If you’re a couch potato – er, um…television geek like I am, you’re already well acquainted with the cast of characters depicted in the paintings of artist Heather M. Morris. Upon my first glimpse of Morris’s online portfolio, I recognized several friends with whom I have spent many hours: Agent Peggy Carter, Walter White, Lobster Boy…*Sigh* We’ve all been through so much together.
Morris, who lives in the Boston area, is a professional scenic artist and classically trained realist painter who specializes in pop culture portraiture. She primarily paints in acrylic and latex house paint using a variety of techniques she’s learned through her scenic art background to age and distress work. She also paints in watercolor and occasionally pastel. “I like to think that in today’s society, especially now in this new golden age of television, the stories we’re taking in through our entertainment have become a new modern mythology. I tend to paint characters that I personally find intriguing,” says Morris.
Painting Modern Mythology[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]“I like to think that in today’s society, especially now in this new golden age of television, the stories we’re taking in through our entertainment have become a new modern mythology. I tend to paint characters that I personally find intriguing.”[/quote]
Morris is a fan of film and television at heart, so she paints what she enjoys. She realizes that some references may be unfamiliar to the general population, but says she has seen people literally jump up and down in excitement when they recognize their favorite characters in her paintings. “That’s making a real connection with someone through my work,” she says.
Morris majored in both psychology and fine art in college and went on to grad school to study art therapy. As life often does, it took an unexpected turn for Morris after she graduated with a Masters degree in 2008. “It was impossible to find employment,” recalls Morris. “I had even accepted a position only be called shortly before I started and was told that the funding for the program had been cut and they were closing down.” Out of desperation, she ended up taking a job as an art director on a low budget independent film. She says “something clicked” when she began working on sets, and she’s been at it ever since. She is currently the assistant scenic charge artist at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University where she paints a vast variety of scenery. She has worked on sets for the Tony Award winning musicals Pippin and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess as well as the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto. Other projects have included the Boston premiere of All the Way with Bryan Cranston, Teller’s rendition of The Tempest, the Broadway musical Finding Neverland, and Sara Bareilles’ new musical Waitress.
Technically speaking, Morris draws a lot of inspiration from the masters. Her favorite classifications of art are 19th century neoclassicism, romanticism and realism. As she was learning how to paint, she says she scrutinized the work of Thomas Eakins, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Théodore Géricault, and Gustave Courbet. Additionally, she uses a great deal of the techniques she learns as a scenic artist and incorporates it into her studio work. “The great thing about my job is I am always learning new applications and developing innovative ways to use materials in order to meet the needs of theater designs. I love creating and using special recipes and techniques that make paints peel, crack, and patina,” Morris explains.
The artist’s skill and presentation rises above the mere replication of scenes or still photographs from popular television and film. Her characters are displayed in innovative and unexpected ways that reveal the subjects’ personalities and tell their stories. My personal favorite from her collection, which also happens to be Morris’s most cherished piece, is her painting The Amazing Lobster Boy. Devotees of the series American Horror Story will remember Jimmy Darling, a young man with a condition known as ectrodactyly which gave him deformed hands. His birth defect earned him the stage name “Lobster Boy” in a traveling freak show. Morris’s painting was created for a Uforge Gallery special exhibition “Arcana” with the instructions to choose a tarot card out of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and recreate it in one’s own personal style. The 16”x28” panel became a piece that Morris felt a real personal connection with. “I was juggling a lot of real life events and unfortunate circumstances that were constantly throwing me off— and like the symbolism of the 2 of pentacles tarot card I was painting, I was certainly in need of balance. I truly believe that working on this painting helped me cope with the craziness of life at that time, and so it’ll always have a special place in my heart.”
Morris reveals that she tends to analyze characters and pulls their psyche into her portraiture. “I’ll often think, ‘What kind of painting would this character commission?’ or I’ll pull different materials or textures into the painting if I feel like it speaks of the character,” she points out. She is inspired by a series of portraits by the 19th century artist Théodore Géricault depicting the inmates of Salpêtrière asylum in Paris, each painting capturing a particular mental illness. She is impressed by how Géricault was able to portray the complex internal struggles of his subjects through a seemingly simple portrait. “That’s always my goal— even if a person is unfamiliar with a particular character I’ve painted, I want them to walk away with some sense of who the person in the portrait could be,” says Morris.
Morris has been thrilled with the response to her work and the recognition is has received. Chris Hardwick admired her Points! painting so much that he had his producer contact Morris about using the piece on his Comedy Central show @Midnight with Chris Hardwick. Her work has also been used in HBO’s Game of Thrones promotional video “Long Story Short” and at The 2015 Critics’ Choice Television Awards. Morris remarks, “It’s always thrilling when an actor I’ve painted or a creator of a show sees my work and feels compelled enough to share it. It’s the ultimate approval.”
Morris recently finished a new American Horror Story painting J.P. March, which features the builder of the spooky hotel at the heart of the 2015 season of the series. The painter says she had fun researching the project by studying art from the 1920’s era and using hues from art deco color palettes in the composition. Phantom Sway readers will recall our report from November 13 about a bit of internet controversy surrounding this latest piece. Lady Gaga, the star of the series, enthusiastically shared a photo of the painting with her Twitter followers without giving credit to Morris as the creator of the piece. This was an unfortunate oversight, because with over 50 million Twitter followers, Morris would have benefited greatly from the publicity of such an endorsement. To date, the error has not been corrected by Gaga or her management.
With or without Gaga’s assistance, I have a hunch that Morris will continue to receive the attention she deserves from aficionados of the small screen to the silver screen.
See More of Heather M. Morrison’s Work
Morris’s website can be found at www.thirtyartsix.com. Her Twitter and Instagram handles are @HevArtScenic. Her Facebook fan page can be found at www.facebook.com/ThirtyArtSix. Prints of her work are available in her Etsy store at www.thirtyartsix.etsy.com.
Morris will have a solo show of twenty-five pieces running now until January 11, 2016 at the Bloc 11 Cafe in Somerville, MA. Her prints and postcards will be available for purchase at the Uforge Gallery Holiday Shop in Jamaica Plain, MA from December 3-22, 2015. Morris will also have original art and prints for sale at the Arisa science fiction and fantasy convention art show in Boston, MA from January 15-18, 2016. Morris will be unveiling new work at the Uforge Gallery “Pages” Exhibition which runs January 7-27, 2016.