If you’re OK with visual art that not only provokes thought, but also produces a little emotional discomfort, then I recommend following the work of Phoenix-based fiber artist Ann Morton.
Here’s what you can see — and squirm about — in her current show at Modified Arts on Roosevelt Row, a four-part installation called “Unentitled: The Inaugural Edition,” which addresses the homeless, marginalized and dispossessed, partly through the symbolism of lost objects:
— ”The Collective Cover Project,” in which Morton gives reverential treatment to fiber-based objects that have been recovered from roadsides and vacant areas. Think a single glove, a stuffed bunny, an apron, a baby’s dress. Morton takes them into a kind of protective custody; she covers each one with white canvas — just enough that you can discern their original shape — and places the objects on shelves for display. Now “members” of Morton’s “collective,” the objects receive codes akin to Social Security numbers as well as QR tags so that a smartphone user can quickly learn the stories behind them.
— ”False Safety Net,” in which Morton takes the dozens of leftover objects from the Collective Cover Project and suspends them from the gallery ceiling in a wide-gauge fishing net.
— “Caution Field,” consisting of a room-size mat made of yellow caution tape that has been crocheted into squares, with the squares then tied together. In the course of making the mat, Morton approached several homeless people and offered to teach them to crochet and then pay them to help create squares. The finished 16-by-16-foot mat lies under the safety net.
— Embroidered samplers in delicate colors yet with jarring social and political messages, often ripped from the headlines. For instance, over a stitched image of a prone body shrouded in white reads the message: “Osama bin Laden Dead. Obama: ‘Justice Has Been Done.’ ”
Taking chances with social and political messages in her art was Morton’s aim when she left a successful graphic design business a few years ago to pursue a master’s of fine art from ASU. One of the causes most near and dear to her — and easily seen in her multimedia pieces — is the plight of the homeless and dispossessed in the Phoenix area.
Although “Unentitled: The Inaugural Edition” closes at Modified Arts on Saturday, February 9, you can still see Morton’s work later this year at Mesa Contemporary Arts and Eye Lounge. In addition, Morton’s interactive Mylar piece, called “Reflection,” is part of a temporary InFlux installation in Chandler near the city hall. Among her many projects, she continues to build Street Gems of Arizona, a program to employ the disadvantaged in making jewelry from discarded objects. Also, she is in the first stages of organizing a huge piece of fiber art for a vacant lot in central Phoenix.
I interviewed Ann as she showed me “Unentitled” and later conducted this Q & A, which sheds light on her aesthetic:
Q: What sparked the choice of the homeless and dispossessed as a subject for your art?
A: As I began my graduate career, I decided to explore the collection of lost objects that resulted in the Collective Cover Project. I felt that somehow, they might serve as a catalyst to chronicle the series of events that was to happen over the next several years. However, as I was working on this long-term effort, I began to feel something was missing from the work. This is when I began to infuse a social/public practice component as an integral aspect of my studio practice. It was a natural leap from the lost objects to the homeless community. I found that the fiber-based techniques I use in my studio practice serve as a vehicle to engage with this community — either for them, or with them.
Q: How did you gather the materials for “False Safety Net” and “Caution Field”?
A: The items in the False Safety Net are really part of the Collective Cover Project – just “unprocessed.” They still have been numbered, and there is an unedited archive that has been kept for all of those items as well. The Caution Field is made from purchased caution tape. There is over 40,000 lineal feet of tape in the piece — too much to gather in the time frame of the project. It was more important to engage with the homeless participants than spend time finding used caution tape.
Q: What led you to fiber art from your career in graphic design?
A: I have always sewn and embroidered — having been taught as a young girl by my mother. I had been using embroidery techniques with paper for commercial illustration during my years practicing as a designer. It was only when I was taking a basketry class at Arrowmont, a craft school in Tennessee, that I realized that I might actually study these techniques for a degree. There is an aspect to the structure and precise nature of fiber techniques that aligns with the exacting nature of graphic design. I infuse much of my graphic aesthetic into the fiber-based work.
Q: Why incorporate QR codes?
A: There were many experiments in how to engage the viewing public with the Collective Members and in how to open the access to all the data collection attached to each Member — their constructed archive. The QR codes have intrigued me because their pixelated nature lends itself to fiber structures quite naturally. So I learned how to make the cyber connections using simple fiber techniques in constructing the QR graphic and linking it online. This lends a juxtaposition between the soft, traditional fiber techniques and the high-tech cyber connections of the worldwide web through the QR code link.
Q: What is your involvement with InFlux? Describe your Chandler artwork briefly.
A: I was selected to activate an empty (unleased) building within the overall InFlux Cycle 3 — my location is in Chandler. The building had very set-back windows, but on a positive note, is located just across the street from the beautiful new Chandler City Hall. My intention is to provide a reflection from the new city hall to the older building I was assigned. A symbol of the reflection of the new Chandler of today. To do this, I wove mirrored Mylar sheeting and clad the overall front facade of the building that faces the city hall. Visitors can sign, write on, or draw on the woven, mirrored surface as a reflection of themselves as modern Chandler residents.
Q: What’s your feeling about the power of art to shape opinion and stir action? Do you feel you have personally made a difference in the lives of the homeless in Phoenix?
A: Any difference I’ve made is very slight, but nonetheless, meaningful. The issues of homelessness are vast and complex. I’ve decided that if I can focus on the small space in front of me and touch a few people with accomplishments they hadn’t imagined for themselves, then I’ve done what I can do as one individual. But much of my work does call on a broader population to get involved — to become more aware of the homeless in Phoenix. I feel that this is worthwhile as well. I think anytime one encounters the unusual, the unexpected, the delightful, it enriches their life — if only for a moment. I hope that as I explore this work, I can provide more and more of those moments — not only to the homeless individuals that find themselves involved, but also for the many citizens at large that get involved in the projects that I orchestrate. Yes, that is powerful.