Saline Artist Carol Morris Turns Trash Into Treasure

 12/18/2017 - 15:24
Artist Carol Morris with one of her works of art

What many people see as trash, Saline resident Carol Morris sees as (and turns into) treasures.  Morris didn’t plan to work in the creative arts field when she was young, and took a very creative and winding path to add the title “artist” to her resume.  

Beginning with a bachelor’s in Sociology, Morris went on to get a Masters of Creative Writing from Michigan State University.  Following college, she worked for the Department of Social Services in Lansing for 30 years.  She started out in social work, and then became a policy analyst for Medicaid.  She was given a number of special projects there, including working to help find long-term care for people in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, projects and work that Morris felt was very valuable.  Eventually Morris was hired by M-Care in Ann Arbor, and moved down to the area with her husband.

While Morris worked these jobs, she was also a writer and a narrative poet.  She wrote for a long time, but when she retired, writer’s block seemed to creep up on her.  In an effort to unblock her writing process, Morris began to have an itch to switch from writing to art.  While she had no formal art training, she felt that her writing skills could apply to her visual work.  

Then, a number of years ago, she visited a friend in Des Moines, and went to a rummage sale near her friend’s house.  Morris bought a box of magazines from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, and Morris thought, “These have got to be saved!”  She started making cards using cuttings from the magazines, and sold them at craft shows and small galleries.  She worked relatively small - 5”x7” - for years, and once she felt she’d really learned composition, thought, “I’ve gotta leap into something bigger.”  

While still in Lansing, Morris took an acrylic painting workshop and an altered book workshop, and got hooked.  According to her, “You’re either hooked or you’re not!”  She felt freed by the teacher telling the students that there were no mistakes, and you could just let yourself go.  The sociologist in Morris kicked in, and she began thinking about all of these books going into the dump, the history of them, and knew that she could repurpose them to make them into something beautiful.   “As a collage artist I’ve just been collecting junk all my life.  That’s what I do...things that would be worthless to someone else, but to me I can see the beauty in them.”  

One key to Morris’ work is that she always uses originals.  She’s been collecting old magazines and books and elements for her art for so long that she has so much to work with.  “They’re so fascinating.  It’s also the nostalgia - I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and seeing these images reminds me of these really happy times.”

Though she may have had no formal art training, Morris has worked hard to learn from other artists, and tries to go to workshops to learn as much as she can.  She also applies to exhibits around the country.  “It’s just such a relief to do visual work,” she says of her switch from writing to art. Her advice to fellow creators: “If you’re blocked, go to another medium.”   She says it’s tough to sell her visual work, “but I’ll tell you - it’s easier than selling a poem!” Thankfully, Morris has also found creative ways to keep her poetry alive, including putting some of her poems to music, and sells the recordings on CD.  Morris says that her poems are fairly visual.  “I think I was a frustrated visual artist,”  she said.

Morris doesn’t consider herself a teacher, saying that she doesn’t think in a linear way; she’s an intuitive artist.  Nevertheless, she has been pulled into teaching in a variety of ways, included through receiving the 2000 Michigan Council for the Arts Grant to have art in Coldwater Prison for women.  Morris taught at Washtenaw County jail for ten years (they made cards and envelopes for their families) - and found some really dedicated women artists to go in with her so she would never go in alone.  The prisoners really appreciated Morris’s time and talents, and a number of her students from Coldwater were in the Annual prisoner art show at the University of Michigan.  

Morris hasn’t just dabbled in writing and visual art, however.  While living in Ann Arbor, she created her own local cable show on Ann Arbor’s CTN called “Lobbie Lamento’s Variety Show”, which ran for five years.  Morris voiced Lobbie Lamento, an Italian lobster (puppet) who would interview artists.  “It satisfied that playfulness in me,”  Morris said.  “I made my husband dress in a banana suit...he was doing yoga positions in the suit that we made up!” She called it, “absolutely adolescent and playful; a fantasy that everyone should do.” Morris included retro ads and commercials in her show, too, bringing her interest in historic media into yet another part of her playful work.

That playfulness shows up in abundance in Morris’ visual art.  She describes her visual art as childlike, with a lot of bright color in her work.  She also continues to create without fear of making mistakes.   “That’s my main thing with art - self-acceptance.  Being willing to accept yourself and your work.  With the altered books you can be sloppy or go to the next page.  That’s what art should be: self-expression, without pain.  It should bring joy.”   

Morris works from her studio in her home, where she has lots of storage and lots of light.  She wants to encourage artists to come in from out of state and do residencies with her - with a bedroom/bathroom down there by the studio, they could stay a few weeks at a time and work with her on creating marvelous works of art.  

Morris recently held a solo exhibition at the Ann Arbor Senior Center, where she sold a quarter of the pieces for sale.  “I’m really encouraged!”  Attendees at the exhibit were enthusiastic about Morris’ work, engaged by her playful style and bright, dynamic artwork.  One of the most popular features were her altered books. “It gets a kind of vibration to it, a kind of energy,” she said of the books.  “They are more than just one picture, they’re lots of mementos - the chi is really powerful.  They involve scrapbooking and journaling, which combine them into something powerful.”

Morris will be teaching an Altered Book Workshop at the Saline District Library on Jan 31.  (Registration is encouraged, and begins 12/27.)  Attendees are encouraged to bring an old (alterable) book, but she’ll have some, too, and will have her work in the display cases at the library during the months of January & February 2018, as well.  

She’ll also be teaching a card-making class at library for Valentine’s Day in February, and, as a member of the board of Ann Arbor Women Artists, will be leading an outdoor workshop in Ann Arbor (probably on the Huron River) in May.    

 

Katherine H. Downie
Katherine Downie is a local artist and art educator. She serves on the executive committee of the Saline Celtic Festival, on the board of the Saline Area Players, and on the Saline Library Art Exhibit Committee.

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