Myrna Morris with one of her paintings at the Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Myrna Morris with one of her paintings at the Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Dancers and dancing inspire Morris art

By Brooks Robards - August 24, 2006

Artist Myrna Morris has been exhibiting her work at the Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs for 17 years. Her latest show, which will be up until Labor Day, demonstrates both her versatility as an artist and her understanding of body dynamics.

Some of her work is done traditional style in acrylic on canvas. But in others, the artist paints on tissue to create figures with lively background colors that filter their way through the bodies, as if to suggest an inner animation. In still others, Ms. Morris works with fascinating forms of mixed media, including watercolor, and sometimes in pastel.

In the current show, Ms. Morris most often takes women as her subjects, and many of them are dancers. A student of the ways the body moves and communicates, she accentuates her figures' long, willowy arms and legs to create slender, elongated shapes caught in stop-motion.

Her palette favors strong, primary colors, and in "Vineyard Cocktail Party," she has reduced the scene to its essentials. Two women wearing hats stand in profile with sky, water, and foliage in the background. The captured conversation shows two figures, one of which is looking down, one hand in her pocket and one raised to her temple. The other figure looks into the distance, her lovely long hand holding an empty wine glass, as if there has been a pause in their small talk.

"Jazz Quintet" by Myrna Morris.

Two paintings done in acrylic on tissue take musicians as their subject. In "Mellow Sounds," a combo of piano, electric bass or guitar, and drums with a singer has been minimalized into an almost abstract melange of linear figures and musical instruments. Wearing a crimson sheath, the singer holds the central spot compositionally, and her high-heel-clad feet seem to curl like tendrils into the mike wires.

In both "Mellow Sounds" and "Jazz Quintet," captured motion and body language are refined to their essence. It is Ms. Morris's signature. "Jazz Quintet" features a bass, a trumpet, two saxophones, and a clarinet played by musicians whose hunched shoulders are suggested in delicate black outline, while their bodies have been shaped in solid color with their heads lifting high like long-stemmed buds. A vamp in a slinky, long-sleeved red gown plays the saxophone in "Red Dressed Sax Player," while a man and woman watch with arms entwined.

Unlike many of the other works in the exhibit, Ms. Morris delicately delineates her figures' faces in "Red Dress Dancer." Then she suspends them in a background space full of red, orange, and purple squares. In "High Spriits," a barefoot female dancer virtually floats in space the way her billowing blue skirt and one leg do.

Some of Ms. Morris's most delightfully playful work incorporates found objects like yarn, buttons, blue jean material into her paintings, which she puts in shadow-box frames. The subject of "Waiting Patiently" is a woman with wonderful yarn hair, a real button on her pants pocket and an authentic miniature blue jean bag, complete with kerchief.

Opening receptions bring people to the Circuit Avenue gallery for some good conversation and art. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Opening receptions bring people to the Circuit Avenue gallery for some good conversation and art.

The women in "Off the Beach" carry a tiny plastic camera and sunglasses in a reverse trompe de l'oeil that gives the work an extra sense of pizzazz. Ms. Morris captures the moment when a musician turns his shoulder to finger an emphatic chord in "The Guitar Player." His hair in a gorgeously wild kinky do, he has jeans made of real cloth, and the contrast between the artist's powerful rendering of motion and the cloth makes for a stunning effect.

Tucked between "Girlfriends," a conversation among several women gathered at a round table, and a series of dancers done in dark brown and black, is "Dreads." This small, unobtrusive painting of a man in a brightly colored cap and dreadlocks firmly demonstrates Ms. Morris's portraiture skills.

The dancers series on the gallery's back wall illustrates once again how skilled the artist is at mastering a unique style. She combines an appreciation for abstraction and the purity of graphic design elements with a love for the sinuous lines of the body and its movement in a way that makes her work distinctive.

Ms. Morris has degrees from Saint Peter's College and William Paterson University in New Jersey. After spending many years in Teaneck, N.J., she and her husband moved permanently to the Island several years ago. Using Oak Bluffs as their base, the Ms. Morrises travel extensively. Myrna frequently draws inspiration from her travels, as she did with a series of fruit still lifes that followed a visit to Spain where she was served fruit for breakfast every morning.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.