Kristen Morgin is a sculptor from Gardena, California, creating trompe l'oeil objects with unfired clay. The scale of items range from life size automobiles to garage-sale-bound children's books complete with the wear and tear of many hands and years. Kristen Morgin has shown solo exhibitions across the nation at Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, Greenwich House, Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Zach Feuer Gallery. Kristen has also been featured in groups shows nationally and internationally including the 12th Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, Turkey, The 3rd World Ceramic Biennale, Icheon, South Korea, and the Denver Art Museum. She is represented by the Marc Selwyn Fine Art Gallery and her work is featured online at www.marcselwynfineart.com.
Brant Weiland: What decision prompted you make finished work with unfired clay?
Kristen Morgin: I went to graduate school at Alfred. Alfred is a very traditional kind of school and to be quite honest I wasn’t the most technical person. I initially had this thought of making work that was more abstracted. At the time, I was making fired and stained work, mostly figurative. I was influenced a lot by a painter(Jay DeFeo). She made paint look like it was dirt or cement. So, I began making these abstracted clods and I began to see certain shapes. I started to think if I defined the object a bit more, that might be interesting.
I made a violin that looked like it had been buried in a box of dirt. I had plans to fire and glaze it but I couldn’t figure out how. It looked delicate and it was delicate, so it seemed fairly honest to leave this piece unfired.
It wasn’t a popular decision. My teachers weren’t happy with my choice and I had a lot of opposition when I was in school. It taught me to justify the kind of work I was making, which in the long run, was good for me. I could better see what I wanted in spite of outside opposition or nudging in any particular way, but it was painfully difficult to get through grad school.
BW: What do you think of the addition of Walter McConnell to Alfred, mostly due to the push back you received when you were in graduate school for working with unfired clay.
KM: Walter McConnell was being interviewed right as I was leaving Alfred. By that time, I was so embittered, I could care less about who they hired. In the years since, I’m very thankful for the experience, even though it was really difficult. I have since met him and our work is frequently featured in survey shows together.
BW: Do you have a specific composition in mind when you make objects or do you make a lot of small pieces and rearrange them into different compositions?
KM: Most of the time I have the original objects in my studio and I spend my time rearranging them into different still life compositions. Over a period of time I will look at them, change them, take pictures, and rearrange them again. When I decide on an arrangement I like, I will very slowly begin making everything in the arrangement. Sometimes I have a very specific idea and it doesn’t work out. Sometimes I don’t find places for all of the things that I make. These things pile up in my studio. So there have been some occasions when I build compositions with these unplaced objects.
BW: What artists would you link your work to?
KM: I’m influenced by a lot of folk artists. Folk art tends to speak to me louder than contemporary art. As far as contemporary artists, it changes every day. There is an artist, Conrad Bakker, he and I have a real crossover in our work. He makes objects out of wood and then paints them to look realistic, though the painting on his objects is very painterly. He and I tend to gravitate towards similar objects such as books, records, and toys. His work makes commentary on the value of objects and how the value of things can change depending on where they are sold.
BW: I saw in an interview you had looked into the origin of the word nostalgia which came about at the start of World War 1. I didn’t realize that it had a traumatic beginning to it. Generally, it is thought of as warm and fuzzy.
KM: I had read that nostalgia was originally used to describe the intense fear that soldiers felt before going into battle, the fear of never returning home alive.
BW: Okay. I encounter this question a lot in my own work and I’m curious how you deal with it.
KM: I’m sure you probably do this too, where you sort of cringe every time someone wants to call it nostalgic. Nostalgia isn’t the only thing that is compelling in my work. Often time I feel nostalgia is a way for people to begin to pay attention. Once you get them there you can talk about more complex things.
BW: What has been the major differences of being able to work in your studio for the past ten years versus coming up through the academic model?
KM: The thing that I miss about teaching is engaging with students. Teaching is really difficult. It’s really difficult to feel like you are taking care of all your student’s needs. There’s human chemistry involved. It is a job that I worked hard at and I always wanted to find ways to improve my teaching.
Being an artist requires that you be devoted to your studio time and that you be selfish about it. When you teach, you have to be completely generous with your time and energy. I really felt like, for me at least, the one thing I’m good at is making things. The things that I make are what I have to offer the world. With teaching, my intentions were always good. Sometimes I really helped my students with the advice I gave but other times things didn’t work out as well. I felt bad about that. When I quit my teaching job it was a relief to not worry about giving bad advice.
In the ten years since I’ve held a teaching job, I’m constantly preparing for shows, I don’t have any time to experiment. I can’t make big mistakes. Because of constant deadlines it is risky to investigate things that I’m not sure will work out.
For years while I was teaching, I held the commercial aspect of art at bay. I worked with a gallery for a few years before I quit my job, but I was very cautious about what I would say yes to because I didn’t want to change my work to make it more marketable. Make it not so fragile, more colorful, make it whatever, I just didn’t want to have those kinds of obligations.
BW: They would guide your practice more than you’d be able to at that point.
KM: Right. So, I deal with that more now. There are times where I allow myself certain liberties to make what I want to make and there are other times that I try to cater to certain demands. I try to please everybody; I try to make myself happy, and I try to make my gallery happy.
BW: This has been fantastic, thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
Brant Weiland is a Post-Baccalaureate student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.