FARGO — Camilla Morrison is fascinated by North Dakota women.

A native of Kwajalein, located in the Republic of Marshall Islands, she may not be the most obvious keeper of stories about North Dakota women, but it’s a subject that has inspired her latest exhibit, “Of the Earth: Stories of Women in North Dakota,” on display now at Aptitude, The Arts Partnership's incubator in West Acres Shopping Center.

Morrison, an assistant teaching professor and costume designer at the University of North Dakota, will share her inspiration, process and finished pieces, which are part of her North Dakota Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship, as part of TAP’s Summer Market on June 26 from noon to 6 p.m.

Examining womanhood

“Of the Earth” is a continued exploration of themes of womanhood through the creation of wearable art. The costumes are custom-created using painting and dyeing techniques that blend visual art and costume design.

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“The purpose of this work is to share stories and experiences of being a woman through the creation of avant-garde costumes,” Morrison says. "This work shares the stories of individuals who identify as women and includes discussions of aging, motherhood and their joy and sadness of being a woman.”

Morrison interviewed several women aged 20 to over 80, who either live or once lived in North Dakota. She then used their stories to brainstorm poetry, collages and, ultimately, the avant-garde costumes now on display and represented in photography and poetry.

“What I did is sort of looked at the common ideas that have come up across individual stories, because this can’t represent everybody's experience perfectly,” Morrison says. “So what I wanted to do was find things more of the world could connect to if they just looked at the design.”

The result: wearable art designed using various techniques, fabrics, layers and constructs that all represent symbolically what it means to be a woman in North Dakota.

“I wanted to find a way to express personal stories and feelings without using a script or a play. As a costume designer, I used my medium to share those stories,” Morrison says.

“Waters We Know” will be on exhibit at The Arts Partnership’s Summer Market at West Acres in Fargo on June 26. The piece is part of a larger exhibit called “Of the Earth: Stories of Women in North Dakota.” Photo courtesy of Camilla Morrison / Special to The Forum
“Waters We Know” will be on exhibit at The Arts Partnership’s Summer Market at West Acres in Fargo on June 26. The piece is part of a larger exhibit called “Of the Earth: Stories of Women in North Dakota.” Photo courtesy of Camilla Morrison / Special to The Forum

Culture to culture

Though her upbringing on a U.S. army base in the Marshall Islands couldn’t be more geographically different than the landlocked tundra of North Dakota, Morrison says the cultures have some similarities.

“In the Marshall Islands, the culture there is very theatrical and has a lot of celebrations and music,” she says. “In North Dakota, a lot of things remind me of home and a lot of the women-identifying individuals’ attitudes toward the environment and the importance of community really help me appreciate the area.”

As in her hometown of Kwajalein, Morrison also noticed the women of North Dakota can be represented through collective stories woven together through her interviews with female North Dakota natives.

“I asked everyone the same set of questions and eventually their answers took on some common themes. From there, I created a collection of stories,” she says.

The results: five wearable avant-garde pieces handmade, each with a story to tell.

'Necessary Strength'

From her interviews, two common words that came up to represent women included strength and safety. Morrison wanted “Necessary Strength” to symbolize both the strength of women in North Dakota, juxtaposed by the constant need for safety.

A green piece of fabric drapes from the armor breastplate and connects down the back and drapes onto the ground.

“This represents that women have to continue to think about safety," she says. "The person wearing it wants to be able to move around really quickly, be really strong in the armor, but they have this piece of fabric on the ground, someone may have to carry part of that fabric. To me, one person cannot solve that problem on their own. It’s a problem the community really needs to think about together.”

“Necessary Strength” symbolizes both the strength of North Dakota women, as well as the constant need to protect their safety. Photo courtesy of Camilla Morrison / Special to The Forum
“Necessary Strength” symbolizes both the strength of North Dakota women, as well as the constant need to protect their safety. Photo courtesy of Camilla Morrison / Special to The Forum

‘Love and Expectations’

Morrison felt really strongly about including something about motherhood.

“The questions I asked interviewees were, ‘Do you feel called to motherhood?’ and ‘When did you notice that about yourself?’” she says. “Depending on the generation, they said, ‘No, I know I don’t want to be a mother,’ and they’ve always known that about themselves, but otherwise people would say, ‘Yes, absolutely that is something that I knew was going to be a part of my life,’ but they didn't necessarily make that choice.”

The results: a wearable piece that looks like a tree with roots of varying lengths, all representing the heaviness and lightness of the choice (or lack of choice) to be a mother.

“Love and Expectations” examines the ways some North Dakota women perceive femininity and motherhood, alongside the expectations of both. Photo courtesy of Camilla Morrison / Special to The Forum
“Love and Expectations” examines the ways some North Dakota women perceive femininity and motherhood, alongside the expectations of both. Photo courtesy of Camilla Morrison / Special to The Forum

“In the costume, the performer can still move around but it’s a lot heavier on one arm, which is covered in a light mesh that has red thread woven into it. That represents the choice not to have children or the fact that the ability to have children is in the biology of many women-identifying individuals,” Morrison says.

‘The Waters We Know’

For this piece, Morrison asked interview participants: “What does the word feminine mean to you growing up and what does it mean to you now? Has it changed throughout your life?”

Her interpretation of their answers resulted in a rainbow-painted dress using silk painting on crepe silk with a hand-painted mesh overlay.

“This piece is all about the complicated relationships that women have with other women and the idea of femininity,” she says. “The bright colors of the dress represent when they feel really connected to other women and if it feels natural. The mesh dripping overlay represents how muddy it can get as we get older, but we can sometimes push away. Sometimes it gets in the way, but sometimes it feels light and easy.”

“Waters We Know” is part of a larger exhibit called “Of the Earth: Stories of Women in North Dakota.” Photo courtesy of Camilla Morrison / Special to The Forum
“Waters We Know” is part of a larger exhibit called “Of the Earth: Stories of Women in North Dakota.” Photo courtesy of Camilla Morrison / Special to The Forum

Two other pieces on exhibit at the show are “Grounding Seeds,” which is about the joys of being a woman, and “This Must Be,” which is about aging. Photos and poetry that accommodate the exhibit will also be on display.

For more information about The Arts Partnership Summer Market, visit www.theartspartnership.net.

Camilla Morrison’s project is supported in part by a grant from the North Dakota Council on the Arts, which receives funding from the state Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.

If you go

What: The Arts Partnership's Summer Market

When: noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 26

Where: West Acres Shopping Center, Fargo

Info: Camilla Morrison will give an artist’s talk at 2 p.m. and also take questions from the audience

Learn more: www.camillamorrison.com

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.