On Friday, April 8, 2016 at the legendary Scarab Club the opening of a One Woman Art Exhibition, featuring paintings and drawings of Carole Morisseau, will take place. Besides the art work, which is stunning, there is a historic significance to this particular art event. Carole will be the first African American woman to ever have a one woman show at the Scarab Club.
I met Carole Morisseau at her studio, on the third floor of the historic Scarab Club in Detroit. She is an artist, a teacher, gallery curator and recipient of multiple awards and recognitions. They include the Detroit Art Teacher’s Award, Detroit Public Schools Art Teacher of the Year Award, and numerous recognitions for her artistic achievements such as the Scarab Club Board of Directors Award, winner of the Bronze Medal of the National Competition, Scholastic Publications – Moonbeam Award. Carole was also featured in books and arts publications both as a contributor and as subject of the stories. The Scarab Club – the art mecca of the Midwest – is a historic landmark in the cultural life of Detroit and truly it is a place like no other. We are about to get an insight into what makes it so special, and get a taste of its unique atmosphere from someone who knows every sound made by the wooden steps of the Scarab Club.
TP: We may never come to an understanding of art that would be accepted (without objections) by all. What is art to you?
CM: What is art, is among the most abstract thoughts in this day and time. We have so many different definitions as well as examples of what art is. To me… wow, it is the expression of my inner soul, of things that I feel and of those I hope for others to feel when they view my art. I am not so much trying to get them feel or think a certain way when they see my art. More I am trying to get them to open up to express themselves. I have a painting entitled “Legacy.” There is so much in it; when people look at it they see so many different things. In that piece, and in some other ones, I use much of symbolism. I do not necessarily intend to do that but that is what sometimes happens. In “Legacy” most of that symbolism just evolved on its own. Contrary to my other work, the series called “Unemployment,” uses symbolism intentionally to represent people or groups affected by the condition.
TP: Art is an expression of thoughts – do you always have a viewer in mind when creating? I ask this in the context of a certain parallel I draw between what you have said and the act of journal writing. Some say that when people write a diary or a journal, although highly personal, these are always written by the author who hopes that some day someone will actually read them. So, when we write these things, even if on a subconscious level, we do have the prospective reader in mind. Is that something that happens to you when you first begin to work on a project?
CM: I am not even sure if I ever thought of it that way. But I think sometimes I do paint for the “sake of painting,” if you will. Funny you should say that though – I do keep a journal, not a day-to-day kind of thing but I do write. By now I have seven volumes of my journaling. That journaling is done with the purpose of explaining my work. I explain my work through my creative process but also through my living process – the things which affect me, or which help me grow. Sometimes I will look at my painting and get baffled; I will reflect back “where did this detail come from?” or “why did I do this or that?” I will try to justify things; I interject stories or anecdotes, which happen in my life as well as the ones, which happen in my art creating process. The sole purpose of the journal is to document the artwork. And yes, I do hope that someone reads it some days I hope my art will stand the test of time…
TP: Can you journal through art?
CM: Yes. I think you can. I think that is what I do. When I look at any of my pieces of art I remember where I was, what I was doing or what happened that day. The theme of the painting may not have anything to do with the subject matter in the journal, yet it remains one of the ways of documenting, or recall.
TP: You said that art to you is an expression of the thought. Does that make art into something universally accessible or perhaps quite the opposite – art becomes exclusive, accessible only to the few; perhaps “the few” would be those who know you or the story behind the work? The consequence of the first extreme is the view that “anyone can do art,” a bold but contemporarily quite popular claim.
CM: I know I will be in minority in this day and time when I say that I do not think it is true that “anyone can do it.” We go through so many processes, classes, workshops, experiences of both the success and disappointments, in order to be able to create things the way we want them to be, or at least I feel like I have done that. I also think the converse is true; the studies really free you, enabling you to do more but sometimes you go through them within a certain parameter. What has taken place frequently nowadays is that those parameters are broken down. I cannot say for it to be either right or wrong. It is just another process, but I feel that people go through the strife and study of the academia so they can become the best they can be through that channel. There is a certain amount of accolades when they reach a certain plateau that they should receive. But sometimes other people who have not gone through those processes receive just as much accolades, if not more, and it creates a certain misbalance.
TP: How fair is that?
CM: Well, it depends on the artwork, the artist’s technique and the intent. The main thing when viewing or creating artwork is the artist’s intent.
TP: What is the condition of the art world of the day? When you go to galleries or museum, and witness the shows or performances – what do you think about what you see? Things have certainly changed since the time when brush and paint were considered necessities.
CM: I go to galleries and museums. What I think about it depends on the show. Some of them are strong because they can demonstrate the strength of skills and form. On the other hand, some shows also provide an opportunity to expose…weaknesses of a particular artist or work. In general, the gallery has remained a very important entity in our culture because it allows the society to see what is going on and not just in terms of the artistic trends; we can ask “is the artist reflecting the society in his or her works?” Maybe the value is in the society reflecting on what they see in the art. Art can be a reflection of the culture; but it is the reflection of the effects of the culture on the artist as well. Art is a sign of times in its own way. I definitely always choose to go to the gallery because I want to see the particular artist and his or her work. In that sense I do not do random “pop-ins” here or there. I want to see the artist, or maybe a group of them. The reason can be in my wanting to see a particular movement in art; like the Cass Corridor culture of the 70’s artists who have evolved and exhibited over the years. I like to see what they are doing. I think, as an artist, if you want to be true to yourself and to your intent, you are a little bit hermit-like. You want to express things that are within you. When you get exposure to countless art forms or styles, sometimes you can get influenced. I personally try not to be influenced, rather I want to stay motivated by these works but not influenced by them. I am mindful of that and it helps me to decide when it is time to come back inside to my inner self. Likewise, I am aware when I begin to fall for the danger of becoming stagnant, and thus it is time to get out and witness something else.
TP: Do you find art forms to be interrelated in your creative process? How does the “muse” manifest itself to you?
CM: Sometimes I love to listen to music when I work. There are also times when I need total silence. It will be so quiet I will not even realize until something thumps or bumps, or someone walks by. In terms of inspiration I think there is an influence here from the fact that I am a former dancer. Some of my work is almost choreographed because I like to “choreograph the observer’s eye,” as I call it. It shows in my composition; e.g. what is the first thing that you see when you look at the canvas and where does the eye travel afterwards? I am getting ready to work on a series where I will use the videotapes of myself with my dance company. I want to take those videos and paint from them, but not paint just what I see, rather paint what I felt when I was dancing those pieces. As people observe the dance they do not really know what it feels like to hold this pose or carry out that move. I will try to give it some expression.
TP: Right now you are an artist with many successful shows behind you and plenty of plans in the makings. What were the beginnings like?
CM: My mother was an artist. I grew up in a household where we were always involved into creating something. I am not saying it had to be paintings on canvas but, for instance, we were making costumes for my dancing, or we created a mural to decorate our family room. We did that with my mother when I was twelve years old or so. Mom used to volunteer making dolls for “Good Fellows” and was just very involved all the time in various little, creative projects. To me she was a genius and there was nothing that she could not do. I might have been in fifth or sixth grade when my art teacher at school, public school, would come up and say “Oh, let me see; that looks really good! Let’s hang it in the hallway.” I felt very proud when that happened. I remember doing a portrait of one of my classmates, and it was later hanging in the hallway. The kids would be passing by and then stop by it, looking at it they would say “Oh, that is so Voncillie, Carole did that; that looks good.” It made me feel very good. Those were the first revelations that maybe I could do something that other people could not do this well; maybe I have this talent. In middle school my classmates often asked me to draw things for them – horses or collie dogs – and I did that. Then I went to Cass Technical High School, majored in chemistry and biology. I was going to be a doctor… I would go by the art department and see the art works displayed, thinking “That is really good. I want to do that.” Although I was very drawn and good at biology, anatomy and physiology, I despised chemistry. In college I decided to major in fine arts.
TP: Talent vs. learned skills is an interesting theme; to what extent can one learn things and how much of the success rests in the innate talent? There are artists who paint portraits of people in complete disregard for anatomy. When talking to them we find out that the only way they can still achieve the “make believe” effect despite these “deformities” is because they actually knew the anatomy extremely well.
CM: The academics free that ability to make the exaggerations yet still deliver the message perfectly. That is what I am talking about – I loved the art school and I loved the curriculum, everything we did and were taught. You can learn the academics, the proportions and techniques, but the internal creativity, that “artist’s eye,” I think those have to be already there. The learning process is to help develop the brain, the mind, to the stage where it can deliver what those creative processes yearn to express. “Something” has to be there to begin with. Sometimes it is the matter of awakening that element.
TP: Do you connect in some special way with a particular piece of art work or author?
CM: Eric Fischl, of course – I will not be original here – Michelangelo especially how he was able to capture the male form, the way he projects it is just – and forever will be – phenomenal. That is immortal. To jump all the way to contemporary art, Eric Fischl because Eric Fischl’s treatment of light is extremely dynamic, and I love his sense of composition.
TP: Do you get attached to your works? How hard is it (or maybe it is not hard at all,) to “sell” your own piece of art, placing the material value on what to you is an expression of yourself?
CM: I am attached to all of the artwork I have made. Who isn’t? Maybe some people are not but to me these pieces are a part of me. It used to be much more difficult than it is now to let go of the pieces. It is easier now and that change is due to another wonder of art – photography. Digital photography allows me to still retain within my life copies of everything I might make. That is very important to me.
TP: The subject of your works: almost all of the works we see in your studio represent people. Who are they? Some of them look like they could be just persons sitting in the doctor’s office. Does the subject “happen” or is it all an intentional choice with a message to be carried out?
CM: Yes, most of my work depicts people, ordinary people or group of people; it can be a culture, a social group, a generation. I have done some landscapes but they do not make me as happy as does giving the voice to people through my art. I like drawing and painting the face the most.
TP: Does every drawing or painting have to have a story?
CM: No, but in my case they all do.
TP: The can of soup and the “Brillo” box – did Andy Warhol ruin it for those who think that there should be some story in all art-work?
CM: When I think about it, it is the thought process of creating which was put really in a nutshell – that is what Warhol has accomplished. What he did in that still life was he showed us what “still life” really is for our day and time. Let’s think about that can of soup; if you look at still lifes from hundreds of years ago you would see a table, maybe with, maybe carrots on it or potato – whatever, a large bowl filled with turnips. All these beautifully looking things later were put in a large cauldron and the women would be making a soup or some other meal. Well, that is not what we do now, or we do less of. We make soup out of a can, like it or not. That can of soup relates directly to that still life from the 1600’s. The same thing happens in the case of the “Brillo” box. Let’s take a scene from the 1600’s again where there is a splatter on the floor and someone is scrubbing it with some a rag or what have you. Now we do the same activity and we use this product which just happens to be in the box and is called “Brillo.” What once might have taken hours to do, now takes minutes because we have this very product which became a subject of a still life scene by Andy Worhol. The product performs the function of what used to be a complicated or tedious process.
TP: Is art merely an imitation of some reality, a copy, if you will, of concepts, people or ideas?
CM: It can be viewed as such but when we take into consideration how complex creatures we actually are, and when we recognize how much of that complexity we are able to include in the art we create then to say that art is just an imitation of all that sounds to me almost simplistic; it is reducing art to its very basic elements of putting few (or few hundreds) of lines together in different shades light or hues of the paint. Perhaps that is why such great attraction is still found in abstract art -when someone is doing abstract art they are not copying anything.
TP: You’ve mentioned “intent” a few times. So often it is the case that in light of some tragic events which receive high publicity the media rushes into the life and house of the perpetrator; they interview the neighbors, plunder through music or book collection and quickly draw conclusions: it was this band’s influence or that book’s secret message which “made” him into a killer. One example that comes to mind is the tragedy of the Columbine High School. Marilyn Manson was put on the stake of public opinion for his alleged role in what the two murderers carried out. Should artists make their intent known when publicizing their works? Maybe art should be for “responsible” people only?
CM: Art cannot be a scapegoat for society’s ills. I believe lawmakers and societies are engaged in trying to identify anything that can explain violence in our culture. Man is violent because nature has violence. Hens have a pecking system and there are countless other inexplicable acts in the animal kingdom. All that we as human race can do is to reinforce a benevolent belief system that treasures and rewards kindness, mutual respect and love.
TP: We are sitting here at your studio in the iconic Scarab Club in Midtown, Detroit. What makes this place so special?
CM: A “club” used to denote a group of people or a society, if you will. That is what we still are here. The Scarab Club started way over a hundred years ago; the building was built in 1907. It was created by a group of artists and architects with the purpose in mind for it to be a club for artists. It was built by and for the artists. It has always served its original purpose and never went astray from it. It has built the long tradition of being just and only for the arts as well as the long tradition of some wonderful artists occupying the space and exhibiting here. When you come here you can feel instantly that atmosphere of arts, history and tradition. We have the studio spaces, gallery spaces, community, and exhibition spaces. That atmosphere is what makes you committed when you come in here – to create and to create the very best that you can.
TP: What is your connection with the Scarab Club?
CM: I have been a member here for ten years and have had my studio for about nine of those years. I have spoken with several artists who have occupied the space here and who have created here; they, and myself included, feel like this is the most prolific experience that I have had as an artist – to be able to have the space here to create. I am fortunate to have been represented in a number of shows here over these past ten years. In the spring of 2016, I will have the honor of having my own solo show at the Scarab Club.
TP: This place is for everybody; anyone can come to see the exhibits or become a member of the Scarab Club. But it is rather exclusive on the other hand. Who can present his or her works here?
CM: To have an art show, once you have become a member, you submit your resume, bio, examples of your work, and portfolio to the Board and to the gallery director. They determine who will have an exhibit here. Often times the director will invite a well-known artist to have a show. In either case it is an honor and privilege indeed to show your work here.
TP: One of the hallmarks of the Scarab Club are “the beams.” What is the story of “the beams”?
CM: The “beams” are the ceiling beams, or lentils, the long logs supporting the structure; it runs across the ceiling in the room upstairs. Every year one outstanding artist, local or from out of town, is honored by the Scarab Club. He or she is an individual who has truly proven to have given much to the community and to the Muse itself. As a sign of the Club’s recognition for all that they have done, the individual gets to sign the “beam” with his or her name. Hence it is covered with a number of signatures of famous and well-deserving artists, as well as with signatures of the presidents of the Scarab Club.
TP: “Someone who has given to the Muse,” what is “muse” to you?
CM: The “muse” to me… the art form, the inspiration behind it. When I talk about the “muse” I have art itself in mind: drama, dance, vocal and visual, to speak in terms of the Greek tradition.
TP: From the many signs of recognition and awards for your work, is there a particular honor you have received which is special to you?
CM: All of my acknowledgements are special to me, because they are an indicator of the amount of work and commitment it takes to create. I am most honored by any award or acknowledgement that is presented to me by my peers (other artists) because they are most aware of dedication and energy involved in creating.
Carole Morisseau’s works as well as detailed bio and resume can be seen on her website: www.morisseauart.com
Her Solo Exhibition will open on April 8th at 5 p.m. The historic Scarab Club is located in downtown Detroit, at 217 Farnsworth (steps from the DIA.) Admission is free. That same day there will also be a book available on Amazon.com, titled “Morisseau Paintings & Drawings” by Carole Morisseau. The price will be $24.95.