove for heat, north-facing skylights, and lots of windows. I have two large tables that I work on, because I work flat.
SF-JIs there a struggle between being an art professor and an artist? Or do the two feed each other in a positive way?
MorphisThe only struggle is time to do both. On the plus side, they feed each other. My interest in going to galleries to see what other contemporary artists are doing, and my own creative quest—these both add to what I can bring to the classroom. And seeing the creativity of students, their unique visions and talent—I’d like to think this helps keep me more open-minded, less monocular (metaphorically speaking).
SF-JWhen you’re creating art, are you conscious of being a spiritual person and an artist both? Do you try to compartmentalize art and spirituality, or do the two worlds coexist peacefully in you?
MorphisI feel that I don’t really compartmentalize the two, or even have a struggle there. I think that my art is an expression of me, not only of my visual ideas but also my “take” on life, which includes values, interests, concerns, and approach to life—and thus spirituality. Once in a while, an artwork is more overtly about spiritual things, but not generally. Hopefully it’s a more pervasive influence, overall. _______
View the artwork of Thomas Morphis
Are there other artists you’d like to see interviewed for this blog? Let us know.

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