|Photo gallery: Artist Marcia Morse|
By Victoria Gail-White
Special to The Advertiser
By Victoria Gail-White
After a five-year hiatus since her last major exhibition, Marcia Morse is back with a body of work. Her show, "Women in Black," does not refer to nuns, cocktail dresses or a sci-fi movie. It's inspired by the international peace network of the same name. Her new series of mixed-media prints on paper is layered with the influences and visual impacts of distant languages and cultures.
Morse wears many art hats: She's influential as a professor of art at Honolulu Community College, art critic, freelance curator and writer. She is also one of O'ahu's most prominent artists. For the past 40 years she has honed her skills and techniques in the printmaking world. In this nine-piece series, shades of oil-based black ink the only color, layers of images of cloaked women, Persian script, hand stitching and the metaphorical ways in which women are made invisible emerge from her intaglio prints like jarring rhythms.
"The 'woman in black' is, I hope, emblematic of women everywhere," she writes in her statement, "who watch, who weep, who seek peace, who speak through their own capacity to endure."
A Punahou School graduate, Morse went on to study at Harvard University and Stanford University, where she got her M.F.A. in printmaking. She has been a strong presence in Hawai'i, exhibiting prints, handmade paper books and sculptures. She co-founded the Honolulu Printmaking Workshop (now merged with the Honolulu Printmakers).
Q. What spurred this concept to do a series based on Women in Black?
A. I've been aware for some time of this network. As reportage from the current war in Iraq began to invade and pervade the media I became aware of this iconic presence of women in black — Islamic women whose presence is really shaped by their being cloaked and veiled. I've had a long-term interest in the whole idea of wrapping/veiling. There is also that wonderful dimension of something being contained, protected but also secreted away. Looking back I think the first concrete representation of these ideas was a small intaglio print I did three years ago that I call "Bundle." It was an old shop apron that I had bundled up and tied. It was ink stained and had a humble presence. To my surprise, people responded to it. I thought it was important to use black ink metaphorically as well as visually. Sometimes the face or part of the face is visible, sometimes not. I've been interested in how body language creates our identities through that performative dimension. I think, as artists, we generally have feelers out for things on which we feed. Our appetites are visual and conceptual. Those things coalesce at times and I think that's what really happened for me in preparing for this series. This is the first time I will have an opportunity to show a body of work that's related to this whole cluster of ideas. I feel excited about it. It's a little scary, too. That's always the way.
Q. What attracted you to intaglio printmaking and how you make a print?
A. I'm really connected to the physicality of the process. Intaglio was the first printmaking technique I learned when I was living in South America in 1967. It created the printmaking mind-set for me. I had a wonderful teacher and everything came together. I liked the fact that it was a medium that would allow me to extend my interest in drawing and achieve new effects. I also like the whole ritual of organizing my workspace before I start printing; it's meditative. And, you have to be attentive to the process. It becomes a kind of dance.
Intaglio is a generic term for a variety of processes. Typically it uses a metal plate made of copper or zinc that is altered to create high and low areas. In intaglio (which is Italian for incised) you apply ink and force it into the low areas of the plate that might have been created with a hand tool or etched with acid. Where the plate is exposed, the acid will eat down and create these grooves. You wipe ink over the surface of the plate forcing it into those grooves and then you wipe the surface clean. When paper is placed on top of the plate and run through a press, the ink will be drawn out of those grooves and transferred to the paper. You can create lines, tonal areas or treat the plate by exposing it with a photographic positive — there are a wide variety of options. It's very labor-intensive because for every impression you want to make you have to re-ink the plate. ... I chose intaglio because it provides a visual quality, a kind of richness, that I can't get any other way.
Q. Does each print use a multiple of incised plates?
A. The concept of the cloaked body, the body with layers of material that control how much we know and see of the body, is important to the idea of layering, concealing and revealing. I wanted to develop a structure in the print that would play off of that kind of metaphor of layering. The images basically consist of multiple plates and passes through the press to build out the ultimate image. One plate that I've used repeatedly carries text in Persian that says "woman in black." There, another strand of imagery is coming into play and that is the whole idea of Islamic ornament — the beautiful tessellations of pattern that can occur that are now images of a person. So, there is this interplay of the figure with the multiple representations of other figures and the text becomes a mediating layer. That's one paradigm that I've used in several of the prints — combining and recombining things. I have this alphabet of images that I can begin to combine in a number of different ways.
Q. Did you know Margaret Realica before this show and did you plan this show together?
A. Yes, we were members of an organization of women artists. Margaret lives in Pacifica, Calif., now but has family here. After being invited to do the show, we met and discussed it. Both of us are involved in women's imagery. Some of her wonderful porcelain sculptures relate to breasts and have this great way of combining the organic with the mechanistic. There is going to be an interesting conversation between this two-dimensional and three-dimensional juxtaposition.
Q. You're an academic and yet you always find time to do your artwork. Is it essential to the quality of your life?
A. I guess certainly a large part of my life is centered up here (points to her head), but there is also a big part of my life that is centered here (holds up her hands) — doing things with my hands as long as I'm physically able. It is absolutely essential. For a long time when people asked why I did the work that I did I tended to see my work as meditative, in a way mindless, in that I could go to some other place in my mind as my hands were working. It gives me a kind of ordered quiet place in a life frame that was otherwise a little unruly, maybe even chaotic. I think probably the quality of my life is a bit different now but I still value that sense of structure.
Q. You mentioned something about your work coming full circle. What did you mean by that?
A. We live with this legacy of western philosophy that privileges the mind. One of the things that I keep coming back to in these prints is the way in which the body has its own language, the way in which the body knows things and is capable of things that are independent of the mind or mental control. Not just in terms of physiology, but the way memories get rooted in the body. And the way the ritualized things that women do, and have done historically, play out of that.
After getting involved in this, I remembered back to the first series of prints I did when I was living in South America. One of the titles translates to "The Mourners"— they were women in black. These things never go away, they surface and float down and then resurface again. Half the population of the world is female, and yet so often they are the remainders of a relationship, widows for example, war widows of late. I guess while the images are timely, in the sense of relating to current geopolitics and tensions in the Middle East, I hope that people will consider the larger issues of how often women and children are part of that collateral damage that is done when things are out of balance. In that sense, I'm a world away in terms of my own cultural matrix, but at the same time I feel an intense solidarity with women around the world.
Victoria Gail-White's artist interviews run the last Sunday of each month.