Contributed by Jacquelyn Gleisner / In early October, I visited the studio of artist Nancy Morrow at the Two Coats of Paint Artist Residency. Morrow, an associate professor of art at Kansas State University, had spent the previous week at the space in DUMBO, Brooklyn, and was scheduled to fly home after our meeting. On the wall, Morrow had arranged two rows of works on paper, using a mix of different water-based media including watercolor, gouache, and acrylic paint. Almost all the works on the top row featured a small female figure engaged in different activities, yet the figure was absent from the three in-progress paintings below. After twenty years of making narrative work, Morrow explained that the figure had recently vanished from her paintings.
[Image at top: Nancy Morrow’s work in progress at Two Coats of Paint.]
“I had been feeling that using the figure had become a habit or gratuitous,” Morrow said. Morrow’s work has drawn from comic books and cartoon characters over the past two decades. In many of her paintings, a female character confronts open-ended spaces and environments. A woman floats upside down as she talks on the phone inside a muddled, unclear domestic space in Ring (2010). The figure—usually a depiction of the artist—allowed Morrow to talk about women’s lives and scripted roles in society.
Lately, Morrow told me, another part of her life has become bigger than the figure. Personal relationships and the importance of family have always factored into Morrow’s work and these subjects are present in Morrow’s newer paintings, albeit indirectly. Morrow’s husband has a form of dementia. The daily—or even, hourly—care of her partner redefined the structure of her life. For a while, finding time to paint was challenging for Morrow. When she could carve out a few moments to work, her paintings felt trivial compared to this illness. Morrow’s husband has been in the care of a full-time facility since last June, and though she visits often, the pieces of Morrow’s life have changed along with the elements inside her paintings.
In place of the figure, Morrow has begun to focus on specific objects like pills and pill sorters, for example. Morrow started painting the pill sorters because they were everywhere. She described the irony of the grave importance of these cheap, plastic pill sorters littered throughout her home. “The pill sorter has so much potential,” she said, “because when it is full, it holds all the power.” The pill sorters also became a way of marking the passage of time and a symbol of the sensation of opening and closing associated with the alternating moments of clarity and darkness of her partner’s disease.
Morrow is not trying to make work that directly addresses her husband’s illness, but she believes that the work is a response to it. An illness like dementia upends a person’s sense of self and, often, the senses of those close to it. Morrow thinks differently now. “Something is and it isn’t simultaneously,” she said. She has been dwelling on the idea of personhood—not only how you can know a person and then suddenly not, but also how these conflicting states can co-exist.
These contrasting layers result from the process of trying to understand or comprehend her experiences. Morrow’s mind keeps circling around the idea of the core of a thing. The act of painting an object as mundane as a pill sorter has opened up her process as an artist. Rather than illustrating, Morrow is allowing the paint to help her uncover the deeper meaning of an object. She is not trying to recreate what she can observe. Morrow wants to make a thing wholly visible by evoking the appearance and the essence of a thing.
Morrow’s latest works on paper mark the drastic departure from the comforts of her former life. The figure is gone. Moreover, the scale of the work has increased and her use of watercolor and gouache layers has become looser. A transparency and fluidity is left visible in the work that translates into a sense of ease with the process. The paintings live in an extended state of ambiguity as Morrow seeks to find endings that are not conclusions. Somewhere in between the knowing and unknowing, Morrow has found a new beginning.
[All of Morrow’s quotes are from a conversation with the author on October 4, 2015.]
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