A conversation with the fabulously versatile painter Heather M Morris.
I first encountered Heather M Morris’s work a couple years ago, when I stumbled by chance upon her show at a coffeeshop in Somerville, MA. I made certain to find and view every painting on display before I left, and was enthralled by her skill at capturing not just the likenesses but the personalities of the genre characters she chose as her subjects.
We’re delighted to catch up with Heather and her work in depth here today!
Genretastic: Tell us a little about yourself!
HM: I’m a classically trained artist with a background in art therapy, and I currently work as the Assistant Charge Scenic Artist at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. When not painting theatrical sets, I paint pop-culture inspired portraits and sell prints on Etsy and at cons. Other than art stuffs, I enjoy weight training and boxing in my spare time, I play D&D everyThursday, and I have a floppy white cat named Liz Lemon Emeowlianenko (Lemon for short). My favorite book is It by Stephen King, and I probably listen to the audiobook of John Dies at the End by David Wong more than a well-adjusted person should admit.
Genretastic: When did you decide to become an artist?
HM: I don’t know if I ever made a conscious decision to become an artist. Art was just something I always had an interest in. I used to draw a lot as a kid, so my parents sent me to after-school art classes. I don’t think it’s something I really started to pursue until my junior year of college. I was focused on studying psychology, and I had the idea that I wanted to be an art therapist because making art was a powerful tool during difficult times. When I was 10 years old, my older brother was battling cancer, and we spent a lot of time drawing and coloring together. It was something that comforted both of us, and I’ve carried that with me since. I did end up getting a Master’s degree in Art Therapy, and although life took me on a different career path, art has always been there to guide me.
Genretastic: Who/What inspires you to create?
HM: Inspiration can be a fickle thing. I think it’s so easy to fall into the trap of actively searching for our magnum opus— that true artists are struck by a great idea that will be a defining piece of work. That search can be exhausting and quite depressing. In reality, it’s just an excuse to beat ourselves up, and that does nothing but make us unproductive. It was only recently that I discovered that my ultimate goal is…just to make things. I want to paint things and want to paint them well. I’ve always focused on technical application (I could go into how I was always intrigued by the work of 19th century romanticists and realist painters, but that can get pretty boring) and I’m always thrilled to learn new skills to better my craft. Because art is an escape for me, I’ll really only paint things that I enjoy. It’s how I ended up doing on pop culture art—everything I make is a celebration for what moves me. It’s also a very analytical process. When I do a character portrait, I always try to capture who the character is and integrate physical elements into my process. I’ve done a Punisher painting on a base of targets riddled with bulletholes. A crumbling Pennywise painting on a layer of rust. A paint-peeling Dorian Gray peering through a piece of mirrored glass. The characters inform my process and I always seek out new mediums that will help represent the subject.
Genretastic: You studied fine art portraiture and have an impressive formal background in art. Do you find that your choice of pop culture iconography as a subject matter for your work has had a positive/neutral/negative effect on how your peers receive your work? Have you had any surprising responses?
HM: Pop culture art is definitely a niche corner of the market. As much as I enjoy showing in galleries, it’s not really my scene. Either people understand the references or they don’t. But there’s nothing better than when someone recognizes the characters in a painting…I’ve actually seen people jump up and down in excitement in the middle of an art gallery. I’ve been turning my attention more towards comic conventions since it’s more of my audience.
I do my best to surround myself with supportive people—I am friends with some brilliant artists that frequently blow my mind with their creativity and skill. And while some of them might not understand my work, they never look down on it. Sometimes the people who don’t get the references give the best critiques because they are observing with a truly fresh eye. If a piece of pop culture work can impact someone on solely the artistic level, then I consider that piece a success.
Genretastic: Tell us about your current projects!
HM: At the time of this interview, I recently finished an It movie inspired portrait of Eddie Kaspbrak.It’s just a small watercolor and ink piece, but I had a lot of fun doing it because I think it’s supercute and throws together a bunch of elements that define the character—his cast, his pills, and the sunflowers from the house on Neibolt Street, all in a neat little frame. It’s somewhat different from my other work in the design, but I think I may do more in this style. I’ll be at Rhode Island Comic Con in November (10-12) so I want to do a few new pieces to showcase there.
Genretastic: You also have impressive credits in painting for theater– could you speak more to what scenic artists do and specific challenges of the job?
HM: Scenic artists are the people who paint the sets for theatre, movies, and TV. Our job is to take the designer’s vision and make it a reality. I do a lot of large scale back drops, faux finishing (wood-graining, marbling, rusting, etc) distressing, sculpting, and even house painting. Scenics basically have to know how to paint anything, anywhere, at any time. I have to be super detail oriented but work quickly and efficiently in order to make strict deadlines. The joke is that if we do our job well, no one will notice. I briefly worked on a TV series this summer and the amount of talented artists that put so much thought and care into their craft, the attention to detail they put into things that might never even make it on camera, is astounding. So next time you’re watching a play, your favorite movie, or your favorite TV show, take a look beyond the actors and you’ll see the labor of a whole crew of people who have worked tireless hours to help create a fictional world.
Genretastic: How does your background/work in scenic art and film art direction influence you artisticallywhen you approach screen subjects in portraiture?
HM: Being a scenic artist influences my personal work. I use a lot of the techniques I’ve learned onthe job and because of it, I have a greater knowledge of a variety of materials. Whenever I approach a portrait, I think about what medium will best express the character and work from there. I really like not being limited by a particular kind of paint. If I want a piece to have a softer feel, I might reach for watercolors. If I want a classical kind of painting, I’ll work with acrylics on canvas. If I want a piece to look old and weathered, I know how to mix and apply latex paints to crack and crumble. And if I want to achieve a particular look and I don’t know where to start, I research the hell out of it. Both my day-job as a scenic artist and my personal work is a constant learning process, each new piece of information tucked away for when I might need it. Being versatile is a necessity and my art-making journey never gets boring.
Genretastic: Favorite/most inspiring fandoms to paint characters from?
HM: Right now I’m really into creating work inspired by horror books. There’s always really vivid imagery and exploration of complex emotions so it’s exciting to dissect the words and bring them to life on the canvas. And in a weird way, it’s rewarding to see how people react to something a little off-kilter.
Genretastic: Dream solo project/collaboration if you could wave a wand and make it happen?
HM: This is actually a really hard question! I think if I was given the opportunity to do art for work by my favorite authors, I’d be super psyched.
Genretastic: Advice for young artists starting out?
HM: Just focus on what you’re doing and drown the noise out. It’s so easy to compare yourself to other people and their accomplishments…to think “Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I have that? I’ll never be able to do that”…but that’s just going to drive you crazy. Stop worrying about whateveryone else is doing and do whatever calls to you. If you work at your craft and just keep creating, people will eventually take notice and opportunities will come along with it.