Art that runs in the blood
Michael Morris's first solo show is running at the Eakin Gallery in Belfast. Emily Hourican talks to him about 'turning out pretty well' after ruining his father's wedding photographs and putting up with school friends fancying his mother, RTE star Thelma Mansfield
ARTIST Michael Morris looks a little like Adrian Grenier, the curly-headed actor who played Anne Hathaway's boyfriend in The Devil Wears Prada. It's in the tousled dark hair and a certain gentle profundity of regard.
Morris, just 33, could easily pass for 10 years younger, but his work is self-assured, with a streamlined confidence that means his light-filled, almost Impressionist, street scenes have a strong and immediate identity. The light is a souvenir of the time he spent in Spain ("I fell in love, with a Spanish girl. She went back. I'm impulsive, foolhardy, maybe romantic, so I went with her even though there was a bit of my mind going, 'this possibly isn't a good idea'"), but the self-confidence was harder won.
Currently preparing his first solo show -- to take place in the Eakin Gallery in Belfast -- Michael admits, "I wasn't very confident artistically when I was younger. That actually came after I studied. I used to be very tight and afraid, I would follow other people for their ideas. I was a bit immature, I suppose."
I wonder whether the weight of expectation, not to mention that odious potential for comparison, deterred him too? After all, Michael's mother, Thelma Mansfield, as well as being RTE's most glamorous presenter for all the years in which she hosted Live At Three, is an artist whose work is widely admired. As if that weren't enough, her brother and sister, Michael's aunt and uncle, are also artists. His father, John Morris, is a photographer, and his father's brother a film producer. Phew! That's a lot of footsteps to follow in. However, Michael seems not to have found that problematic. "It's true they are all artistically inclined, but it never really occurred to me to be intimidated. My mum was always famous, but she was just really encouraging. She was the one who encouraged me to put a few paintings into galleries. So I did, on the basis that I had nothing to lose. She gave me that idea. So I put some into the Tramyard in Dalkey, a gallery in Celbridge, and I showed on Stephen's Green. And I sold a few! It was a revelation, a lovely feeling. You show your work to people, and they like it. Enough to buy it!"
Incidentally, Michael's father, John, is the youngest son of Lady and the late Lord Killanin of Spiddal. "I'm the youngest son of the youngest son," Michael says. "Yes, I have thought about how many murders I'd have to commit to get close to the title ... " Then he adds hastily, "No, I'm joking!" His father's godfather was director John Ford. "He and my grandad became great friends. They started a society, something like the Galway Film Company, but basically they used to just drink, I think. They had a great time together."
The revelation that his work was liked was to have a profound effect on Michael's direction in life. Gradually, he moved away from music, his first choice, to concentrate more and more on art. "Music was my main passion," he admits. "At first, painting was a hobby; it sort of switched, somehow. Now, painting is the main thing. It's really hard to make a living out of music. Even if you wrote commercial stuff -- which I don't -- nothing is guaranteed. They are two difficult careers," he says with a laugh, "but with art, you can at least bring it straight to people. You could sell CDs to people, but they would have to first buy one, then take it home and actually play it. With art, they can see straight away what you are about."
Largely self-taught -- "I did a one-year portfolio course in Stillorgan, sculpture, photography, life drawing" -- Michael's frame of aspiration is the very top. "I like art that's beautiful, with skill that makes you drop your jaw. Old Masters, like Goya. Or Francis Bacon's Popes. They have something that just gets you here," he thumps his solar plexus.
Nevertheless, he is endearingly pragmatic about what's required, ready to create work that suits the market, rather than blindly insisting on integrity. "I just don't want to get a job," he chuckles. "I've had one, and I don't like them." One of his earliest jobs was in McDonald's, a more recent one was as his father's assistant, something that ended in near-disaster. "Dad was a wedding photographer then. It was interesting, but I nearly ruined three weddings on him! At one, I was changing the roll of film. I opened the camera and the whole roll was just there sitting there, exposed. I closed it quickly, and looked at my dad. There was a bead of sweat running down his face. This was in the days before digital -- so this was the only record of the day. In the end it was OK, only a few shots were exposed and he had enough. But another time, my parents were away and we had a party in the house. I left a tap on upstairs and it dripped straight down through the ceiling on to the room where Dad kept all the negatives and prints. I ruined two-thirds of two developed weddings, including the negatives. It was unbelievable, so stressful for the poor guy. He managed to have just enough left over, barely, to make up albums. And because he's a really nice guy, the couples understood. He didn't kill me, because he's a lovely guy, but he was really upset. That nearly hurt more. It taught me a few lessons though. No taps, stay downstairs. Keep it in the kitchen!"
Michael's pragmatism means creating paintings of various sizes, to suit any space, and a totally unsnobbish attitude to showing his work at Merrion Square. This last is something he clearly gets from his mother. Thelma Mansfield may be one of the most popular artists in the country, but she rarely misses a Sunday. "We do Merrion Square together nearly every week. It's great. Doing that keeps me in check, and it's been good to me in terms of sales. Mum and I are a tag team there, it's nice to hang out, doing something we both really enjoy. We give each other our views, where these are wanted, and ideas." As a result, he is becoming nicely collectable. "I have a lot of repeat clients," is how he puts it; among whom are Anjelica Huston and the Government.
Home life for Michael and his brother, Roderic, with Thelma and John, was, he agrees, pretty eccentric. "My mum always wanted to be an artist. She fell into TV by accident really, so she never thought of herself as a star or anything like that. She's into the countryside, all her friends are bohemian. It was never a Dublin 4 kind of scene. I'm glad, because it wasn't superficial. I was lucky, I had really nice parents. They never breathed down our necks, making us study or whatever; they left it up to us. Maybe too much ... " But he modestly acknowledges that he and brother Roderic, a web designer, have "turned out all right". More importantly, they have turned out close. "I visit my parents once a week, and we're on the phone all the time. And I baby-sat Roderic's new baby yesterday for the first time. He's three months old. I even changed his nappy." He says this with pride, as any 33-year-old man without children himself, might.
Having a famous mother was less weird than it could have been -- "it was just what I was used to" -- but having such a glamorous mother came with problems of its own. "In secondary school, all my friends began to fancy her," he laughs. "That was a bit odd. It happened in first year of secondary school -- suddenly there was a shift and that's what everyone was thinking about. And they told me, which was a little off-putting."
His father was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease some years ago, and went through a tough time before the right combination of medication gave him a new vigour. "His health is pretty good now," says Michael cheerfully. "He's much better, and enjoying himself. There's a smile on his face and a glint in his eye now. He started falconing again; he's been doing that since he was seven. He goes up to the Sugar Loaf by himself and flies the falcon."
Until recently, Michael embraced the lonely aspect of an artist's life with resignation. "I always painted by myself in my house. I was a little protective of my work, a little defensive maybe. I didn't like people seeing it until it was done. It was very insular, but I liked it that way. Then, about a year and a half ago, I just cracked. It would be me and the radio, sometimes not leaving the house for an entire day. I would see the lock still on the door in the evening, and realise I hadn't been out of there all day. 'What am I doing?' I wondered. I was closing down my mental space as well."
And so he got out, into the wider world. "Thankfully, because of the recession, there are loads of studios around town. I found a place just off Baggot Street, an old Office of Public Works building, converted into about 50 studios. I've been there ever since. It's awesome. There's a water-cooler vibe! But you can also go into your studio and lock the door if you want. You can drink cans and smoke and chat if you want, or you can work all day."
And recently, that's exactly what Michael has been doing, producing 24 paintings for the Eakin show. It's not the first time the gallery have taken his work. "They took three originally for a general group show, then another three. They did really well, they tend to sell like a flash up there. So, fingers crossed ... that doesn't mean anything's going to sell this time! But you can live in hope ... "
Indeed you can. And it's not blind hope, in Michael's case. Rather, the endearing optimism of one who has learned that life can, often does, turn out just as it should.
Michael Morris, the Eakin Gallery, Belfast until June 2. See eakingallery.co.uk
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