Mary Akers: Today I’m speaking with our guest illustrator, Morgan Maurer.
Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Morgan. We are so honored to have your fine work illustrating the April issue of r.kv.r.y.. In particular, I know some of the authors were really moved by your work. (Check out Dennis Mahagin’s interview, in which he refers to you as a genius.) Were you surprised at the intensity of the reactions? What was your favorite reaction?
Morgan Maurer: I have to say that the successes I had visually rest primarily on the shoulders of each author. As a piece of writing would progress the imagery would pop out and just hang there for me to grasp. So much of my personal process comes from a place of emptiness that with so much information available I was the best kind of overwhelmed as I created these pieces. In that light, I feel a little sheepish for such high praise.
Anne Elliott’s response was an important one for me because, as she pointed out, the potency of that day is and will always be so raw. What grabbed me in “The Lemon Method” was what I perceived as a battle between spectacle and intimacy when a loss is shared by so many people. As the author she also never said “9/11” explicitly so I was nervous that such a seemingly literal translation might not have been well-received. But it was important for me to build that unforgettable dual silhouette, and to do it out of the empty space and surrounding buildings and cranes at Ground Zero itself, because I cannot help but go through that very act of reconstruction every time I think about those events.
MA: Along those same lines, do you think that people find meaning in art that they want or need to find? When you have not consciously put those associations in there, how does it make you feel to be interpreted in a different way than you intended?
MM: That question gets to the heart of what excites me about creativity and perception. I always enjoy hearing what people have to say when they see my work because I think that a strong response to a work of art is very similar to the scientific definition of resonance. The lives that we have all lived and the experiences we have accrued directly affect what we seek out to enjoy and how we interpret what we see. In a single choice one makes, from what type of music to hear or film to watch, the hierarchy of filters it has sifted through is quite impressive. Equally impressive is our ability to superimpose ourselves into the things we are perceiving, like books or paintings. So in a way we are constantly making comparisons to ourselves with the things around us and finding how our wavelengths interact. The associations some people have made in my work to aspects of their lives or to things they have seen have been so interesting, and at times so elaborately personal that their descriptions were honestly better than the work.
MA: Brilliant. You expressed that so well I want to write it down and frame it. It sounds like you see art as a conversation. (I do!) It definitely takes two to be fulfilled–the creator AND the viewer. Do you feel like you are engaging in a dialogue with the world when you create?
MM: Mmmm, I will answer that one on two fronts: first I feel deeply attached to the tradition of Painting. I love how a universal and simple human impulse to make marks or create illusions on a surface has over time manifested itself into a rather awesome history of intellectual pursuit. It is pure pleasure sifting through that stuff and then throwing up my own ideas or revisions. In that aspect, painting is very much like a dialogue with other painters, both friends and peers as well as painters from history.
Second, I also definitely maintain a conversation with the viewer. However, it is a far more adversarial back-and-forth than any I have ever really had, so I guess it is more accurate to say that it is like being in a critique with someone who sure did their homework before class. That voice forces me to try and get things ‘just right’ so I am glad it is hard on me.
MA: What do you think about art as a form of immortality? Does that concept have anything to do with your desire to create? And if not a desire for conversation or a stab at immortality, why do you think we create art?
MM: I strongly agree with the idea that art is a form of immortality. Unless I made a grave miscalculation somewhere at least one of my pieces will outlive me and I have always regarded that as pretty cool. Further–and getting back to the idea of tradition–to stand in front of a Sculpture or within an well-composed building is to feel participation: a personal immortality attained through the appreciation of our combined efforts. But I think we create art not only for personal recognition and perhaps fame everlasting, but for many people it is mostly about communication. Observing the overlapping and conflicting forces in one’s life and finding an interesting way to express it to others.
MA: Did you have a favorite piece of written work in this issue? Did one of your illustrations emerge as a favorite? Were these one and the same?
MM: Oh gosh, they are all inspiring, but “In The Basement” by Stephanie Freele is the most notable piece for me. It is the farthest from my personal context and still the one I responded to most completely. It was hard for me to read and I really felt the pain that was being expressed. That fact alone didn’t surprise me so much as its intensity. I had to confront the hard issues raised by this piece in order to compose an illustration, and trying to figure out the whats and the whys in visual terms was difficult. How do I, as a young man, give proper visualization to these words? It was a bit of a struggle and it pushed me to ask questions I would not normally find cause to ask.
MA: I loved that piece of Stefanie’s, too. And speaking of visualizing work, I’ve recently been struggling with bringing to life something that is very clear in my head, but that I can’t seem to get onto the page. Do you also have that problem of the work not achieving the vision? In your experience, do the most exciting and inspiring ideas always translate into the best completed work?
MM: The worst is when the vision that was so elegant and incredible last night dries up into a stale cracker the moment you see it the next morning. No, I often do just jump right onto a panel with an idea and try to work it out as I go. Usually it all works out. Sometimes it results in some sandpaper and a new start. Sketching and doing studies are a great way to transition an idea into a project and to maintain the initial inspiration. But even then, damn isn’t it horrible when you realize you may need to jump ship? But even the failures are lessons: even bad color combinations and improper proportions help to inform the next idea.
MA: For me, making art is like serially monogamy. I have to “move on” and forget the earlier project in order to fall in love with the current project and give it my all. Do you find this true in your own work?
MM: …And I get a little hurt when my current work isn’t everyone else’s favorite either. I fall in love with all of my leading ladies.
MA: Ha, definitely. And finally, the really big question: Is a piece of art ever finished?
MM: 99% of the time that answer is an unequivocal yes. I am a harsh self-critic as I have said, and there is nearly always a moment where the !DING! is heard. But I never want to see that other 1% ever again. Those paintings started out hard and wrestled with me the whole time until we came to an exhausted truce. Good riddance.
MA: Wow. This has been an excellent and enlightening conversation, Morgan. Thank you so much for participating. I feel like we should head to a pub somewhere now, to finish the discussion–and invite everyone to join us.
MM: Thank you for inviting me to be a guest illustrator, Mary. Also, a hearty thanks to each writer for their contributions as well. The project was both challenging and very fun!