Wearing a black T-shirt and perched on a wooden stool under track lights in his fourth-floor live-work loft in the Fondren Corner building, Jackson native Thomas Morrison hasn't quite shed his former life as an actor in Los Angeles.
After four years of casting calls, Morrison experienced an epiphany on the way to yet another call, that time for Wrigley's gum. It was in the bag; all he had to do was smile an all-American smile and say his line; instead he went to a grad student's art show at the prestigious Pratt Institute's sister school in L.A., now known as the Otis Institute. There he realized his true calling. He found the Institute's director, showed him his portfolio of Raku, which was conveniently in his car (everyone lives in their car in L.A., anyway), and got into the program two weeks later.
"It was the best move I could make," Morrison says. "[Art] is something I've always been best at—it has always been easy, and sometimes we resist what comes easiest."
Morrison excelled at sports at St. Joseph in Jackson. Painting was his first form of artistic expression, then later at the University of Southern Mississippi, he was influenced by Harold "Skip" van Houghton, his sculpture professor whose astute sense of his student started Morrison on his journey with ceramics. "Skip said one day, 'You should go to Penland.' So I listened to him," Morrison says. Penland School of Crafts is one of the top schools for ceramics in the country, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and there Morrison honed his craft and developed the portfolio he later carried around in his car in L.A.
Morrison's work ranges from large painted and printed works on vellum to Raku pots, ceramic sculpture and large public works around the Jackson area. He currently teaches pottery for the Millsaps Enrichment series. His early work was painting, and he is now painting again: large landscapes of steely blues with red and orange washes on vellum. "I like vellum because it is made from cotton and accepts paint really well," he says.
The works hanging on his loft walls are the result of many different processes because process is what art is about for Morrison. "The process leads me where the works are going," he says.
One painting has print work as well as paint and is based on stained glass. Blocks of color mimic Mondrian, while rubbings of an ornate found object soften the top of the piece. A ceramic work entitled "Catholic" represents the search for self and demonstrates his love of process. The work itself is 6 feet tall and lithe and slender for something made of clay—the base is smaller than the top. It represents a traditional Catholic upbringing with gothic windows slashed in the clay. As the sculpture climbs, it broadens and out of the earth colored clay spring gargoyle like creatures. We can't help but build on our past and as we live, we re-work parts of it to create a new reality.
"Experiment. Destroy. Rebuild," Morrison says. To him, deconstruction is all about "taking pieces apart to rebuild them and make sense of them again."
His larger works can be seen around the Jackson area including "The Virtuous Woman" at the Weiser Hospital for Women and Infants on Woodrow Wilson, "Mother Nature" at Public Entity Services in Madison, and "The Tree of Life" behind the altar at The Chapel of the Cross in Madison. All these works are large and architectural, made of porcelain or steel and clay. They act as bridges, spiriting the viewer from one reality to another.
Morrison himself has several incarnations, and none of them are completely in the past—they all converge in his latest endeavor, architectural ceramics. "Doorways, columns, mantle pieces," he says, make up his notion of what he wants to do next. He wants to create beautiful works of art for homes and businesses that are part of the structure, not just secondary additions. He describes them as conscious artistic choices at the point of construction that make art out of necessity.
Thomas Morrison's work can be viewed by appointment. Call 624-5996.
Emily Resmer is the JFP art critic.