Gail Morris captures the spare and elegant landscape
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the July 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
On a spring day in Sausalito, CA, Gail Morris is hard at work in her studio overlooking the San Francisco Bay. A hazy blue sky peeks through windows that stretch along the north and west sides of the warehouse space. A stunning view of Mount Tamalpais greets visitors, and in the middle of the 800-square-foot studio sit two easels. On one rests a landscape inspired by rural Sonoma County, featuring a stream slicing through lush grassy fields. A thin strip of low-hanging fog hovers close to the ground.
The second easel showcases a large-scale, more abstract scene that evokes a strong, harsh southwestern light on walls and buildings. She refers to the painting as one of her “deconstructed works with man-made underpinnings.” The work in progress is eventually headed to ART Santa Fe, a well-regarded fair that opens this month at the city’s downtown convention center.
The paintings represent the two differing styles in Morris’ current body of work, which has evolved organically over the years. When Morris first started painting seriously in 1996, her inspiration sprung mainly from the early California Impressionists and their portrayals of atmosphere and light. Back then, Morris’ paintings tended to be tighter and more realistic in the vein of William Wendt and his contemporaries.
But gradually, using bigger brushes and creating countless quick plein-air sketches, Morris says her style shifted into something looser and more contemporary. Today her works straddle the line between realism and abstraction. A quintessential Morris painting evokes the mountains, fog, fields, skies, and seas of Northern California in a spare minimalism often punctuated with layers of vibrant color. Christi Bonner Manuelito, a partner at Bonner David Galleries, which has represented Morris since 2004, says, “Gail has a unique linear view of nature and combines it with an emotional expression of color. She captures the essence of the land, removing details that are not important to her eye.”
The painting QUIET AFTERNOON represents what Morris terms her more traditional work these days. A stream meanders through a field toward a vanishing point in the distance, complemented by layers of a pale-to-navy-blue sky. AROUND AND DOWN as well as ST. LUCIA WATERLINE [see page 84] are what Morris calls prime examples of her “deconstructed” landscapes—each featuring many shades of the same color and a great deal of distressing to create the final image. Morris distresses canvases with sandpaper, steel wool, X-Acto knives, and rags, leaving faint impressions or “underpinnings” behind. Describing both her more traditional as well as her deconstructed works, Morris says, “I see the sky as an element that pushes down on the earth. So rather than going back to a vanishing point, I see the landscape as elements stacked one on top of the other.”
Indeed, Morris’ early interest in California Impressionism has been replaced by styles more reminiscent of the color-field painters and abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko. The flat-planed perspective of artists like Rothko and, closer to home, Californian Richard Diebenkorn, are among her important influences today. Morris says half-jokingly that her attraction to flattened perspective may stem from being farsighted in one eye and nearsighted in the other. “The flat perspective has always interested me because of my vision; it’s the way I see things,” she says.
When creating new works, Morris is fond of alternating between the traditional and the more abstract. Hence the two easels. For example, if she has been painting larger abstract pieces, she “reels” herself back in and journeys to nearby locales to do pastel sketches. “Wolf Kahn referred to it as keeping yourself from going into never-never land,” Morris says. “You always need to go back outside to the source of your inspiration if you are a landscape painter.”
While Morris is often inspired by the California terrain, as well as scenes from northern New Mexico and Hawaii, she has traveled widely to far-flung destinations around the world. She brings a treasure trove of memories and photo references of global landscapes to her artistic table. She grew up in a string of cities across the Midwest, including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, attending six schools by the time she was in seventh grade. When it came time for college she studied painting at first, but a professor told her she wasn’t going to make it as an artist. Become a teacher, he advised. So Morris shifted to art history as a major while at Webster University in Missouri, and to satisfy her creative nature, she took up photography. Through a boyfriend who was a tour manager, she was eventually hired as the official photographer for the Joe Cocker Band. Soon she was leading the vagabond life, traveling abroad to cities such as London and Amsterdam.
The photography gig lasted three years, but finally, growing weary of life on the road, she settled down in Amsterdam. While there, Morris managed an ethnographic art gallery and continued to sell her photographs to magazines and newspapers. In the late 1970s, she returned to the United States with thousands of slides and negatives in tow. One day soon after her return, she deposited a 35-pound suitcase full of slides on the desk of an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Impressed by her work, which included 3,000 images of the Dogon people of Mali in West Africa, the editor took Morris under his wing and began publishing her human-interest stories in the paper.
A move to San Francisco in 1980 marked a period of major transitions and milestones in both her personal and professional life. Once ensconced in the City by the Bay, Morris began working in the film industry as an executive producer and met her future husband on a film shoot. After the birth of her two daughters, she decided to work part-time as a location scout for movies and television commercials. The work catapulted her across the country to scenic back roads in search of the best places to shoot car and truck commercials. “I took hundreds of photos of these locations and also stockpiled them in my brain,” Morris says. “This is when I developed a real appreciation for the western landscape.”
In 1995 and 1996, she lost her best friend and her father, both of whom were artists, signaling yet another artistic turning point. Morris had not painted since her college days, but she suddenly felt the need to as part of her healing journey. For the next several years she took workshops with both Michael Workman and Wolf Kahn. There was never any doubt that her subject matter would be the landscape. “I like nature untouched by man,” Morris says. “I rarely put anything man-made into my landscapes—the exception being a little wooden fence or perhaps a dirt road on occasion. I do, however, have a fondness for barns.”
She sold her first painting in 1997 and 10 more to a San Francisco law firm that same year. Two years later she was garnering attention and acceptance into a number of regional and national shows and winning top prizes.
In the opening lines of the 2003 book Horizon Lines: The Paintings of Gail Morris, her former teacher Wolf Kahn wrote, “The landscape paintings of Gail Morris are spare and elegant. Economical divisions set off the near from the far spaces. Color relations are abstract and resonant. These pictures are evidence of a sensuous and celebratory response to nature and to life in general.”
Although her style has changed somewhat since the publication of the book, the quote could easily apply to her work today. Her canvases are color-saturated, featuring multiple layers of thin, diluted oil paint, and she is dedicated to subtracting any element that is “fussy,” all in pursuit of keeping a work “spare and elegant.” Throughout her painting career she has celebrated nature and elements such as water. Wherever she goes she seeks out vistas with streams, creeks, wetlands, rivers, and oceans to sketch or photograph as reference material. These days Morris, an avid swimmer and scuba diver, is intrigued with capturing the many stunning shades of water, such as the aqua in the shallow waters of Hawaii’s Big Island and the pinks, purples, and grays at sunrise and sunset.
No matter what style describes her work, it suggests a sense of place while evoking an emotional response. Interestingly enough, although Morris’ canvases are vibrant, viewers also find them “calming,” says Manuelito. They seem to get lost in time and submerged in the color harmonies and compositions. That suits Morris just fine—as long as calming doesn’t mean boring, that is. “I love landscape and what I paint, so if someone stands and stares at a painting, or if someone wants to buy a painting because they are able to look at it over and over again and see something a bit different each time, then I feel like I have communicated what I feel and love, through my art,” she says.
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