Interview Annie Morris, Artist
Morris’ multi-disciplinary practice draws on both her personal experiences and her studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris and the Slade School of Fine Art in London. After first working with painting and drawing, Morris began creating her now famous sculptures of stacked irregular spheres in 2014 following her experience of a stillbirth. An expression of grief and an exploration of trying to grasp the fragile and vulnerable, Morris’ ‘Stack’ series feature precariously arranged columns of spheres in plaster or cast in bronze, painted with vivid, raw pigments in Ultramarine, Viridian and Ochre. These deep, intense colours continue to appear across Morris’ work, which now includes tapestries and a stained glass window in The Painter’s Room bar in Claridge’s.
With one of her ‘Stack’ sculptures included in this year’s Frieze Sculpture at Regent’s Park, her Claridge’s commission unveiled and her first UK solo museum exhibition on show at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Morris tells us how she’s managing to get it all done…
THE WICK: Talk us through a typical Monday.
Annie Morris: On Thursdays and Fridays I’m alone in the studio, so a typical Monday involves picking up work with the team that’s come in — it’s always a busy day, with plenty to catch up on. I always start the day doing a drawing. That’s a nice thing to start with, especially since the beginning of the week is always hard for everyone. I have this little space at the top of my studio and I normally start there, where I draw and then sew, and when that’s done I’ll start thinking about sculpture and meeting with the team and planning out the week ahead.
TW: Your work is preoccupied with themes of womanhood. Who is your favourite heroine, in fiction or real life?
AM: Most of the artists I gravitate towards are women artists, and I particularly love Louise Bourgeois. I was lucky enough to be able to spend a lot of time with her in her studio, chatting with her about work. She had salons where you could go and draw and she’d give you a mark out of 10, then we’d have whisky and hangout and chat. You had to bring her these special chocolates that she liked. I was so glad I was able to do that. I remember someone showing her a landscape work and her response was simply, “I detest vert!” She was opinionated in the most wonderful way. I’ve also become close friends with Rose Wylie, and I think she’s incredible, both in the sense of her work and her personality. She has a twinkle in her eye and she’s exciting to be around.
TW: Where does your passion for intense, pigmented colours come from?
When I was a student at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, I was always obsessed with pigment and I wanted to make canvas paintings that explored the shape of the owl. I was interested in the simplicity of the shape, which is so beautiful, and so I made these giant owl paintings. I created this system of painting linseed oil onto the canvas and mixing it with ground graphite pencil dust to make a deep, dark background. Then I would literally throw pigment on the canvas in this very immediate way. I was trying to work out how I could use pigment in its rawest form, not to make paint but to make the surface have that same velvety, fragile surface that you find when you open a jar of pigment. I would scratch into these paintings, creating something between drawing and paintings.
Years later, after going through the experience of having our stillborn baby and all the things Idris and I went through during that long period of shock and grief, I found myself looking back to what I’d done then. Often with my work, I like to try things, try materials and mess around with different combinations, and leave things unresolved in my head. When I was making my sculptures, I revisited those owl paintings, because I was interested in creating that same raw, fragile quality.
TW: One of your vibrant sculptures is included in this year’s Frieze Sculpture. How does seeing your work in this public outdoor space impact how you understand it?
AM: It was so exciting to have that work outside. First of all, I have made works in bronze before but they’ve always gone to collectors’ houses so I’ve never really seen them once in situ. It was amazing to be there and see it go up amongst the trees, and now to see it as those trees around it change colour and as people react to them is wonderful. I’ve walked through the park a few times and seen children sitting around it, people coming to it as a meeting spot — it’s so lovely to see it with energy surrounding it. It also helps me understand more about scale, and has got me thinking about the possibilities of what could happen next and where these sculptures could go. It feels so enormous when you’re creating Stack sculptures in the studio, but then you put them in these outdoor spaces and it completely changes your perspective.
“I would love to see one of my sculptures installed outside near a body of water. There would be something really beautiful about seeing it interact with that environment and reflecting back at you.”
TW: In addition to your inclusion in Frieze Sculpture, you have your first UK, solo museum exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), for which you created an exclusive series of sculptures. How did you approach creating works for this context?
I have a sculpture outside the Weston Gallery, and like with the Frieze Sculpture install, it’s wonderful to see it in this context, with shadows moving across it. Somehow it acts like an invitation into the gallery where I have more works, drawing your eye into the space. I did make a number of works specifically for this exhibition, but I also wanted to ensure a large body of work was represented in the space. I was able to bring pieces from my own collection and borrowed them from collectors — as many as I could — so I could make it feel like a forest. At this exhibition, I have tried to recreate the feeling of being in my studio, of what’s it’s like to be surrounded by my works. Often I make them in series, so there’s a lot going on at the same time. It feels strange to me to be in an empty room, especially a studio.
In both the YSP and Timothy Taylor show, I also exhibited very large new tapestries that I’d been working on during the pandemic. This period allowed me the time to concentrate on these more detailed pieces, that were based on spontaneous oil stick paintings that I’ve been making using the pigment paint that I mix up for my sculptures. It’s great to see these works because it’s an exciting new exploration and direction, but they still connect to the intense, pigmented sculptures because they come from that same place.
TW: What can you tell us about the inspirations for your mural for the new Painter’s Room bar at Claridge’s?
The Painter’s Room at Claridge’s is a very small but beautiful bar. The first thought I had was that I wanted it to feel like you’d stepped inside my sketchbook, which I’m constantly drawing in. Because it was Claridge’s, I wanted it to be a refined version of that, so I took my drawings and made them into large templates. I painted onto them three or four times to give them this quite thick quality that would stand out from the wall — the soft grey tone against the pink wall means they simultaneously appear and fade away.
In the middle of this is the stained glass window, titled ‘Woman with Moon,’ which was the really exciting part for me because I’d never worked with stained glass before. I approached it by thinking about watercolours, because for me glass has something similar in its essence. I painted several ideas and selected one to be made into glass. The one I picked was actually a study for a tapestry for the Timothy Taylor show. The glass is all hand-blown in Germany in these beautiful colours, and the moon is a piece of glass that the glassmaker had kept from his father for 50 years, that has now gone on to be included in this piece. It was a wonderful experience to work with this medium and certainly one I’d like to continue to explore.
TW: You’ve described your sculptures as being about holding onto something that has fallen, capturing the fragility we all feel in our lives. How have the events of the past years influenced your perspective on fragility and vulnerability?
AM: When things started to get really scary last year, I remember going to the studio and literally grabbing anything I could. I was so frantic, throwing together as much oil stick and material I could find, and then we escaped to this rented little place in the countryside with the children and stayed there. It was such a scary time, and in the beginning it was all unknown. Interestingly, what became the most fragile aspect of lockdown was the materials. We kept trying to order more but the art shops were always out of everything, particularly in the beginning. It became this period of making do with whatever we could get our hands on, including our kids’ highlighters! We were all living in the day-to-day. I was able to stay up really late working, and I would draw and paint into the night, which I loved. It was actually amazing to spend such a prolonged period of time out of London, and to see the seasons change. I don’t think we’ll have a time like that again with such intensity, and in many ways I did appreciate it, and what it taught us about what is important. It was undeniably life-changing, and personally it made the materials feel more precious to me.
TW: How do you see being married to artist Idris Khan affecting both your working practice and personal relationship, and would you collaborate in the future?
AM: We definitely do collaborate on ideas all the time, and we’ve done two exhibitions together in India — separate work, but in the same space — which we really enjoyed. There’s no question that sitting next to someone who makes art and with whom you are so intertwined is going to impact the work you make. When Idris starts a project, he does a lot of preparatory work, testing out materials and ideas, and I’ve learned a lot from that, because my nature is to delve right in. I have realised I can learn a lot from another artist. I think my work has also influenced him — his last exhibition at Victoria Miro was all about colour, and obviously that’s something I’m obsessed with, and us being together in the countryside seeing the seasons change was definitely a driver of that work.
TW: What’s a dream setting where you’d like to see one of your sculptures installed?
AM: I would love to see one of my sculptures installed outside near a body of water. There would be something really beautiful about seeing it interact with that environment and reflecting back at you. My real dream is to make a series of works based on Barbara Hepworth’s “The Family of Man” — I think a forest of bronze sculptures outdoors would be amazing.
TW: What’s your favourite culturally curious spot to visit for some creative inspiration?
AM: I’ve always been completely obsessed with the Serpentine. I love the shows they put on and it’s in such an inspiring spot in the park. My brother had this great idea that they should open a smaller location called the Serpentiny, which I think would be brilliant.