Chattanooga, TN | Painting, Drawing
Jeffrey Morton is an accomplished painter specializing in various interpretations of the landscape. During a two-year residence in Japan, earlier in his career, Morton was drawn to Japanese art and culture. His work of the last twenty-five years has a strong connection to the bold color fields found in 17th Century Japanese folding screens, and the fluid brushwork of the 19th Century ink painter Uragami Gyokudo. Morton has exhibited his work regionally and nationally, including the University of Tennessee Downtown Gallery; the Harrison Center for the Arts, Indianapolis; and, the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts, Wilmington. Educated at Yale University and Temple University, Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Morton has served as professor of art at Covenant College since 2000. In Chattanooga he curated the show “Accessing the Artist’s Brain: Drawing as Metaphor” at the Association of Visual Arts. Most recently he exhibited works at Hunter Museum of Art, Hunter Invitational III, also in Chattanooga. Jeffrey Morton is a recipient of a 2016 Individual Artist Fellowship from the Tennessee State Arts Commission. He and his wife Betsy and their four children are residents of Signal Mountain, Tennessee.
If place, according to art critic Lucy Lippard, is the latitudinal and longitudinal map of a persons life, then my art has literally helped me find a home. As a transplant from the Northeast Untied States to Chattanooga Tennessee, now fifteen years ago, my art has taught me about the significance of being grounded in a place, a specific location. Unique to the American South is the Kudzu plant that thrives in a climate different from its home. In Japan, Kudzu is a decorative plant with a pretty purple flower; however, in a new location, Kudzu is used to fight erosion. At first I thought that this foreign plant doesn’t belong here, and neither do I. But after crawling through the landscape of Signal Mountain, TN and navigating the invasive vine, making drawings and paintings from it, I have learned to love the strange plant and the landscape of my adopted home.
In a good year, or perhaps a bad one, the Kudzu plant can grow about a foot per day and up to sixty feet per year. Transplanted from Japan to Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Centennial Celebration in 1876 as a decorative element for a tea garden, Kudzu thrives in the Southeastern United States, and during the summer months vines grow everywhere chocking out trees, power poles, automobiles, and even buildings. In the 1930’s it was purposed to eliminate earth decay in the hills and valleys of Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama; it has become a prolific, and for some, an unwanted species. The environmental and ecological impact of Kudzu is profound, and municipalities throughout the region have tried mowing, burning, chemicals, and in the case of the city of Chattanooga, grazing goats to remove the leafy pest. Kudzu has the ability to kill other plants by growing over them, “stealing” their light, and ostensibly constraining all competitors from this vital life source. My painting practice has responded to an unexpected bond with this agitated landscape that might at best be described attitudinally rather than visually. Most notably, I have shifted my relationship to the work from the documentation of things seen, to a relationship of things experienced. I want my viewer to peel back the layers of paint to feel the same things I felt while collecting sources for the work, and in some perverse way, I want the viewer to leave with the same anxiety inducing question that I have: is this Kudzu landscape safe?
While the form of Kudzu is an intriguing subject, it is the encounter of walking through this strange and invasive landscape that intrigues me more. Actually the experience is scary. To gather sources for my art, I trip over vines that literally grab at my arms and legs, making my task impossible. The sun burns my skin, and when l sit in the landscape making small drawings I can only stay four-hours at a time. Thus titles of a two-day drawing read something like seven-hours-thirty-six minutes, or eight-hours-sixteen minutes. Seeing those digits, and considering my exposure to this undesirable space, continues to add to the anxiety I have already absorbed. However it’s not just the snag of this invasive pest that nags at me; it is the countless bites from the ticks, mites, and mosquitos that eat at my body and psychology as well. Thus my artistic practice is not only an endurance test of drawing and mark-making, it is a practice of how much time I can actually spend in this beautiful yet annoying landscape. Simply put, my art argues that geography matters, and even an undesired geography, can shape and mold human life.