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In Rourke retrospective, Susan Morrissey finds balance between art and home

The show highlights pieces from artist's six-decade career and nearly 100 works donated to Moorhead museum

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Artist Susan Morrissey blows into one of her horn sculptures at The Rourke Art Gallery + Museum in Moorhead on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.
John Lamb / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — Standing in the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum , looking around at 60 works of art from the last six decades, Susan Morrissey is at a little loss for words.

She’s not overwhelmed with emotion at her latest and — she says — last show, a kind of career retrospective. Rather, when asked what the work is about, what she’s been trying to say visually for nearly 60 years, she just politely smiles, laughs and says, “Good question.”

“I don’t want them to have a definitive explanation. I want them to hold together with their lines and color and hold together in an exhibition,” the 79-year-old artist says.

The show, "Welcome to My World," is something of a circle being completed, as Morrissey had her first ever exhibit at the former Rourke Art Gallery in 1966.

The current show displays drawings, prints, paintings, sculptures and assemblages of a variety of materials, revealing distinct periods in her life as she moved around the country, studying and teaching art.

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Susan Morrissey's "Fox Love" uses sticks to help create texture.
Contributed / Susan Morrissey

With the exception of two pieces already owned by the Rourke, Morrissey donated the rest of the show as well as about 40 more pieces to the museum’s collection as she and her husband Mike recently downsized to an apartment.

“It’s a very diverse exhibit in every way conceivable,” says Jonathan Rutter, executive director and curator at The Rourke. “There’s some elusiveness, but also a common thread, a sense of exploration and investigation.”

“It takes me back to where I was, what I was thinking,” Morrissey says.

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Susan Morrissey's drawing "House Pillow."
Contributed / Susan Morrisey

The oldest piece was done in the mid-1960s when she was getting her bachelor’s degree in art at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. “Doughboys” shows her father in his military uniform with seven Cupids flying around an over-sized medal that he never was awarded.

She says it shows the influence of her then-teacher, painter and illustrator Robert A. Nelson.

Human forms dominate the show and while most are unidentifiable, there’s a recurring face — Morrissey’s own.

“It’s all about me, me, me,” she says with a laugh. “When you don’t have a model, you have to use yourself.”

People appear throughout the show, but so do animals. Growing up in Lidgerwood, North Dakota, Morrissey was around horses and still loves to draw them.

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A large drawing triptych shows a young child riding a carousel horse which seems more than a bit agitated by its rider. What could be a playful image is tinged with the potential of a dangerous outcome.

“I think it’s important for my work to have two sides to it. It’s playful but it has a dark side,” she says. “I had originally called it ‘Scared Babies,’ but I changed it to ‘Riding Lessons 1 - 3.’”

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Houses are a recurring theme in Susan Morrissey's work.
Contributed / Susan Morrissey

The dark side carries over in another popular subject matter in her work — houses.

“I guess they cover up, it’s a shell, protection,” she says.

Still, the houses don’t always offer refuge for the people inside. The print “A Dark and Starry Night” uses a cut-away view to show a small child holding a toy bear in the warmth of a house as a pack of wolves stalk outside.

Nearby there’s a series about her mother, Regina, later in life. Morrissey recalls driving back to Lidgerwood to visit her in the early 2000s as her mother's memory faded. In one drawing she is frantically going through a chest of drawers with a house-shaped purse resting on top. In another the mother is napping on the house like a pillow as one man rests inside in a recliner and another man stands on the roof. In another, Morrissey’s late father swoops in for a visit.

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Artist Susan Morrissey looks at her mixed media painting "Stix and Stones," part of her career retrospective at the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum.
John Lamb / The Forum

Across that east gallery, a large, four-part painting, “Stix and Stones,” takes up most of the wall. The multi-media work won top honors in the 2017 Rourke Midwestern -- awarded by that year's judges, myself and artist/writer Sabrina Hornung of the High Plains Reader — and was purchased by The Rourke for its permanent collection. It shows a riot of people, yelling and pointing at one another. A closer look reveals slurs carved onto an undercoat of the painting.

While the meaning of some pieces are hard to pinpoint, this one is loud and clear.

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“It’s man’s inhumanity, from one group to another. There’s a lot of that going on, continuously,” Morrissey says.

While she can examine serious topics, “Welcome to My World” reveals that she often sees things through a more whimsical lens.

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One of Susan Morrissey's clay horns.
Contributed / Susan Morrissey

While living in Valley City, North Dakota, in the mid-1990s she started working with clay. While she claims she was never good at throwing pots, she created sculptures that spin up into a head like an inverted tornado. The forms are like Seussical horns, and Morrissey demonstrates they even make noise when blown through the mouthpiece.

“At some point I decided they should play,” she says demonstrating. “You could get a note out of it, but maybe not a pleasant note.”

That figures seem to teeter and balance is another theme the artist often explores.

"There’s a balance of what you’re doing in your life and what falls and who pays the price,” she says. “So much of my life was tied up in art. Everyone was affected and I felt guilty.”

She and Mike reminisce about near accidents and mishaps on car trips delivering art, including a trip to Minot, North Dakota, when the trailer became unhitched during the drive, swaying back and forth across the road.

“How we survived that I’ll never know,” she says.

“In truth, I’ve watched this for a lifetime and never got a good answer on what’s this about,” Mike says, referring to Morrissey's collection. “Does it have a narrative? Not necessarily, but there’s one when it’s done.”

While the artist says giving up her home studio will keep her from creating new art, Rutter says visitors may find more work in another future exhibit.

"Susan says it may be her last show, but we have enough work, there might be another one,” he says.

IF YOU GO:

What: “Susan Morrissey: Welcome to My World”
When: On display through Sunday, Jan. 22
Where: The Rourke Art Gallery + Museum, Moorhead
Info: Open 1 - 5 p.m., Fridays - Sundays, admission is free

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For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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