Friday, May 1, 2009

Leslie Morgan

I first saw some work by Leslie Morgan at Zonal in January and then literally ran into her at the ArtSpan Benefit Auction in March. Now that summer is around the corner, she has a slew of shows on the calendar, so it's time to be introduced.

Some people never forget the things that surrounded them in their youth, but Leslie Morgan can't seem to forget what was absent:

"I grew up in the middle of a really ugly west Texas desert [...] It was brutally hot there and the closest body of water was 600 miles [away] in the Gulf of Mexico. So, I was always obsessed with water."

When something so essential is so exotic, it's probably bound to make an impact. From an early age, water was therapeutic for Morgan, in a literal sense:

"I had asthma and allergies really bad and my mom put me on a swim team when I was eight in order to increase my lung capacity. I was really good at it and I would just kind of space out in the water. I guess it was one of my first forms of meditation"

Morgan was also creatively engaged in her youth, but her experience was dominated more by the people involved, feeding her sense of visual humor:

"My mom was really big on crafts, making stuff [...] She put me in oil painting classes in junior high with the lady who was our local artist/character [...] She had a big piece of property in the middle of town and the trees [were] planted in the shape of Texas, so if you flew over her house you would see Texas. She was kind of eccentric"

Knowing she loved the water, Morgan wanted to be a marine biologist, but she didn't have the grades in science and math. So, pursuing her interest in people, she studied psychology in college. There, she discovered photography, which became a lifelong interest, but, again, there was a strong social element to her practice:

"I went to a liberal arts school that forced us to take an arts class every semester, which I loved, and I got really into photography. I did a lot of black and white photography through college. Even in my twenties I always had a dark room in my apartment and I would go out and do photo shoots with my friends"

Morgan stopped doing photography when going to graduate school in San Diego, and it would be many years before she resumed. Focused on her career, she moved to the Florida Keys, where she was the only female clinical psychologist for a fifty mile radius:

"I answered an ad in the American Psychology Association Monitor. This guy needed a clinical psychologist for his psych ward, a locked psych facility [...] He ended up being one of my best friends"

Over the next ten years, Morgan practiced as a psychologist and enjoyed being surrounded by her beloved H2O. She kept upgrading boats until she was living on a 47 foot motor yacht:

"I got my captain's license and every chance I could get I was out on the water. When I wasn't listening to patients sitting in a chair, I was on my boat - I spearfished, I scuba dived and basically hung out in the water as much as possible"

About six years ago, Morgan moved to the Bay Area to be closer to her brother and adopted niece. It proved to be a bigger change than just zip codes and one that led her to making art:

"I gave myself two years off from psychology [...] and the farther away I got from it, the less I wanted to go back to it. I realized how toxic all those years of listening to pain and suffering had been"

When her brother, who collects art, was preparing his daughter's bedroom, Morgan suggested hanging work by a female artist. He insisted on only hanging original art, and Morgan took on the challenge:

"I painted a picture of Frieda Khalo [...] They were really afraid because they never seen any of my paintings, so they were afraid it would be really bad and what would they say [to me], what would they do with it"

But Morgan's humor prevailed and despite friendly teasing, her painting replaced a piece by an established artist on the wall of the bedroom, instead of assuming the wall of the closet. As aquatic reference go, the floodgates opened:

"I kept painting, I just got into it. Then [my brother] moved to Barcelona and I think that kind of freed me up, too, because my brother had always been an artist and not having to compete with him and not have him show me his San Francisco artist world, I discovered a little bit of it on my own. It gave me freedom to explore."

Meanwhile, Morgan had become involved with a local synchronized swimming team, which became a major source of subject matter. She then began working from older photographs that her mother had taken around the pool, evoking a sense of nostalgia:

"I just think water is so universally human and necessary. And I think we also all carry inside of us the memories of the joy that swimming pool water provided us as kids. That kind of glee, that joy. Nothing changes your state of mind like jumping in a pool of water"

Then things got really... deep. Reviving her interest in photography, Morgan experimented with taking pictures underwater:

"I went out to a pool in Walnut Creek that a friend of a friend's had. I took the dogs and a couple of disposable underwater cameras and got some amazing pictures. [After that,] I bought an underwater camera and I started taking pictures of my team"

By taking her viewers underwater, Morgan gets closer to her own therapeutic relationship with submersion:

"I used to hold my breath and sink to the bottom of the pool and lay there. [I would] look at the sunlight coming in and just kind of trip out on how beautiful the water was. I think that's what I'm trying to convey, especially for my underwater pictures, is that perspective. That sense of ease, that beautifulness that you get to have if you're relaxed in the water"

Dive in to more of Leslie Morgan's work at her open studio this weekend in Hunters Point. She also has upcoming shows at Studio Gallery in May and June and at Frankee Uno in August. She frequently shows at City Art and her work is regularly on display at Zonal, where she will be the featured artist in June.

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