Thomas Morrissey has been making art and teaching (he’s a Professor of Art at CCRI and former Gallery Director there) in Rhode Island for over 30 years, but his story extends much further back than that. His exhibition, Approximately 7,642 Pounds of Art, Stacked and Arranged, is on display now at the AS220 Project Space gallery at 93 Mathewson Street in Providence.
It should be noted, dear reader, that the views expressed in this interview belong solely to the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of AS220, it’s staff, or representatives.
For starters…where are you from / where were you educated?
I am from Miami, Florida and attended the University of Florida in Gainesville for undergrad work and Arizona State University in Tempe for my MFA.
So, this is your third AS220 show, the first being in 1999. How did you originally connect?
I have been involved with AS22o, on and off, since the original days when it was located above PPAC. Those were some fun and interesting times. Not sure I recall exactly how I bumped into it. Probably through Leo’s or the Met. Recently, I was reading some AS220 history and noticed that it said that the Weybosset Street location lasted for only 6 months. Sure seemed like a longer time back then, but it was an exciting new – much needed – venue for RI and having been involved with similar alternative spaces in Florida and Arizona, I got involved. I was quite younger then. Sometimes these days, I wish they had “old folks night” or something as most of what goes on is aimed at a younger audience, I believe. Still, it is a good spot.
You read as an extremely accomplished artist. You’ve exhibited or had installations around the country / the world, pieces in in the collections of major museums. Why exhibit at AS220 which, in comparison, does not seem as high-profile and is also a place where you have to get on a waiting list for [x number of years] with everyone else to get a space?
I have taken advantage of the galleries, as you point out, 3 or more times over the years. It is a nice space and it has always been fun and motivational to know that commitment is made in advance with no strings attached. AS220 allows for creativity and experimentation… isn’t that what art is all about? In my statements hanging in the gallery, I quote Clement Greenberg observing that “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first.” So that explains why most spaces show work that is safe. Even work that appears to be “cutting edge” is usually pretty safe when it comes to its political correctness, audience demographic, etc. It is audience specific, politically incorrect in a certain “correct” way.
Think about it, museums have their reputations at stake. Heaven forbid they show that guy Van Gogh (oh yeah, they like his work now, I forgot). Even work that is in galleries that is accused of being “confrontational,” is not really. Sure, it may upset the non-art gallery folks, but it all sure scratches everyone’s backs that go to these places. I am sort of bored with work that “demands” and seems to be some sort of attack on a common truth. I know, I know, “who am I to claim any inside track on ‘truth’?” Ah, postmodernism.
AS220 gives someone the opportunity to test the waters in a unique way. The space seems not too concerned with retail sales or other issues that have always directed commerce (fine art included) across this planet. So, it is a good site to play with some installation ideas. So, the 2-year wait rolls around and you do it.
You were a Fulbright Scholar to Vietnam, have a permanent sculpture installed in Hue, Vietnam, and have published a monograph of photos from the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial. What is the connection / why is this so important to you?
I am a Veteran of the Vietnam War. I was a helicopter pilot in what was called a “special-ops unit.” It seems like an issue that has been on a back burner when it comes to art since the 1960s. Funny, it was a stigma and in many ways still is in many “artsy” communities. Tell me how many Vietnam Veterans are/were ever on the faculty at RISD, Brown, or any other institutions in the similar mindset? Being a “Vet” has surely the kiss of death on one’s academic resume. So, as I am not all so politically correct, I see no reason not to focus some of my visual thought process on this subject.
The symposium in Vietnam I was invited to was a very rewarding experience. I had been invited to a prior symposium (around 2000), but the college where I teach did not see this as professional development and would not give me the time away to participate. Fortunately, when the next symposium rolled around, I was able to get there. I was fortunate that they had invited me back.
My book is in about 400 college, university, and public libraries around the country, but not in RI, to my knowledge, until I gave a copy to CCRI. I think it may be in the collection, I am not sure. The images from this project have been exhibited in galleries and museums around the country for years and they were included in the ExhibitsUSA traveling exhibition program for several years in the early 2000s. They are in some of the boxes.
I am starting on another book on the topic: Vietnam: 50-Years Later. Last year, the US Government, under the direction of President Obama, declared the “50th year anniversary of the Vietnam War.” I began a new project then at “The Wall” and will be putting it on Kickstarter to raise the funds. Publishing has changed a lot since 2000 when Between the Lines was published by Syracuse University Press. I will be doing this book on a smaller scale of around 1,000 original boxed, signed copies, self published. I plan to release this book around 2015.
I have done a couple other book projects through things like Blurb while on sabbatical. However, the CCRI bookstore does not carry books published by faculty, so I really do not promote them much. Many of the images were exhibited in Texas and Arkansas during my recent sabbatical. They were displayed in wooden shipping crates at CCRI last Fall. You can see the books on Blurb.com.
What made you want pursue a “career” as an artist and also enter the field of arts education?
A bad economy. I was a military pilot in 1971. I had a head-strong plan to fly with the major airlines. However, when I got discharged from the service there were fuel lines at the gas stations and gas rationing, a horrible economy, and the airlines were laying off pilots daily. So, I went back to school. I was forced to take a couple of art classes as prerequisites for a photography class. This was in Miami, FL at Miami Dade. Fortunately for me, Christo was the visiting artist along with Ralph Gibson that year. I said to myself: “I would like to do that,” so I did. Switched majors from political philosophy right there on the spot. Still miss flying though.
You do work in a wide range of artistic disciplines – what’s the reason for not concentrating on just one field?
ADD? I don’t know, really. I guess it is because I take my artistic license from artists like Christo, Robert Morris, Rauschenberg, Smithson… and the likes. Oh yeah, don’t forget Eva Hesse and Carl Andre. These artists were more about thought than medium. Unfortunately, in addition to paying the bills, teaching at a community college in Rhode Island for going on four decades doesn’t provide much of a venue, nor an audience, for such work. So, I sort of settled into photography for several years as it fit into my lifestyle with kids, a mortgage, a job at a community college, etc.
Funny, I attended events in California and Texas (states somewhat larger that Rhode Island) and there, the dialogue and interaction between the community colleges and the full-fledge universities and art schools is almost seamless. I attended the Cal State Summer Arts Program at Humboldt State University in the very early 1990s to learn the newly emerging field of digital media. Faculty from all of the above levels of education were there, some teaching, some as learners. It would never happen here. So I have done what I could, considering the constraints of my environment, as would most anyone in this situation.
You’ve been a professor at CCRI for over 30 years and also the Gallery Director. What role do community colleges play, and how important are they, in providing affordable access to arts education and opportunities to the public?
Community colleges play a very important role providing an entry point for people who do not fit the mold for more “upscale” institutions. I have had many great students over the years. As I just mentioned, in some states community colleges play a better role than in others. I, myself, am a graduate of a community college (Miami Dade Community College in Florida). I taught there too, prior to moving to Rhode Island. As I said, Christo among others (like Lee Krasner, Peter Saul, Terry Allen, Clayton Bailey, Robert Arneson just to name a few), all visited the campus. I was fortunate insofar as I was one of the few students that got to go to the informal gatherings with these people in the evenings, drink beers, and talk about art and other perhaps unrelated topics. It was a great experience. We offer a full program with better facilities in some areas than others, but we provide an opportunity others don’t.
Community colleges in general, however, seem to be very overlooked by the folks in the big leagues. They are under-represented or often not represented at all in professional associations in post secondary art education such as CAA or FATE. I founded and was president of an affiliated society with CAA; CCPAAH (Community College Professors of Art and Art History). Annually at CAA we would often draw upwards of 100 people to our sessions. As I am looking in other directions now, I have recently passed this banner along to a new generation.
Here, as gallery director at the CCRI Lincoln Campus Gallery for over 20 years, I hosted Aaron Siskind’s final solo exhibition shortly before he died (I am sure it is not listed on his resume, though). Just weeks before, he gave a lecture at the RISD Auditorium; it was standing room only. The crowds raved. However, absolutely nobody aside from some students who happened to be in my photography class that evening came to Aaron’s opening. Seriously, not one person that I recall. Needless to say, Aaron and the woman who assisted him getting around at that point were a bit disappointed.
Same Aaron Siskind… different venue, nobody interested. So, you ask about the role of community colleges; we play an important role, kick starting hundreds of kids to get up and moving (quite often out of Rhode Island) every year. The hardest part is when you initially speak with them about their plans, they say something like: “Oh, I don’t know… transfer either to RISD or RIC.” They have no idea as to how large the world is, much less the country. How much range there is between their two foregone conclusions. Several schools send reps to CCRI. The Chicago Art Institute sends a rep here every year, as does Mass Art and others. They come to the Seminar Class I developed and teach. Many kids transfer to these schools often, some don’t. There is a lot of peer pressure in Rhode Island intimidating lots of the students I encounter. I resigned as gallery director this semester over some ethical issues I had with the administration’s policies on insuring artists’ work.
Tell us about your trip to Cuba – how you were able to go, what you experienced and what you took away from it, your goals for it?
Cuba was an experience, especially having grown up in Miami in the 1960s and experiencing the first waves of the folks escaping the socialist/communist government of Castro.
I miss the Miami I grew up in and knew; it is now a totally Spanish speaking foreign nation. I know this is not a politically correct thing to say, but it is true. In the late 1950’s, Dade County had right around 500,000 people. After 1960, the population jumped to just under a million. Overnight. Now it is pushing 3 million and, according to the recent census, over 72% of households are non-English speaking.
Our borders are a real issue and anyone who thinks differently hasn’t a clue, or, they have just been blinded by the “education system.” I have spent a lot of time in South and Central America; we (Americans) can’t buy property there. I am for equal immigration rights. That is not what we have. Most of the Latinos I know in Florida do not plan to stay here. They really do not want citizenship despite what we are told. They want to move back to their countries with the money they make here and live high. Even most of the Cubans in Miami. Many still look forward to Castro’s demise and returning to reclaim their property. I do love Cuban coffee though. I drink it every day.
Going to Cuba and attending “Anti-American” rallies was quite interesting. Between yelling “Free Elian,” people would ask: ”Are you from the United States? Where?” “Oh I have an uncle who lives there.” “I am waiting for my visa.” The US held a lottery for US visas a few years back. There were a few thousand available. The number of applicants they received was something like 70% of the population of the country. You tell me.
I exhibited the images from these trips quite a bit and had a book contract with the University of Wisconsin Press at one point. The editor was let go and, along with him, my contract. I still may self-publish. I have made a few installation pieces based on the makeshift items the Cubans have to deal with (Ladder Form #7 is one).
One year, my students donated unwanted ceramic tools at the end of the semester. I took them to a small pottery where I worked for a few days. They loved it. These were the first “store-bought” tools they had ever had in their possession. Jokingly, the head ceramist said: “The evil Satan of the United States has reached it’s claws even to this pottery shop.”
I went legally, with a visa. I took groups of community college professors from across the country on cultural research trips. We received no support from our workplaces: probably 5 trips total. Believe me, it is not any US Embargo that is holding Cuba back.
We drove around in 1953 Chevys with 3rd party diesel motors and makeshift taillights, smoked some cigars and had some beers with folks we met. As it turns out, perhaps the cab driver or the guy that hands out towels at the pool might have advanced degrees in some field of engineering or may even be a medical doctor. But tips are better than wages, so they lay low and work in some aspect of tourism. Cubans are banned from eating lobster. They wait in a long line for an ice cream cone on the assigned day to have one. All in all these were all good experiences.
You’ve said that a fear is “after you die, a dump truck comes and takes all of your work away. … I think an important part of being an artist is to have your work be collected, archived and become permanent.” Is that reflected in this exhibition – (almost) everything is boxed, labeled, weighed, valued, behind a gate, under lock and key, with video monitoring…?
I wouldn’t exactly classify it as a “fear.” A concern, sure, but fear is wondering if you will survive or not. But think about it, does any artist work all of their life making stuff just to have it all go into a landfill? Well, perhaps an artist who teaches at a community college.
A great part of this AS220 installation/exhibition is a bit tong-in-cheek. Like Duchamp, I am addressing much of the absurdity that exists in the insecure world we call “art.” Just this month, I read an article in one of the art publications on why art critics must at times change their minds on a work of art; declaring it bad one day, great the next, then perhaps bad again another day. Not exactly infallibility. They are like weather reporters, if you think about it. Making wild but somewhat informed guesses, often being proven totally wrong. That is what I think is the case with most of what I see in galleries today. It will be discarded in another 100 years as a waste of time. I would bet you on it but neither of us will be here to collect, will we?
This installation, as the title and statement suggest, is about questions of “value” and “security” and all of the things administrators and officials seem to focus their attention on. We have, after all, become a very litigious society have we not? So, why bother to unpack the work? It just creates more work and potential problems. Just crate it up and keep it safe. Take my word for it as the artist, it is good work. As I said in my statement, it is a good opportunity to temporarily clear some space in the studio for cleaning and the idea of using art as a medium intrigues me.
So, yes, I am planning to donate all of the years and years of negatives and digital files to some archive somewhere, perhaps the University of Texas Center for Study on the Vietnam War. Not sure yet. But the work is available in bulk, boxed up, and ready for the taking so to speak. A bit like the TV show Storage Wars. Take it on a bet that whatever is in the box will be worth it. Just think of all of the Van Gogh paintings that were burnt up in the wood stove by his mother. Not a bad find, if you happened to grab one from the woodpile.
Is that actually 7,642 lbs of art?
Actually, I believe I may be a bit overweight. Is there an excess baggage fee?
Tell us about your upcoming retrospective.
Later this year, July 8 through August 24, I will be holding a 40-plus year retrospective exhibition at the University of Rhode Island Feinstein Campus in Providence. The exhibition will consist of over 90 pieces, ranging from early work in the 1970s when I was in Florida and Arizona, through the present work such what is now in the AS220 Project Space on Mathewson Street. It will be a good opportunity for me to take a look at this conglomeration of my life’s work – selections from every decade in various media- and decide if it all made any sense or not. Go see it, you tell me.