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William Morris' "Native Species" at Bellevue Arts Museum

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by Regina Hackett

When William Morris went to school at California State University at Chico, he fell in love with the potter's wheel and the old gas furnaces that brought the surface of his ceramics to life. He might be a potter still if he hadn't been diverted by the studio glass movement in the 1970s and showed up to study at a new glass school in the Pilchuck woods outside of Stanwood, Washington.

To pay tuition, he drove the Pilchuck truck. Dale Chihuly was one of his first passengers, and Morris soon became a key member of the Chihuly team. After Chihuly's loss of an eye and later, a shoulder injury, it was Morris' rock steady presence that helped convince Chihuly he could continue to forge his own aesthetic without blowing glass himself. "I was never as good (a glass blower) as Billy," Chihuly said later.

Opening at the Bellevue Art Museum Oct. 19, 2006 and continuing through April 29, 2007 is Morris's latest series titled, "Native Species."

The exhibit grew out of a conversation BAM director Michael Monroe happened to have with Linda Tesner, director of the art gallery at Portland's Lewis & Clark College and art adviser to collector George R. Stroemple. Monroe wanted to feature a body of glass sculpture that hadn't already been seen in the region, which is tough to do, as Seattle is the Manhattan of glass art. Tesner suggested Morris's "Native Species," entirely owned by Stroemple. Not counting guests at Stroemple's ranch, almost nobody had seen it.

Its obscurity doesn't bother Morris. Although he's one of the top artists in the glass field, he is happy to let his career take care of itself, unlike Chihuly, who stage-manages everything he does into a big production.

They remain close friends but are in many ways opposites. Chihuly likes to work on a grand scale and has no off-switch for his art involvement. Morris works half a year, and during that half, he's in the studio only two weeks a month. The rest of the time, he's riding his motorcycle, spear fishing in the ocean, paragliding off mountains, rock climbing, free diving and hanging out with friends and family.

He has home bases in Hawaii and Eastern Washington, but he has never owned his own hot shop, preferring to rent space at Pilchuck. "I don't want an empire," he said. "Nothing of mine is made in the shop when I'm not there. When I close the door, I walk away and don't give it another thought."

Chihuly keeps up with the art world. He reads art magazines and knows who's showing where. When he travels, he likes to visit art museums, galleries and other artists' studios. Morris prides himself on not keeping up. He'll flip through an art magazine now and then to see what his friends are up to, but otherwise, he's not interested. Art criticism bores him, and debates about anything leave him cold.

Chihuly loves the heat of a good debate, loves movies and watches TV. He knows his way around the Internet. Morris doesn't own a TV, watches few movies and can't imagine sitting in a chair and typing at a computer for fun. Going to museums is far from first in a list of his favored activities, but "given the choice of going to an anthropological museum or an art museum, the anthropological museum wins every time," he said.

While Chihuly loves to collect in volume, everything from bird houses and Navajo blankets to sports cars and vintage circus puppets, Morris collects nothing but experiences.

Ultimately, "Native Species" is a result of those experiences, what he has seen walking through forests and hiking through deserts, combined with what he has learned from art history and anthropological museums: Nature direct and nature filtered through cultural history.

Chihuly's ideas come from him. Once he gets an idea, he might poll his friends for suggestions and refinements, but his premises are his own. Morris, on the other hand, doesn't mind beginning from somebody else's premise, and the man who has made the most fruitful suggestions is his friend, Oregon collector Stroemple.

Grouping, William Morris, center. Photo: Robert Vinnedge

William Morris: Longneck Vase with Wren and Berries

Longneck Vase with Wren and Berries, William Morris. Photo: Robert Vinnedge

William Morris: Globe Vessel with Juniper Tree Form

Globe Vessel with Juniper Tree Form, William Morris. Photo: Robert Vinnedge

William Morris: Vase with Wren and Berries

Vase with Wren and Berries, William Morris. Photo: Robert Vinnedge

William Morris: Footed Dragonfly Bowl

Footed Dragonfly Bowl, William Morris. Photo: Robert Vinnedge

It was Stroemple who suggested Morris think about Egyptian funeral urns, resulting in Morris' renowned "Canopic Jar" series, which he began in the early 1990s, a few years after meeting Stroemple.

Stroemple also suggested "Native Species," not only the idea of looking closely at the Northwest's flora and fauna, but also filtering it through 19th-century French art nouveau and Japanese Meiji ceramics. Experiences at the same rate of vibration tend to fuse. Stroemple entrusted the artist with a vision of what he loves the most, and Morris brought it to life in a way that completely exceeded that collector's expectations.

Stroemple and Morris hiked together around Stroemple's ranch in Eastern Oregon. Stroemple picked up samples of flora and fauna, which he gave to Morris in a shoebox, also lending him examples of Japanese ceramics from his collection. Morris absorbed these directions as questions. For him, the art lay in the answers he could provide.

Told that when looking at the illustrations in the catalog prior to seeing the exhibit, his "Native Species" vessels seem to me to be impossible to date, he said, "I'll take that as a compliment."

In the past, Morris used ancient art and fossils as inspirations, but what he made from them was clearly contemporary.

In "Native Species," some of these vessels look as if they might have been made in the 19th century. They are unusual merges of Japanese precision and French flow, but not bearing a relationship to today's studio glass.

"I like to think my work reflects my impressions of art as well as nature seen through time."

BAM's "Native Species" exhibit features 38 vessels in the Stroemple collection, accompanied by an excellent catalog essay from glass art historian and critic William Warmus. The vessels will be housed in dark wood cabinets Stroemple commissioned from Portland woodworker Thom Ross, for a "cabinet of curiosities" look.

At 49, Morris is twice married and divorced, with two grown children. When he comes to Seattle, it's to see friends, including Chihuly. Asked what was the single most important thing he learned from Chihuly, Morris paused.

"I think it's to be creative in every aspect of your work," he said. "He told me, 'If something is part of the work you're doing and you don't like it, make that part creative too.' I took that to mean, make your life interesting."

Morris is internationally known for his meticulous techniques, and the high degree of craftsmanship he brings to each project. Warmus calls "Native Species" his "most subtle and intricate creations," praising the way their surfaces both absorb and reflect light, generating an inner shine rather than a surface glow.

"What interests me is the material world and our relationship to it," he said. "I think 'Native Species' reflects that, which is what I'd hoped for."

Regina Hackett is the art critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

 


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