photo: "My Brother's Keeper"
We've all grown accustomed to images of an attractive, 1950s-style family man who shows strength by withholding emotion. But, that's not the guy we see in artist Darrel Morris' carefully sewn fiber work. In his pieces, we see the man who has passed his prime years, who is approaching old age, who is remembering childhood, or who is undeniably fragile and broken: A middle-aged dad worrying about money, a businessman not living up to his standards, and an older brother bully all show up in his work.
When he's not making art, Morris is a part-time adjunct professor in the Fiber Studies Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Born in Barbourville, Kentucky, his artwork reflects the history of quilt making that's intrinsic to the region where he grew up. We sat down with him at gescheidle gallery on the opening night of his new show, Decline and Other New Work.
If I were to come to your neighborhood, where would you insist I go?
There used to be some really great bars that hadn’t changed since the 1920s [in my neighborhood]. Loyola Beach is [also] really nice. And there are some private residences that Frank Lloyd Wright built. I live by the Howardf L-stop.
What's your favorite Chicago hidden gem?
I don't know if it's left or not, but there's this place we always used to call the "Cross House" on Chestnut just east of Ashland and one block north of Chicago Avenue. The house is just covered in crosses and swords and stuff—it's about Sir Lancelot. I [also] would say a lot of used bookstores, like Bookworks. When people come to visit me, they know more [about the city] than I do.
What's the best Chicago-related advice you've ever given or received?
I was walking down the street [in my neighborhood] and this homeless woman was sitting on an old packing quilt. She said "Honey" and I thought she was going to ask me for money, but she said, "Honey, life is only as hard as you make it."
Which other artists are you looking at?
Over the time, so many I can't even start to name them. But Milton Avery has been really important recently. And George Grosz has always been important. But also I think a lot of writing, because I've sort of absorbed so much narrative visually that I've looked at a lot of poetry and literature. My favorite writer is Toni Morrison. I try to read a classic every now-and-then—at least once a year—because I didn’t have a very good early education in literature. I'm trying to read Walden right now.
What drew you to working exclusively with fibers?
There's a sort of neurotic energy of sorts, but it's also coming from a background of quilt making and sewing. I grew up in Appalachia. And I also grew up very poor, so [I'm very familiar] this whole making something-from-nothing tradition. And also, there was almost no painting or memory of painting growing up. The more I've studied it, [the more I see how] painting comes more out of the European church tradition whereas textiles and materials come from all cultures.