Debris of Society

By on December 1, 2010
Suzanne Morlock at her home studio in Wilson. - photo by Derek Diluzio

Suzanne Morlock at her home studio in Wilson. – photo by Derek Diluzio

Jackson Hole, Wyo.-On a bitterly cold morning, traveling on hard-packed, snow-covered roads, I drove south down Fall Creek to visit artist Suzanne Morlock at her home studio in Wilson, to discuss the eventful year that now sees itself coming to a close. For nearly 20 years now, Morlock has worked from her basement, where her main studio, a diminutive space, layered in piles of past art projects, has walls lined with weaving tools and various handmade fabric and paper materials, the remnants of years of creative output.

We spoke of her recent work, which has been driven by her impulse to “re-image discarded linear materials” and to create site-specific objects that blur the “troublesome” distinctions drawn between fine arts, design and craft. We discussed the thematic elements of her work, the fatal sense of creation and the struggle with fragility, evoked through her use of organic, disposed-of materials, as well as the importance of personal narrative in purposing her work.

Although her art has recently been fashioned on a grand scale, as with her current piece, “Sweater” for Jackson’s ArtSpot 2.0, her forms evoke a sense of immediate eventuality, an inclination to decompose. With a residency in Iceland last August, a group exhibit in France last spring, and an upcoming solo exhibit in Poland this January, Morlock‘s artwork has tapped into a vein of relevancy.

Louise Bourgeois, an avant-garde artist who spent many years in New York City before showing her work in the 1950s, is an important role model for Morlock who confidently sees the past as her “growing up” and into her work and the future as filled with potential. After all, there will be no lack of material for an artist inspired by the “unwanted debris of our disposable society.”

Jackson Hole Weekly: As an art student at UCLA, painting was your primary focus. What influenced your shift to sculpture and installation? ?

Suzanne Morlock: I guess I have always struggled with the lines, the divisions between fine arts, design and craft, and it continues to be something that I work with. After a couple of years at UCLA, I felt as if I needed to explore crafts or design. I actually switched to California State University at Northridge where they had a really good design and more developed craft program, and I puttered around there for a really long time trying to figure out what to settle on. I think it is only now that I feel like I really answered those questions. There wasn’t a particularly striking moment. There’s been an evolution, a very slow evolution.

JHW: The work that you have created and exhibited in the last year seems to have a shared technique: knitting. Of course, it should be noted that you are knitting with needles made out of five feet of PVC pipe. How did this technique occur to you and how has it developed??

SM: I find that with the body of work that I make now, there are certain things about it that will influence what I make next. I have been incorporating a knitting technique into my work for probably seven years, maybe a little bit longer, in different ways. Usually, as kind of abstract elements of an installation or a sculpture.

JHW: What was the function of the artwork, “Overlay,” that you exhibited in France, and where did the idea come from??

SM: The invitation to show in Le Vigan, France, at Chapelle de la Condamine, was arranged by L’association “Chaine de Papier” and the challenge to the artist was to come up with some work that was not as consumptive of exotic fibers, water or chemicals, things that are often part of making handmade paper. Glenn [Messersmith, Morlock’s husband] and I were down in the studio and we were making a fire, and I was thinking about the show. And I almost quizzically said to him, “I wonder what it would be like to knit newspaper.” Kind of with the idea that why make new paper? Why not recycle something that we have? So, Glenn helped me figure out how to do that. It kind of came from there.

The other part of it was that the space where the exhibit was to be held was a former chapel and it had these – they weren’t real old, they weren’t real special – stained glass windows. But it did allow colored light to come through them, and my proposal was to make these overlay pieces to go over those stained glass windows to represent the change in use.

The exhibit curator was really interested in the fact that I was not a two-dimensional artist and that I was interested in doing something that was site-specific. She sent me a whole bunch of pictures of railings on balconies and stairwells and a lot of different places where I might be able to do something, as I was evolving the idea. But somehow the idea of the transformation of the space and using this transformed newspaper attracted me more than some of the other ideas. They made a counter-proposal to me because this was the first time they were using the space as an art space, and they weren’t sure if they were going to have supplemental lighting; they needed the light through those windows for that exhibit. So, they asked me if I would do a performance of the actual knitting at the opening for the exhibit and make one piece that could be part of this group exhibit and then come back in 2011, and actually do the pieces that would cover the windows. I agreed.

JHW: How exactly did you turn newspaper into yarn??

SM: There was a certain amount of trial and error here at the house. Glenn was my partner in doing that. We often collaborate – at least with the thinking of it. He really enjoys solving problems related to design and all that. At any rate, we collaborated on figuring out how to reduce these flat sheets into something that was more round that I could then knit. ?

The technique that seemed to work best was tearing the newspaper into widths – how ever thick you want the rope to be. We settled on 8 to 10 inches wide, and I glued each of these sections together end-to-end, using flour and water. We wanted to use something that no matter where I was it could be easily obtained. Then, using an electric drill, taping the one end to the electric drill and using a technique similar to spinning wool, actually, coaxing the paper into a more rounded form. Then, it gets put onto a spool. When the spool’s full, it’s made into a giant ball and from there it’s knitted. And the reason that PVC pipes came to be is that for that scale I needed something much bigger. I was really pleased with the fabric that resulted from that.

JHW: “Overlay” had a performance element to it. Am I right to say that the creation of your work plays nearly as important of a role as the end products themselves??

SM: I do think that’s true. I think that through time there have been many artists for whom process was perhaps even more important than the final product. I think that for me, I learn a lot as I am doing it. There’s a sort of meditative place that evolves as you are working on it. There’s almost a sort of alchemy that happens during that period.

JHW: During your month-long residency in Skagastrond, Iceland last August you explored the local culture of this fishing village. What did that piece end up looking like? Were you surprised by the work that resulted? What did you learn or experience that informed that piece in a way you might not have expected? ?

SM: I did go in thinking that I was going to focus on the knitting and fishing elements of this little 500-person town. Gratefully, everybody knows English quite well, so there wasn’t a language barrier. I knew that I wanted to do some kind of site-specific installation. I didn’t really limit it to anything else. At first, I thought I might use the nets that they use for fishing because they’re so plentiful. Where we were staying was close to a net shop where they make and repair nets used for trolling and fishing boats, and I was just really taken with the masses of material there and the kind of blue-green color. However, as I spent more time there and was trying to figure out how this was going to fit together, I found that the dump was actually a little more rich with things that were going to work for me.

It was really kind of a process. I talked to people and asked questions about things. I discovered that these enormous spools that cables come on – these giant spools that come from the U.K. are actually abandoned because it’s too costly to return them. In poking around at the dump, I did find these old very lightweight hay bale nets and that proved to be the material that I chose to knit. It’s curious the piece is called “Nets,” but they’re not really nets in the sense of the fishing nets. There’s kind of an ambiguity in terms of what their original use was, how I had reinterpreted them, the fact that they are on this steel spool. So there’s a little bit of a, perhaps, surreal ambiguity to matching these materials, which I actually kind of like.?

JHW: Do you see yourself as part of a larger group of artists working with similar intentions?

SM: I think that one of the unique features of living in Northwestern Wyoming is that it has given me the opportunity to really explore my process, to develop my direction being a little bit freed up from some of the influences that might have given me more than they should have in terms of influence, if I had been in New York or L.A.

It’s been really an interesting time, a more introverted process, looking to the natural world. There are all kinds of organic forms that come out in what I do, and I think that’s all a product of where I’ve been living. The art that’s produced in our region, historically, has been much more representational. That’s starting to change a little bit now. ?I do currently look at artists in other places, and, in fact, in the last month I just discovered an artist who is located in New York, who works in a very similar way: Orly Genger. She’s been in a couple of magazines that are well-respected in the art world where she does some kind of a self-invented crochet technique on a very large scale.

JHW: With your ArtSpot 2.0 installation going up on West Broadway in the next few weeks, do you have any wishes regarding how people respond or interpret your work?

SM: I have found, through the years, that I’ve become more and more interested in what the audience thinks. Just to go back a little bit, when I first started at UCLA, I was part of the prevailing notion that art wasn’t a commodity, that it should be for its own edification, that it was not making work that would go in someone’s living room, that it had a much more pure aesthetic that drove the making of it.

So I didn’t really show my work for a long time because I really believed that that was important for me at the time. What I have grown to believe, through time, is that the work that I am now doing requires some feedback from the audience in order for me to get the most out of it, the most satisfaction from the process. I really feel that the audience brings their own narrative to the work and that that’s often the most interesting perspective. In terms of the ArtSpot piece, it would be great to get people’s impressions, good, bad or indifferent. I am not quite sure how to do that. They could certainly email me.

Email Suzanne Morlock at [email protected].

photo by Derek Diluzio
Suzanne Morlock at her home studio in Wilson.

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