In the Studio: Nyeema Morgan
Nyeema Morgan is an interdisciplinary artist based in Chicago. She is a 2016 recipient of the Foundation’s Painters & Sculptors Grant and was a Spring/Summer 2023 Artist-in-Residence at the Joan Mitchell Center. We interviewed her about her work and her residency in July 2023.
I’m motivated by my desire to understand the world we live in. Our humanity is fascinating and beautiful and horrifying and disappointing and everything in between. I’m in awe of our existence and what we’ve made, continue to make and will make of it, for better or worse. For me, my work is a wayfinder that brings me closer, empathetically, to the world, to my family (past, present and future), to you and to myself.
Much of my work is my response, through a series of observations and questions, to the social world. So my work is largely inspired by things I see, things I read or watch, conversations with my students, friends, peers, my kids. These observations and questions that precede the process of “making” are as layered and complex as the world, and they present that way in my work. Those observations lead me to think through, materially, certain questions. As an example, last year I made two sculptures—A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar. (the set-up) and A whore, a nun and a housewife walk into a barn. (the set-up).
Those works began as I was watching and thinking about comedy—about psychology and catharsis. But those thoughts were swirling around ideas about identity and how systems of power are structured, reinforced. That particular type of joke I’m referencing struck me as peculiar, as a kind of identity based dialectic. And that train of thought led me to questions about storytelling and the identity of the teller and the receiver and how ideology is activated through our everyday encounter with images, objects and other forms of communication. And naturally, as an artist—particularly as a sculptor—how does the quality of material form affect us towards a certain way of feeling, being or interacting within a social order.
I started my residency at the Joan Mitchell Center in early July. My time here has been fairly short—28 days—compared to the duration of the rest of the cohort. But it’s been such a fruitful 28 days, spent mostly in solitude. It's by far the most concentrated time I’ve had in my studio in years. It's been wonderful, but not without difficulty—difficulty that’s not related specifically to this residency, but in shifting spaces and shifting ways of being present with myself and my work. I’m not a very social person and covet my privacy. In social spaces, I’m a bit unnerved, vibrating with this deep frenetic energy that I often don’t perceive until I’m alone for a long duration of time. When I came here, I didn’t account for that adjustment period. I was anticipating a fire to put out or something to get ahead of—something to mitigate. So I had fabricated a crisis of expectation in my studio. I overestimated how much I should do. I brought eight books with me and told myself I’d finish ‘X’ amount of works and have a huge breakthrough with some new work. Then I realized I didn’t need to do all that. By day 7, I finally felt at peace and realized there was no crisis to avert and that I could just be with my work, my questions, my whims.
During my residency, I’ve continued working on a body of drawings titled Like It Is that are a mainstay in my art practice.
There are some new things that I wanted to do with them and this was the perfect place to take those risks. Something about having a fresh palette—clean walls, a space that’s not spilling over with other works, equipment and storage. I have corners that I can interact with! And the light in my studio at the Joan Mitchell Center is amazing.
This has been a great time for me to experiment and tease out the beginning of some new works, which will probably take the form of sculptures and installations. I’m playing uninhibitedly with materials and forms and text which is a real luxury—to have uninterrupted time and space to leisurely be in the studio for 9–12 hours a day.
The residency has been a really transformative experience. One of the things I experienced almost immediately when I arrived in New Orleans was a sense memory. I grew up in the south from age 2 to 12. First, the staggering heat that was also familiar. The heat was so thick. Not the kind of heat you feel searing on your surface. There was so much moisture in the air. I felt more porous. It slowed me down in a way I had forgotten. Oddly, it was comforting, for someone who doesn't enjoy the heat. Then there was a conviviality among strangers. I had to remember to open my mouth and say hello, especially to elders while I was walking down the street. All of that remembrance and slowness impacted my being while I was in New Orleans and subsequently how I was in my studio. I thought more clearly in my studio, I worked more intuitively and could indulge in frivolous decisions without feeling like I was losing time or purpose. I guess I would say I felt more grounded in the present. It was a wonderful antidote to the hectic state I’m usually in. I’m hoping I can hold on to that when I head back home and to continue the work I started here.