ONE GLANCE IS NOT ENOUGH to really see the magic works of Toronto-based artist Janet Morton. Certainly her pieces are easily accessible—viewers quickly relate to the warmth or wool or the sturdiness of canvas and immediately see the humor inherent in a sweater for a giraffe or a house dressed for winter. But such creations also invite audiences to take a long, hard look at how humans view and interact with objects and environments. When viewing Morton's art, look twice—first to enjoy the surprise of the unexpected and then to be drawn into deeper potential meanings.
Madison-area residents and visitors can look forward to being surprised and delighted when Morton comes to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the spring of 2004 as an Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence in the Department of Environment, Textiles and Design. Co-sponsored by the Department of Art, her residency will feature an outdoor installation at the School of Human Ecology as an integral element of its one hundredth anniversary celebrations, followed by an exhibit in the School's Gallery of Design under its centennial theme of "Pattern" in all 2003–2004 exhibitions.
Within the past several years Morton has arrived on the "A" list of Canadian art stars, having received the Canada Council Paris Studio Award, the Ontario Association of Art Galleries Best Exhibition Award, and numerous other accolades. Her work has been listed in Now Magazine's list of "Top 20 Best Exhibitions" since 1981 and earned praise in Eye Magazine and Canadian Art Magazine, among many positive reviews.
Morton often begins her creations with the warmth of a hand-knitted wool garment and then transforms it to fit varied subject matter. A series of hand-knit garments for animals at a Toronto zoo features "Cardigan" (for a giraffe), "Balaclava for a Rhinoceros" and "4 Work Socks for Pat the Elephant." The works point to the perversity of exotic animals living most of the year outdoors in a cold Canadian city.
In "Cozy," Morton enveloped a cottage in a knit casing of more than 800 recycled sweaters. As winter approached, more than 25,000 people ventured by ferry to see the house, located in a wooded area on Toronto Island. Later, "Cozy" was installed using a freestanding frame in a downtown park often frequented by homeless people. Some park visitors chuckled at the unlikely sight. Others caught the irony of a house dressed for winter in a society where homelessness left many people out in the cold. Morton's art is not didactic. But encasing animals, plants, and inanimate objects in textiles does spark consideration of human excesses and anthropomorphism, as well as humor.
More recently Morton has used other materials to alter familiar objects, for example, encasing the trunk and branches of a seventy-foot maple tree in canvas, then painting the canvas to look like birch bark in an installation named "Dark Roots."
What Morton's audience sees is usually not what they expect. Viewers are advised to first appreciate the obvious humor and delight in the unexpected — akin to finding a snowball in the Mojave. Then look for the inner connections to critical thought: what is the cost in time and money to create that snowball (or giant mitten or hat for a hippopotamus) and what is excessive adornment?
Morton's artistic impulses were nurtured at home and abroad. Growing up in Burlington, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Morton always created art. "I have always made things," she says. "I grew up drawing and painting, and spent countless hours building forts."
Working in her early twenties as an au pair near Paris, Morton was first exposed to contemporary art. "I chose to study art at University not because I wanted to become a professional artist, but because I felt it would provide a broad base for learning," she says. Morton earned her bachelor of fine art degree from York University in 1990 but also received an artist's education through extensive travel in Europe, Central and South America, the Middle East and India. She learned to knit in Denmark while still a student in 1980, although she did not begin to use wool and yarn in her art until 1992.
Knitting, and garments in general are a recurring theme in Morton's work as she extends their use onto nature, animals and inanimate objects. "The intent has been to playfully transform objects, critically examining impulses of anthropomorphization taken to extremes, misplaced sentimentality, and control of nature," she notes.
Morton had never identified her "coverings" as "costumes" until "Dark Roots," which she completed during the summer of 2002 outside the main entrance of the Stratford Shakespearian Theatre. When one of the Shakespearian Festival actors saw the 150-year-old transformed maple tree, he remarked, "Finally, I'm not the only one in costume."
Costuming unlikely objects in clothing to suit their perceived "needs" displays Morton's interest in how humans assert and impose style and prescribed aesthetics onto virtually everything. "Working with mundane, everyday objects I amplify this imposition to a monumental scale," she admits.
Morton's projects often contain added measures of humor and care demonstrated in a sincere investment of time and labor to produce a relevant transformation that is at the same time delightful and absurdly excessive. "It is my intention," she says, "to make publicly accessible work that asks questions about perception, about truth, about equations that link time and money and about the ways in which value and meanings are assigned to objects."
Her audiences often ask about the amount of time and labor her art requires. "I think it is an important question for people to ask," Morton says. "How do we spend our time and energy?" Identifying priorities is part of how we create meaningful lives.
Another common reaction to Morton's work is a smile, or a laugh. "Because the work is often seen in a setting where it is not expected, humor often bridges the gap," she says. Morton's use of clothing and textiles also creates an immediate empathy with her audience. "Everyone knows what a sweater feels like," she points out.
Morton's understanding of humanity and all its natural and made environments grows from her education, travel, and an eclectic career background. To "buy time" for her art, she worked for more than 10 years in the reforestation industry, living four months of the year in a tent while planting and managing the planting of trees in clear-cut forests. Morton estimates she has planted over a million trees during these summer assignments. "Being engaged in repetitive labor gave me a lot of space to think about ideas and I found it really inspiring," she says. Morton, who now teaches yoga, as well as art and design, gravitates toward labor-intensive work and meditative processes. "It's all related," she says, each work leading to another and all inspiring her artistic creations.
While on campus, Morton will teach a multidisciplinary course, "Transition and Transformation in Sculpture." She will provide students with the opportunity to explore the metamorphosis of both an object and site-specific space.
In the course, "I will be encouraging students to work sculpturally using textiles and other non-traditional materials," Morton said. The students will create site-specific works on campus or in a domestic environment, transforming the space to consider the relationship of nature and architecture to humans.
As snow-covered lawns again gradually evolve to green grass, Morton will undertake her own outdoor installation on the UW-Madison campus. She describes this endeavor as "a landscape painting." Unlike many of her earlier projects, this one will not involve enveloping the building in a garment. "Instead I intend to resurface the exterior of the School of Human Ecology, altering the character of the facade of the building and the trees and hedges in front of the building," she explains. "These surfaces will be covered in canvas and painted." From the street, the historic 1914 building will suddenly appear entirely different from the one people are familiar with.
This multimedia transformative project will encompass performance art in its creation, as students from various University programs work with the master artist to assist in its creation and installation. Passersby will be able to view the building's metamorphosis and progress on this unique example of public art, and individuals across the globe will be able to join the audience via a Web cam feeding photos to the Human Ecology centennial Website.
Visitors to the School of Human Ecology's Gallery of Design can get an additional behind-the-scenes view of the outdoor installation in an exhibit set for May 12 – 22. It will offer a final stage for Morton's residency and explicate the initial concepts and technical expertise that will transform a building—and a campus—for a season in Madison, Wisconsin.
–Doris Green, School of Human Ecology
For more information call 608.262.8815 or visit
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