Damaris Athene: Suzi can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Suzi Morris: I was born in Ayr in my grandparent’s house and educated in Glasgow. My mother who was also an artist, died when I was fifteen after a long illness, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. I come from a medico - scientific, art background. My father was a scientist so I grew up surrounded by National Geographic magazines and science journals, which inspired me to see more of the world. I left home when I was just 17.
DA: And where is Ayr?
SM: Ayr is a seaside town on the west coast of Scotland, 25 miles south of Glasgow. When I left Scotland, I spent a year in Carlisle on a foundation course before moving down to London to what was then Kingston Polytechnic, where I studied Illustration and Design for my BA; but I always knew deep down that I wanted to be a painter. I don’t know whether it was just at that time or in those days, but back then being a painter wasn’t seen as a proper job.
DA: It still isn’t to be honest. You still have people that will think, ‘Oh I need to do Graphic Design, because it’s applied’ rather than pursuing Fine Art, which is their true passion. It’s sad.
SM: It is sad. I’ve always had that love of paint since I was a child. When I was a student I took some really basic jobs and lived in sometimes-awful accommodation so that I could afford to buy quality art materials. At school I was forever in the art room painting and my reports always said ‘Susan has such a vivid imagination’. I think that was down having this sensitivity to unseen energies, often common among artists. When you just absorb too much at times.
DA: I’m the same.
SM: Really? And we both share an interest in exploring the corporeal and the abstraction of the human landscape! I think artists have a tendency to be sensitive. It’s one of the reasons why I have to be solitary when I’m painting.
DA: How did your life lead up to becoming a full-time painter?
SM: I worked in a design consultancy for a while but I didn’t have a passion for the corporate world and I was always more driven to paint. During the eighties, trompe l'oeil made a come back so I spent some time undertaking painting commissions in peoples’ homes. I was married for a long time and ended up going overseas seeking out opportunities to teach art. I really wanted to see the world.
DA: Whereabouts did you travel to?
SM: I’ve spent time in India, the Philippines, and Africa when it was still dealing with the AIDS epidemic in the nineties. As a consequence of the disease being so misunderstood initially, there were orphanages full of small children with HIV who had been abandoned by their families. I wasn’t painting for myself at that time but I loved sharing materials for mark making and watching children’s innate creativity. I think that some of the ordeals that I experienced through travel have made me who I am. Perhaps why I have no desire to paint the ‘visible’ world? In later years I worked in art direction for film, which allowed me to keep travelling. It was while I was working in film that I was encouraged to pursue my painting on a full-time basis. There comes a time when you’ve got to follow what’s in here *points to heart*. I feel that finally I’m doing what I want to be doing. In 2012, I met Eileen Cooper, Keeper of the Royal Academy and she suggested I apply to The City and Guilds of London Art School, and from there I went on to undertake the doctorate.
DA: How did you find your MA at City and Guilds?
SM: It was rather like joining the special forces of art schools! I had been out of education for some time so it was pretty challenging. I would be working on PowerPoint presentations every week and used to be in the studio from 8am until 8.30pm. I loved it though and it really helped to develop my practice.
DA: God, every week. That’s intense! And your doctorate at the University of East London. Can you tell me a bit about that?
SM: While I was on my MA, I had been fortunate enough to meet two leading German companies, Schmincke and Da Vinci. I was doing some filming for them and they kindly supported my doctorate. I love learning and felt at the time that I had only just scratched the surface in understanding my practice so undertaking the doctorate seemed like a natural progression. I was also interested in delving deeper into the concept of the Sublime - my own life experiences seemed to fit with this notion in so many ways. My director of studies and my supervisors at UEL were very insightful at helping me to realise just how much the language of medicine, genomics and clinical virology inform the decisions that I’m making in painting. Then began my relationship with Imperial College who continue to be really supportive. UEL was three of the toughest years of my life, yet three of the best.
DA: How wonderful and such an achievement.
SM: I feel that I began to find a truth in my painting that’s been incredibly hard to reach.
DA: Can you tell me more about your practice itself?
SM: Scientific research is a stimulus for me, which often provides triggers to inform new work. Plus I’ve always loved the qualities of oil paint. How pigment changes depending on its environment and how it can be manipulated to behave so differently. It’s so unpredictable, rather like the body. I work in multiple layers of translucent glazes, building the image up over long periods of time. Parts of the image get obscured through editing the work while other parts are destroyed and then resurrected from earlier layers. It’s not until the work is finished that I appreciate the art historical references, theory, personal experience and research that’s fed into it. The connection between the body and the performance of painting is fundamental. The imagination is massive and there’s so much I still want to do. I need another hundred years! *laughs*
SM: It’s a bodily experience painting. The title of my thesis is ‘The Viral Sublime and the Bodily Experience of Painting’. It was through delving deeper into my practice that I realised how the body and painting contribute to a physical artwork. Merleau-Ponty writes of how our bodies are integrated into the fabric of the world and how painters are able to live purely in this enmeshment with the world and express it visually in their works (Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, 2c, see 161d). I’m not a great one for theory but I enjoy Merleau-Ponty. I also draw connections from American artist Ross Bleckner, and Santiago Ramón y Cajal. I so admire his drawings related to neuroscience. I made a painting recently; ‘The Burden of the Dendrite’.
DA: Good title! *laughs*
SM: Dendritic ulcers! *laughs* Another painting - ‘The Naked Virus’. There’s so much emotion in that painting. I realised once it was finished that it was deeply connected with the anxiety over my eye problems at that time. It marked a turning point in my research regarding the part that the subconscious plays in painting. It’s like when you go to the studio, you start off with five or six people with you in your mind, and one by one they leave until you’re left with your body and your subconscious. If I’m lucky I leave the studio too! *laughs* Then you never know what’s going to happen, but on reflection the painting always seems to relate to what I’ve been researching. It’s fascinating. I love being an abstract artist because you never know what you’re going to get. I like how James Elkins describes painting as ‘liquid thought’.
DA: Oh wow, that’s beautiful. It’s like you’re channeling your thought through your body.
SM: Yeah. I’ve started in the last year to use parts of the body to manipulate the paint. Exploring paints inherent qualities and working more intuitively to see what comes.
DA: You’ve touched on this a bit but how do you usually work?
SM: Alone in the studio with either Ennio Morricone or Chopin’s nocturnes… something classical to take me away someplace else. The light and the line are the two fundamentals that always seem to remain.
DA: The one over there hasn’t got a line yet.
SM: Not yet, no.
DA: Is the line the final thing?
SM: Often, yes. They are like the minimalist figure in the landscape. Nodding to Modernism and the colour field painters, namely Barnet Newman. I call them biomarkers because biomarkers in science are used for many things, one being to measure our individual susceptibility to things, which I find fascinating. I’m interested in the body and the corporeal. Our bodies have such wisdom if we can just access it. I love reading about epigenetics, and how through editing the human genome science is changing the face of medicine as we know it. It makes me think of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ where the natural processes of birth, ageing and death are no longer recognisable. What might it be like to be human in the future?
DA: Completely. Do you not fear that at all? Is it only excitement you feel?
SM: There’s a bit of fear since germ-line engineering in the wrong hands could be annihilating. But fear of dystopian change shouldn’t blind us to the benefits to society, as this type of science could signal the end of so many inherited devastating genetic diseases. With gene editing technology scientists can sever the DNA of certain viruses, so perhaps many conditions, which are incurable today, will become curable. I’m hopeful that in my lifetime CRISPR technology might release me from the virus that causes Keratitis. It’s a virus that I fight with on a daily basis and have done for decades. Science is achieving incredible things just now in curing certain cancers and other deadly diseases. It’s an exciting time to respond to the science of my time in terms of my practice.
DA: It makes me think, what would happen if no one died of diseases? The population would grow exponentially, and we wouldn’t be able to support ourselves. It’s difficult!
SM: It is a daunting prospect. When I read about science extending the human life span through deciphering the genetic codes responsible for controlling limb regeneration it’s like the stuff of science fiction. Whatever would happen to the pensions crisis!
DA: Yeah, exactly! It’s a pretty big problem! But then I guess if you were coming to later life in a healthier state… it’s just prolonging the inevitable surely.
SM: Yeah, people would live a lot longer but as you say a healthier old age would be better.
DA: But would you be immortal if you could be?
SM: Oh no, no. I wouldn’t want to live forever, would you?
DA: No! Not at all.
SM: No, I’m exhausted *laughs* But I’d like at least another 20/30 years of painting if that’s possible?
DA: Hopefully you will! I guess with your eyes as well, how much does it affect your painting?
SM: It does affect my painting in that I paint how I see. My long-term fascination with blur against sharpness maybe due to my left eye having scarring in the line of vision causing permanent blurring, but I also have areas of sharpness. So as long as medicine can keep the virus in its latent state my eye will be fine. It’s just my left eye that’s the real problem. So, I like to believe that I’ll always be able to paint.
DA: Fingers crossed.
SM: I won’t deny that’s it’s a huge anxiety.
DA: Yeah, for anyone, let alone an artist where there are more levels of anxiety to it. Sight is integral…Can you tell me about your gallery representation? How did you start your relationship with NoonPowell Fine Art?
SM: Rachel the gallery director was looking for new artists at the time. She had seen my work online and was so enthusiastic about it.
DA: Do you have any upcoming shows or anything you’re specifically working towards?
SM: I’ve had a really busy year with shows. I’ve just finished a painting that has sold to a film producer in Los Angles so that’s great. I’m also going to be exhibiting in a group show coming up at Mall Galleries through NoonPowell, and I’m preparing to present a talk about how medical research inspires my practice, at Imperial College this September. The Department of Medicine have been really supportive throughout my doctorate so I’m looking forward to engaging the public through becoming more involved at Imperial as artist in residence.
DA: That’s wonderful, congratulations! What’s your favourite piece that you’ve made? I know it’s a tricky question.
SM: It is, because they all have a part of me. Perhaps ‘Truth Lies and Hidden Realms’ and the other is ‘The In-between’ which is now in a private collection. I was trying to think about why they’re favourites. Possibly some of it is the time that I spend with a piece and whether it becomes a turning point in my practice. All the work is very labour intensive and these particular pieces were painted over two years. ‘The Inbetween’ was painted at such a difficult time in my life. I had lost two studio spaces because they were sublets and I was trying to sell my property in the country and find somewhere to rent in London at the height of the property boom in 2014. At one point I was actually living in my studio in Peckham. There was a huge sense of solace in being in my studio painting. I think studio time is really precious anyway because we all have to do admin and all the other stuff that comes with being a professional artist. The relationship with both these paintings during that period was very intimate. This can make it hard to let a painting go, but at the end of the day, it’s that sense of solace that I feel in making a painting that I want to transmit out into the world. I always remember Eileen Cooper’s advice to ‘not become collectors of your own work’. Her words always ring in my ears whenever I find it hard to let go of a piece. We live in such a chaotic horrid world that’s why I’m doing it at the end of the day.
Come and see Suzi’s work in ‘Sensibilities of Belonging’ at the Mall galleries, The Mall, London SW1 from 11th to 16th September 2018. Click here for more information.