Monday, June 22, 2009

Moving George Morrison

My recent visit to Lake Superior got me thinking of one of my favorite visual artists: George Morrison. I'm not sure how well know he is outside of the U.S., or really even outside of "art people" circles, but for me, his life and work was deeply spiritual and endlessly beautiful.

George was born in Chippewa City, Minnesota in 1919. A member of the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, he grew up and spent much of his life on the edge of the waters of Lake Superior. To say the lake influenced his artwork is nothing short of an understatement. A student of the Minneapolis School of Art and the New York Art Student's League, Morrison was part cubist, part abstract expressionist, part landscape painter, and all George Morrison. I've never really seen anyone else doing work quite like his.

Although I never met him (he died in 2000), I was privileged to work in a museum that owned and displayed one of his amazing driftwood collages for nearly a year and a half. Looking at the poster of it on my wall now, I vividly recall the days I was able to stand before it, trace the dozens of pieces of wood he had glued together to make an almost painting-like surface. The story goes that he would recruit neighborhood children to scour the beaches of Lake Superior, and also for a time those in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he lived and taught for awhile during the 1960's. The children would bring him piles of driftwood, which he would then sort through, tossing roughly 80% back to shoreline, while the other 20% would be carved, sawed, and shaped, almost like a jigsaw puzzle, into a "wood painting."

One thing that can be said about Morrison is that he was a man of texture. The many, myriad textures of the wood that came together to make the wood paintings being one example. Another being his abstract and semi-abstract cubist paintings, which often contain several overlapping layers of paint.

Another thing about Morrison's work was it's preoccupation with the horizon line, mostly based on that which he experienced living on the shores of Lake Superior. I remember one day my boss came in and said we had to empty out the gallery with the Morrison in it. The museum was moving, and we had spent the previous week packaging the older paintings, as well as a room of sculpture by the local artist Paul Manship. Moving art can be a tedious process, but also one in which every once of mindfulness is called upon, given how easy it is to damage whatever it is you're moving. The day before, I had gotten into an argument with my boss about the proper amount of slowness called for in spinning a 19th century landscape painting around to place on a cart. This, as the two of us held the painting on either end, I turning just slightly faster than he, and his heart beating just slightly faster than mine. It had a fancy, gold flaked frame on it - beautiful to look at, scary as hell to move. As we jabbered at each other, it seems that our hands knew better, and got the painting down to the cart - no problem - while our lips flapped on and on.

None of this prepared us for the Morrison collage.

It was fastened to the wall with four large, very sturdy pegs. The same cart we had used to remove the landscape painting the day before sat between us, positioned in such a way that we just had to remove the collage and set it down on the cart. Or so we thought.

Two of us, including myself, grabbed the top edges of it and began to remove it. The other two got under each edge, ready to grab it as it came off. We were prepared, all except for one thing: the weight. As it came off the pegs, it became clear that George not only had created a beautiful landscape out of wood, but also a very, very, very heavy one. Coming off the pegs completely, it swayed fast, almost tumbling out of our hands altogether. The others quickly ran under it, and raised their hands to meet the center-front of the collage. But it continued to sway for a moment, even with four of us holding - or attempting to hold it up. I recall seeing a line, about two thirds of the way up along the side of the collage - Morrison's horizon line which landed in nearly every abstract piece he did after 1950. It didn't occur to me then that this was a sign to lighten up, to not hold too tightly to either the collage or to the idea that it was going to fall. But somehow, we managed to get it down, flip it around, and fit it safely on to the carrying cart. I imagine somewhere George was watching, laughing at us for not thinking about the weight of the thing, and also appreciating that we cared so much about his work.

George Morrison was, among other things, a breaker of molds and stereotypes. At a time when any art - be it art done by Native peoples or done by whites appropriating Native images - that was associated with Native Americans was expected to be filled with teepees, totems, and other stereotypical images, George's work was decidedly his own. He had a foot in the door of the new establishment as an artist who did abstract work, and yet he also had a foot out in the wilderness as an artist intimately influenced by a Minnesota landscape, Ojibwe spiritual and cultural traditions, and the making of art out of driftwood, among other things.

He once told an art critic "We were made to be ashamed of being Indian. In my own way I believe in a lot of the old Indian ideas ... I like the idea of prayer to give strength, to make you well."

It strikes me that his paintings, collages, and other works of art were each little - and not so little in the case of those collages - prayers offered to us as images that might, if we look closely and take them in, make us well. I know that collage has done so for me over the years. Even looking at the poster of it on my wall can restore my calm. Isn't this what art is all about, reminding us who we are when we have become lost?

A few Morrison resources:

George told his life story to Margot Galt in the book Turning the Feather Around

Here's a link to one of George's wood collages - sadly, the museum I worked at doesn't have an image of the one I moved on it's website.

And Wikipedia page.

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