John Mitchell: When we met in grad school at Yale (Yale School of Art’s Painting Program), you were making paintings of people. You’re still making paintings of people. How would you describe the people in your paintings and how have they evolved over the past 20 years?
Heather Morgan: The figures I paint today still tend to be eccentric, fringe of society characters, larger than life. They illustrate the passions and flaws of everyday people in a vivid way. They are self-questioning. Their manic zeal betrays their obsession with mortality. One thing that has evolved over time is that these figures aren’t connected as much to underground music or subculture as before. Subculture in the Internet age is a mere online shopping trip.
JM: Can you describe your current process of making a painting?
HM: I am working mainly on large figure paintings. I get excited by raw displays of emotion, the intensity of expression of people I know, or perhaps someone I meet at a show whose face and gesture seem to carve right through a room. I go over to the subject’s house to capture them in their own space. I usually find that emotion in 15 minutes, keeping it simple with a few photographs. Then I make small studies in fat, wet oils and choose something to work on in a large format. I am not sure what will happen when I have started the painting, it’s an exploration of the paint to recreate that emotion. The moment the paint comes to life, I put down my tools. Maybe it’s enough. I am running with the idea that once the emotions are in there, the painting is finished, regardless of what it looks like. Then I leave it hanging for a few weeks or months, to see if it asks for more. I have also been doing a lot of supportive drawing in inks and watercolor.
JM: In the past couple of years, you’ve also been seriously engaged with writing and performing music. What are you writing about and how do all of these various means of expression inform your painting?
HM: My paintings were rooted in the self-portrait in the early days and likewise my writing is currently based on a memoir, in spite of my outrageous youth! My friend Sean told me to write a life story and so I did. My writing and the music I play are focused on confronting mortality and allowing the mask of self to slip, giving one room to invent the self. These elements have always been present in my work, I expect my painting to be richer for pursuing other means of expressing similar ideas, to be able to bring that theatricality into the work and perhaps to how I present the paintings.
JM: After grad school, you moved to Berlin for a while. For the past 10 years or so, you’ve lived in Brooklyn. How was the experience of being an artist living in Berlin different from living in Brooklyn?
HM: I lived in Berlin for five years of my late twenties, in a really cheap flat in the former east. It was before the Euro and my rent was something like a hundred bucks. I didn’t often have to work and so I slept off fearsome hangovers, put in a day in my studio and stayed out all night. In Berlin you could dance until noon if you were up to it. Sort of a dream of an art life.
My time in New York is different because the world has changed and me along with it. I am older and everything has become terribly expensive in most cities. There is no cheap corner of New York where you can molder away unsupervised. You can pay three grand for a lousy railroad (apartment). You have to get a job. It’s a king’s ransom for a studio with no heat or occasional floods. You don’t have to be rich to be an artist, but it sure helps!
I may have left behind the idea of Bohemia in coming to NYC, but I have certainly benefited by being surrounded by hard working, brilliant artists. I have a great group of painters here who motivate and inspire me, and text me back when I am depressed.
JM: Speaking of hardworking, brilliant artists – you have been super hard at work on a brilliant body of work over the past couple of years that will be the feature of your upcoming solo exhibition at David & Schweitzer Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Can you talk about the work that will be on view?
HM: The show is called “Heavenly Creatures”. It is about finding beauty and meaning in the struggle of life. I focused on the self portrait and the women in my life as a way of looking at how my own adventures in pain and pleasure have led to self discovery and renewal.
Heather’s solo exhibition opens on Friday, January 5, 2018 and will be up through January 28. For more information go to www.davidandschweitzer.com