I know and surround myself with a lot of creative people, and it always amazes me when it turns out a painter is a fine writer, or a writer can also dance ballet. When I was in high school, I thought about being a painter, and even had a special scholarship with two other girls to attend Mass College of Art special classes. But though I've continue to paint, writing took over.
When I heard that acclaimed author Mary Morris paints and saw some of her gorgeous work, I wanted to buy a painting! Mary Morris is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the critically acclaimed novels The Jazz Palace, A Mother’s Love, and House Arrest, and of nonfiction, including the travel memoir classic Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. She is a recipient of the Rome Prize in literature and the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Award for fiction. Upcoming soon in June 2020 is All The Way to the Tigers, and trust me, you WANT this memoir, about traveling solo, finding redemption and ...tigers!
Thank you so much for being here, Mary! I love my painting and I love you.
It’s always fascinating to me when writers do other creative things. They also dance, or paint, or act, or knit or sew or sculpt outrageously well. But what is more fascinating is how seriously we creatives take those other things that we do. I’ve been painting since I was a kid, and was good enough to get into a program for high school students at Massachusetts College of Art. I did oils and acrylics, watercolors and pen and inks, and then writing took over. Art was pushed to the background, and though I still love to paint watercolors, I don’t’ take it as seriously as my writing.
Which brings us to you, and your gorgeous paintings, which you obviously take seriously.
How did you start to paint? And why?
That’s so interesting that you have this visual art background. I never knew that! Also funny that you think I take my paintings “seriously.” I actually try to take them “unseriously” if you know what I mean. I guess it all goes back to the mother, doesn’t it? My mother was a very creative person. She could do anything with her hands. She sewed and quilted. She had great craft skills and she painted. I have a vivid memory of watching her paint a strange image of a woman whose face was a brilliant blue on one side and black on the other. She was wearing an enormous hat. I remember watching my mother make this painting.
When I was fairly young I took painting classes with a man named Jerry Valez. He had a small studio on a side street in our town and I’d go there once a week and paint in oils. I’m not sure how old I was but I had a sense at a young age that I wasn’t very good at it.
Still I always loved, and still love, painting and visual art. But I never learned how to draw. This has always been a ……. I wanted to draw but I just never got around to taking a class. Anyway I started traveling and I traveled a lot and then one day I began to bring a visual component into my travel journals. They were very multi-media and included collage, some drawing, pen and ink, and at some point I added watercolors. I began to travel with a small set of watercolors and with time the journals became as much as what I saw as what I felt (and in which case wrote down).
What does painting mean to you? What do you hope it means to those who see and love your work?
Freedom. I find that I am completely free when I am painting. I am often very ego invested in my writing (and I wish I weren’t). As a friend once said to me years ago, if you’re ego gets in the way you’re doomed for all eternity. I am egoless when I paint. I honestly don’t care. Another quote I like comes from the Rose Tattoo, this middle-aged woman shows Marlon Brandon a landscape she painted. A very ordinary landscape and he just stares at it blankly. She says to him, “I know they aren’t very good, but I feel better when I do them.”
That is what freedom is about for me. Feeling better means being more in touch with an elusive part of yourself where you can be very present and quite frankly have fun. Be playful. The minute it stops for me in painting I’ll probably stop doing it. I guess basically I have to not care. Recently I got my first commission and I just couldn’t do it. It was for a big piece and required special paper. Most of my paintings have been in my journals or on small sheets of paper. But this was to be big. It had to fill a wall in a friend’s new house. Needless to say I felt a huge sense of responsibility. And then I finally said to myself, for lack of a better word, fuck it. Just do what you’ve always done. Do it intuitively.
When others look at my painting, I want them to feel the joy that I feel when I make them.
I don’t know what I am doing when I set out to paint. I let the colors, the moisture and texture of the paper, the quality of the pigments dictate to me. There’s an artist whose work I like and I have been studying her technique. Her name is Barbara Nechis and the book of hers that I rely upon is called Watercolors from the Heart.
What other writers or artists have influenced you in this work?
I know he’s fallen out of favor but I have always been drawn to Henry Miller as a thinker and as a painter. I love his travel writing and his literary essays. His Colossus of Marousi is, in my opinion, one of the great travel books. And I love his painting. He painted all the time and he published several books of his paintings, including one called something like Paint and Die Happy. That’s about where I am at.
I’ve also been influenced by some of the great journals such as the journals of Frida Kahlo. There’s a terrific facsimile of her journals that you can buy. And also Dan Elon who was an incredible artist and journalist who died tragically in Somali at the age of 26. His mother put together the extraordinary book of his journals called The Journey Is the Destination. His work is just amazing.
And finally I am incredibly drawn to the work of Joan Mitchell in part, at least initially, because she was married to my cousin, the publisher of the Grove Press, Barney Rosset. Joan was Barney’s first wife and I believe the only one he truly loved. Joan is a great artist and I find it actually an honor to stand before her work. She strikes a balance between peace and power. Perhaps in some ways that is the definition of beauty – that balance that is so hard to strike.
What influence does your art have on your writing—or vice versa?
I feel as I may have answered this above, but basically if I get caught up in my ego around my writing, if I start saying to myself oh this is no good or not good enough or no one’s going like it or buy the book or whatever, I have to stop. And that’s when painting can come in.
You know here’s another good example. I am a very good cook. I like to cook. But I am only a good cook when we don’t have company, when it’s just me and my family. Because if someone is coming over, then I have to impress that person, then I have to make a monk fish with chervil sauce or something else that will make them think I’m great. And you know those meals are never very good. It’s the spontaneous ones. The ones when you say oh I have some nice mushrooms and chicken breasts and red wine. I think I’ll make coq au vin, just for the fun of it, for the hell of it. Those are the meals I wish I could serve you.
My studio is actually set up in such a way that I can swivel from my writing desk to my painting desk. For a while I had the painting desk upstairs in our daughter’s old bedroom, but then she and her husband came and reclaimed that space so I moved the art table downstairs and the results for me have been great. I can move fluidly from one medium to the next and if I start to care too much about the writing, if I start to worry it to death, I switch over to a painting where I can be much more fluid and free.