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interview by julie farstad

Above: Darrel Morris, Who'll Be Sorry When Who Is Gone?, thread on canvas, 71x60 in., 2001. All images courtesy the artist and gescheidle, chicago.

I should start with congratulations, because it has been the Year of Darrel Morris. This past fall, you were in Pictorial Seams at Betty Rymer Gallery, Hobby Lobby at Gallery 312, and Here & Now at the Cultural Center. How did it feel to suddenly be ubiquitous?

Nerve-wracking is how it felt. Usually I don't agree to do a show if the work isn't done, but there were just so many things going on, I ended up finishing new pieces right before the shows. Luckily, I happened to get a grant and could hire assistants. The whole public part of exhibiting, though, is another drain--plus I was teaching all semester--so by the end of it I was ready to collapse. It's much more enjoyable to look back on it now, than it was when it was happening.

So how does a guy from Kentucky come to be making embroideries?

That's a long story.

Well, we hear you're a storyteller.

I'll try to give you the short version. I come from a really poor background, so I learned how to do all sorts of craft things. As a child my grandmother taught me to quilt and braid rag rugs--which is what my Hick rug is based on. I got a chance to go to college sort of accidentally; I had taken drafting classes in high school, and I always loved to draw, so I got an associate degree in drafting, which was basically a pre-engineering degree. I worked as a draftsman and technical illustrator for a couple of years, but I hated the 40-hour week and the whole structure of an office. Plus, I realized early on that I was more interested in the drawing part than understanding the engineering part. I had been painting, drawing, and writing since I was about 12, or maybe even earlier than that--my apartment was full of really bad paintings--and I had gotten to a point where I couldn't answer the questions I had about color and other things. So I went to work on my BFA at University of Kentucky. I was primarily painting, drawing, and printmaking. My undergraduate paintings, for the most part, were really small, and about halfway through I started making fabric sculptures. Embroidery was a way of bringing together my paintings and my interest in using those materials. In fact, I found it was quicker and easier to get at the details of the work through sewing than it was in paint.

And as you say, it had this connection to your past.

Yeah. I was interested in bringing materials in from the world, because they carry meaning. I had seen very little painting growing up, except in the encyclopedia, so paintings didn't have as much meaning as things made out of recycled material--like quilts--that were magic to me. Economics also had something to do with it, because my embroideries cost a dollar or maybe two dollars to make, whereas a painting costs quite a bit to paint. I wanted to make a quantity of work, and this was a way for me to do that.

You then went on to graduate school in the Fiber Department at the School of the Art Institute.

Yes, from 1985 to '87. Part of the reason I came here was Chicago's interest in folk art. I was very interested in folk, outsider, and visionary art, and also people like Ivan Albright--I really loved his work.

How did you see yourself in the broader artworld context, at that point?

A lot of us in graduate school were really interested in being accessible to a larger audience, rather than just an art-educated audience. It was the early years of postmodernism, when artists were using a lot more text, and working outside the gallery system, on billboards and stuff like that. And I'd always been very political. I don't really consider my work "political" as much as "social" now, but at one time I was trying to be very directly political.

You show at gescheidle, which very much places your work in the context of painting. And I find I read your work like I read a painting. Is that something you intentionally cultivate?

Well, it's all image-making. And it seems to work both ways: there are some inherent qualities I love in textiles, like the image coming out of the structure, but I also use paint technique in sewing.

Has tapestry influenced you at all?

Well, Carole King's album did! But no, I'm much more interested in folk, African, and South American textiles. And a lot of the time, men are making those things. Also, the sense of color, I think, comes out of my research into the American South and the influence of African-American culture. All of that was much more important to me than European tapestry. For one thing, I don't use conventional western perspective; I draw much more from an African or folk tradition in all sorts of areas.

What other artists interest you?

Color field painting has been really important to color in my work, but most of the time it's the people directly around me who influence me. Heather McAdams, the cartoonist for the Reader, has been a friend for a long time, and Susie Brandt, whom I went to graduate school with and who now teaches at the Maryland Institute--those are more just philosophical influences. Maybe Sue Coe was interesting to me at one point. Actually, writers have been way more influential.

Like whom?

All sorts of poets. Emily Dickinson, modernist poets like Elizabeth Bishop, and confessional poets like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton. For the last five years, Toni Morrison has been enormously important to me, too--just inspirationally. I don't know how it has affected my work, but I've read all of her books five or six times. I'm at the point where I'm obsessed with the subtext of the subtext of the subtext of the subtext. I read some things about art, but more because I'm teaching than for my own work. I sort of absorb all of it, but going into the studio I don't really take it with me--consciously.

Those literary influences are interesting, especially since you do refer to yourself as a storyteller. How did that start?

That was conceived as a shortcut to describe what I'm about; I'm very much a storyteller when I do a slide lecture, for example. And I'm currently working on a 2,000-word essay for an upcoming book called The Object of Labor, which is an anthology involving about 30 artists and writers that is being produced through the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute. I'm writing stories about all the crummy jobs I had before I went to art school, and then I'm using reproductions of embroideries that were influenced by those experiences. I think I would probably be a writer, if I hadn't had such a horrible early education. I've always written poetry and short stories and things, but they never make it outside my journal. I was making art long before I became a critic of it, but I became too much of a critic of writing before I started to do it myself. So now, it's like I have to write as well as Toni Morrison!

Language moves in and out of your work; you make pieces that are specifically text-based, as well as pieces that are strictly pictorial. Then you also make intimate combinations of embroidery and text that are more like painful cartoons.

Well, I still very much want my artwork to be visual, so I only use text when there's absolutely no other way of doing it. I'm also very interested in text when the materials add something to its meaning. But it's getting to the point where stitched text is so prevalent that it's almost boring me--and I'm one of the people responsible for that!

You ruined it for yourself!

Right. So I'm trying to bring other ways of doing text into being--like the Hick doormat. I just did that Somebody piece, which uses sequins and beading, and I used a computerized sewing machine for the Darrel Plath-Morris piece, where I hyphenated my last name with that of a feminist martyr. Granted, that work is purely a one-liner; it's a joke that's been going around with my friends forever, to the point that somebody once said, "Just don't go stick your head in the oven!" And I replied, "Well, I have an electric oven!" I have to say, though, that I'm probably more pleased with myself when I pull the work off without any text.

You make drawings as well. How do you decide what needs to be sewn and what needs to stay a drawing?

There are a few things that need to stay drawings, and they're usually more those one-liners, or more like cartoons. I work in collage and ballpoint pen, so they're probably not going to last very long anyway. If I like an image and want to bring more of an emotional quality to it, I love working on the color--which is probably one of the hardest things for me. Another reason I work in fabric and thread is because I think the color is so much richer than it is in paint. It also moves the work into the realm of relief sculpture. The sewing just makes it more--it makes it a thing. But so much also comes out of the process of working.

Can you be spontaneous in thread? How does that happen?

First of all, I don't make decisions much ahead of time. I have a general idea of how it's going to go, and then I make it up along the way. It's not until I'm almost done that I know what it's going to look like, and once that happens, it's hard to finish. I almost have to have a deadline. With these larger pieces I've been making recently, most of it is already planned out--which I like, because I'm teaching three classes and I can come home and just sew. I would never do this if I were off for the summer by myself, because I would much rather be making drawings and trying to come up with new stuff.

Left: Good Paper, embroidery and appliqué, 8-1/4x6 in., 2001. Right: Bellbottoms, embroidery and appliqué, 7-1/2x6-1/2 in., 2001.

The large-scale works look more like sewn line drawings--the figures are stitched outlines rather than solid embroideries. Granted, you're not going to make a 6-foot embroidered man...

Although I have done an embroidery about that big. It took six years.

OK...that's insane. So scale is a determining factor in this formal shift, in the sense that you need to be able to complete the work in a reasonable amount of time. But there also seems to be a shift in content. The smaller embroideries are narrative, real, and situated in a domestic space; they seem like intimate moments from your history. By contrast, these larger pieces, with their flat, undifferentiated backgrounds, suggest a psychological space, or a psychological projection of the world.

That's exactly it; they're spaces in your head. I've yet to completely develop a language for talking about the larger works, because they haven't been around me that long. And when I was drawing them--well, for the past 15 years, I used to not worry what anything meant, because I never thought anyone would see it!

Boy, were you wrong!

Also, just as you work longer, you end up doing everything you ever thought of. It's one of those things I try to get my students to do--to record everything--because if you end up being an artist for life you'll make every idea you've had, and then make versions of it. (laughs) I've kept journals throughout my life, and if I try to do a show on a specific topic, I go back through all of them and gather all the material--writings, drawings, the tons of pictures I collect--about that subject.

A lot of your imagery seems to depict masculinity--specifically, the dad. When I see a big figure with a tie looming over a small boy, or these parades of faceless men, I relate to those as father/son moments. How do you see yourself exploring themes of masculinity in your work?

First of all, they're all based on collage--they're found images out of newspapers and things, so there is a kind of documentary quality to them. There are some women in there, too, but I think it started out as that father/son sort of thing. Then it went on to bosses and all kinds of authority figures.

So you're talking about power.

Right. Although there are women depicted in the work, as well, who seem to take on the same role as the male authority figures at certain times.

There's an interesting dynamic in using sewing--which is such an accessible tradition--and found materials to talk about the structures of power.

Well, first, they're made of old clothing, which places the work within a social context: American, male, working-class, time, age. Also, stitching as I do it has a kind of visual stress that is related to the content.

You talk about storytelling, and your interest in confessional poetry. How does autobiography play into your work?

Well, as I said, I start with a lot of found or existing imagery, so I don't really set out with ideas about what I'm going to depict. I move pieces of paper around and it just sparks things in my head--things I remember or witnessed. To me, it's most magical when I'm not manipulating the story at all, but just reporting what happened. Growing up, I experienced some abusive parenting. I have clinical depression, and when I was diagnosed with that, and with anxiety disorders, I found out my father had suffered from the same things. A lot of his abuse was meant to help me become a better human being, to be tougher in the world, so in some sense, he meant well--he was just very depressed. I haven't entirely forgiven him, but I understand now why things were the way they were, because he didn't have the support of psychiatry. I also have a brother who was 18 months older and the total opposite of me. He was athletic, a bodybuilder, and a part-time taxidermist. He's very money-hungry, as well, and we fought constantly. But in terms of expressing these things in my work, it's less direct: I'll put this together and that together and it'll hang on the wall for years, and suddenly it will remind me of something from my own experience. I've been doing this for about 20 years, and I find I just keep digging and discovering more and more stuff through the work. A lot of friends of mine say, "Why don't you just forget the past and enjoy your life?" But that doesn't seem to be an option!

One thing that really strikes me in your work, especially in the smaller embroideries, is the feeling of shame.

Shame, guilt, fear. I probably never hear good things, no matter how much is said to me.

You remember the bad stuff.

Over and over and over again! Especially since I can be really funny and sarcastic with people--and nasty. (laughs) In the moment I'm really just trying to have a good time. Then I'll come home and hate myself for it.

I do that all the time. And as I'm going to bed, I think, "I can't believe I said that! I'm so stupid!"

Right: "I should just stay home!" In fact, there's a piece I keep thinking of doing, based on something I say often: "the whole world would be a better place if everybody just stayed home."

In Hobby Lobby, there was a pillow you embroidered with text that read, "Like me now, daddy?"

Actually, all of those pillows featured found quotes taken out of context. That particular piece has 15 yards of fringe sewn around and around on it, and the quote comes from a review of a show of my work. Basically, this critic wrote that all my work seems to be saying, "How do you like me now, daddy?"

How did you feel about that interpretation?

I think I had thought of it--and I'm not sure I liked it. But it's true.

The one piece that hit me the most with its feelings of vulnerability and shame was an embroidery in Pictorial Seams. In it, you have a large figure looming over a barely-there child, who is only stitched in outline, and it talks about not being able to use the "good" paper.

You know, my father said that to me when I was probably 4 or 5: "Don't use good paper to draw on! Use the back of an old calendar, or the inside of an old envelope." I did the original drawing, just of the father, probably 10 years ago, but it wasn't until I thought of making the little boy transparent that I finished the piece.

Yes, that's what got me--how you would become invisible in that moment.

The paper is more important than the little boy is.

You also used different pieces of found fabric, sewn together.

Right. In that work, one is a piece of polyester I'd had around for a while, another was from a pair of pants of mine, and another was from the inside of a sweatshirt I wore for a long time, which my mother gave me for Christmas.

So you're still drawing on the old envelope, in a sense.

Very much so. When I was at school I would buy really nice paper, and I had to let it lie on the floor and get dirty in order to be able to use it. I could never face the blank canvas.

Is that also a holdover from childhood--that you have to use the scrap because nothing you do is going to be worth the clean paper?

Partially, but it's also just my philosophy to try to live simply. I was a graduate advisor at SAIC for a semester, and one of my students had this great idea for a piece that was going to cost her a thousand dollars to make. I told her, "Just come up with the money and make it." She said, "I don't see you spending a thousand dollars on a piece." And I said, "Well, I don't get thousand-dollar ideas. I get thousand-hour ideas."

Four Men, collage on paper, 8-1/2x11 in., 1988.

When one makes autobiographical work, it forces the viewer into a very intimate relationship with the artist. Do you ever consider the audience's reaction to your work? What do you want to inject into that uncomfortable space between you and your viewer?

I do consider the viewer's reaction at some point. And some people feel embarrassed. There's a line I try not to cross; meaning, it has to be useful to someone else and not just about my own pain. I do ask that question of myself. Certainly my work is therapy for me, but it's also therapy for other people. I think I break silences, especially for men. I hear that a lot when I lecture.

Men specifically tell you you're breaking silences for them?

Not in those words, but yeah. And lots of women do, too.

What does your family think of your work?

They haven't seen it for a long time. I got tired of their not understanding it, so I just stopped showing it to them. My sister sees a few things every now and then. We're pretty close; she's a weaver and makes baskets, and shows at craft fairs.

But your dad doesn't see these.

The lounge chair in my bedroom is the last piece I showed him, because it was in the Lexington, Kentucky, newspaper. He saw the article and then he saw the piece, and he said, "Why is this any good?" I'd go home every year or so, and the neighbors would come over, and he would have these conversations like, "He spent nine years in college and can't even fix his own car!" Even when I'd tell him I had a show at some museum, he'd ask, "How much money did you make?" So there's no understanding whatsoever.

And you still can't fix a car.

Right. And this brings up something else I've been thinking about a lot lately--how I don't seem to fit into either world, the art world or the world I grew up in.

You don't feel like you fit into the art world, even after all those shows? The art world loves you!

Yeah, I know I'm something of a cult figure, but I'm not going to be in the mainstream of the art world anytime soon.

Do you feel that's partly because of the perceived status of your medium?

I don't know why I feel that way, really. Maybe because I don't leave the house! But also, I think I work at a slower pace, because of my technique. And in order to be a really successful artist--

--you have to produce.

Big time. And you have to sell, and make prints and things, and have a staff, and work the scene. I don't do any of that.

You do have a staff, though.

Well, as I said, I had assistants last summer because I got a grant. That was the only time. I had co-op students before, and I've usually traded them work. But it got to the point where I felt so guilty about not being able to pay them that I would end up buying books for them, or spending an hour and a half making them lunch. And I would only ask people I knew really well, because they were inside my home, literally. Last summer, five of us were in my bedroom working on the large black piece, Climb, because the bed was the only place clean enough and large enough to work on, and that we could all get around.

I think if there were one place you'd fit in, it would be the art world.

I think I fit in with artists. I love artists.

But not with the structure of the art world, or the commerce of it.

I've been referred to by some people as an "artist's artist." I don't quite understand what that is. But the truth is, most of the people who own my work are artists.

Pointing (detail), thread on canvas, 57x76 in., 2002.

Have you ever sensed a backlash from feminists because you choose to work in this medium? You know, it could be seen as crashing their party.

Actually, the feminists have been the most helpful career-wise; they put me in shows.

But when a man makes craftwork, it seems unavoidable to raise questions about the politics of gender. How do you feel that plays into your work?

I think there's such a history of that activity now that I don't even consider it an issue, for me or for the world. For people like Mike Kelley, that's a major point in his work, but I just see it as image-making--like any painting--with a material that had meaning in the world. I was very much concerned with feminism early on, but now I don't genderize things so much.

Feminism laid the groundwork for work like this, but then postmodernism made every material accessible to everyone. Has that neutralized the political weight your work, or this type of work, could have?

To some extent, yes. As I said, I was very political early on, like in high school. I couldn't stand the way my mother and sister were treated, especially in church and other arenas like that. But I never really felt masculine or feminine in some ways--I saw myself much more as just a person. I think my early work was all about looking at the non-heroic male, or the stereotyping of men, so in that way it was very much growing out of feminism. But I don't know now; there's a lot of water under the bridge.

Is that one of the reasons your work has moved away from the political and toward, as you've said, the social?

Well, part of that is just about getting older. But I've also had a realization that the world doesn't want to be saved. People don't really change their minds; ultimately, you're just reinforcing what they already believe. And I got more interested in taking apart relationships--how we function one-on-one in the world, how we coexist. That became more interesting to me than using slogans, for example. You know, when you're living almost completely in the art world, everybody's already converted anyway. I'm also very much an old-fashioned artist. I want to make beautiful things that show the hand of the maker. I still like a little "visual" in my visual art.

It does seem there's this general trend in art away from the political and toward the personal. Maybe it's because that political sting has been taken out of art in some way--it has been said and done to the extent that it has simply become another style.

Well, my earlier work--and some of my favorite artists' work--was always personal and political at the same time. Frida Kahlo, to me, used herself as a symbol of European culture's rape of the Americas, and George Grosz reflected culture like a mirror. I think that sort of work is still being done, and it's a valid thing to do. Personally, as I got older, I just got more and more entrenched in my own thinking and my own head. How can I talk about global peace when I can't understand why I can't get along with my relatives? When I get angry just witnessing what I do taking the el downtown?

That said, do current events affect your work at all?

One of the larger pieces--Pointing--specifically came out of my experiences protesting the Gulf War in the 1990s. I had been involved in petitioning and calling senators, but once the war started, I just stopped. My roommate at the time was watching CNN constantly, so I hid in my studio and made the pointing collage/drawing just as a way of standing it. You know, that war was covered like a sports event. But everything comes in--too much for my health, actually, because I feel it in my body. I think we're really in a crisis right now; I can envision all sorts of world wars once the first domino falls.

You say you don't think people can change. Do you think, then, that art is a futile way to talk about these issues?

I think art fortifies people. I've been in shows about abuse before, and I've been told by people who work directly with victims that art about the subject bolsters them, and makes them feel that what they're doing is important. It's certainly important to create an historical record--to document not just the truth, but also interior space. People can change; I just don't think it happens that much. I like showing in community centers and college settings because that's where people's minds are still being formed. I think that you can be changed up until a certain point, and then you get locked in. Maybe you can always be changed--but bumper stickers aren't gonna do it.

Clearly, we're living in a country obsessed with the culture of confession. How do you feel about that, and where your work fits into this trend?

I have to say that probably the biggest influences on me were the singer-songwriters of the late 1960s and early '70s--Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor. They were taking their lives and making art out of them. I hate reality television; just puking your life out on camera isn't that interesting if you're not manipulating it into any form. I'm not verbatim reality--I always say my work is 95% true. I do change and manipulate in order to make something poetic, or to emphasize a point.

Sometimes the truth is in the hyperbole.

Right. Also, I have to say that I want to be believable. I've had a rather difficult life, and I get so tired of celebrities talking about their problems on television. I don't have anything to my name, and this person has a billion dollars and is getting lots and lots of press. Or they're happy. I don't know that many happy people; everybody I know is just struggling to get through. At best, you're content. I just read this book called Unholy Ghost, which is a compilation of writers writing about depression, and one of them said that, basically, life's sad. I think we feel like that's unusual, because we see all these people on television who have incredible lives, and we pretend we're connected to them, or that we actually know them.

After all we've talked about, though, your work never seems to have a chip on its shoulder.

Well, there's usually a subtext of humor to most of my work. I think one of the reasons I went from being outwardly political to being more interested in the social is that I was much more angry then, and I didn't like what it was doing to me. Humor is very healing. I see what I'm doing now as growing out of blues and country music. It's sort of bemoaning; you know, "Life's awful, but let's sing about it. Let's commune over it, and make something beautiful out of it."

Darrel Morris is represented in Chicago by gescheidle, where he will have a one-person exhibition in Spring 2004. gescheidle will also be displaying his work at Navy Pier as part of Art Chicago 2003. A monograph written by Ann Wiens will be published by Telos Art Publishing (Winchester, England) later this year. The Object of Labor, produced through the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, will be released in 2004.