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Published February 06 2012

Morrissey’s artistic approach shaped by North Dakota childhood

FARGO - Like many children, Sue Haas Morrissey once wished for a pony. Unlike most, her wish was granted.

The gift paid huge dividends to a girl growing up the only daughter of five children in the small town of Lidgerwood, N.D., in the late-1940s and ’50s.

In the short term, the payoff came in a life of adventure rarely experienced by one so young. Over time, it was revealed in the fashioning of an artist with a keen sense of creation.

“My horse and I could go anywhere. It was like the boy on his motorcycle,” Morrissey said. “The horse experience at that time was just riding the ditches and through town, but when I think about it now I think, ‘What a lot of freedom I had.’ ”

When winter arrived and it was time for her and her horse to settle in, she’d bide her time using snowdrifts as a base for ice sculptures.

This sense of freedom – an unbound openness toward what might come next – seems to pervade both the process and product of the multi-faceted artist, who relocated to Fargo from Valley City a year ago.

Prior to coming home, she and her family had inhabited such places as Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and even England.

“When I got back to North Dakota … I felt all of that again,” said Morrissey, who returned to the state in 1996 with her husband, Mike. “I really started to feel more about the land.”

Her renewed appreciation of a simpler life provided impetus for her next work – a series of ceramic horns that blown sounds reminiscent of the prairie winds.

These became part of her wide repertoire encompassing everything from paintings and prints to a sizable assortment of two- and three-dimensional pieces.

Outside encouragement

But in her earliest years, other voices whispered and wooed; namely, those of the religious sisters at her Catholic grade school who noticed and encouraged her talent.

“The nuns were always very complimentary about my artwork,” Morrissey said. “Some would cut out little pictures of animals they must have found in magazines during their evenings, and when I’d get to my desk in the morning there might be a picture of a little dog on my desk. I loved to draw animals, so that was very gracious of them.”

By the end of her second year of college at North Dakota State University, Morrissey’s parents pressed her to choose a major. When her mom suggested art, she agreed, and transferred to the University of North Dakota.

It was there that she met her first mentor, art instructor Robert Nelson, whom Morrissey described as “an amazing print-maker, draftsman and painter.”

“Any class that he had, I took, and I spent a lot of time mostly drawing and painting.”

Her senior year, Nelson approached Morrissey to see if she’d be interested in staying on to do graduate work, but she had her sights on other things; namely, her upcoming wedding. “It was not on my horizon to do that at that time.”

One final and important lesson at UND came during her graduate show. Her pieces, along with the others, decked the halls of the art department for all to view. “One of the instructors looked at one of my paintings and said, ‘The only way that painting would ever function is if you would turn it upside-down,” Morrissey said. “I didn’t take it as an insult. I turned it upside-down and left it.”

An artist’s process

Morrissey’s been turning her work upside-down – literally – ever since. “I try to separate myself from what I’m doing and look at it in a different light. That’s sometimes hard to do because you’re engrossed in what you’re doing and you see it only one way.”

Her frequently-shifting art might begin with one very concrete idea, but by the time the piece is done, it’s become something else entirely.

Recently, she was at the swimming-pool birthday party of her 1-year-old grandson, Eric, and snapped a photo of him in the water with his father, her oldest son Tim. She felt inspired to use the image as the beginning point of a new project.

Midway through, the baby was floating in an inner tube and a fish head had replaced his father’s face. “If you were to look at the painting today you’d wonder, what is this?” she said.

Though some identify her work as expressive-figurative, Morrissey struggles to classify it. “I’ve seen the word surreal used, too, but I don’t see it as surreal. It always begins with reality and relationships,” she said. “What it’s about is taking shape as it develops, rather than developing as it might have been conceived.”

A mom rediscovers her other calling

In 1972, Morrissey’s thoughts were focused less on art and more on the shapes of her children’s faces. Mike, a school administrator, had accepted work in DeKalb, Ill., and with two small sons underfoot, she was smack in the middle of motherhood.

During that time, Nelson, her UND mentor came to visit and spent an evening at their home. When he asked what she’d been working on in the 10 years since their last meeting, Morrissey hesitated. “I think I dragged out one piece, and he was very kind about it, but … it stabbed me in the heart,” she said of realizing she’d all but abandoned her art.

Still, she wouldn’t have chosen a different path. “I did enjoy having young kids. They allowed me a creative thing in themselves.”

When her youngest, Patrick, reached first grade, however, Morrissey enrolled in an art course at the University of Louisville, less than an hour from their new home in Elizabethtown, Ky. This allowed her to “whip away while the kids were in school and be back by the time they were done.”

Eventually, she received master’s degrees from both the University of Louisville and Indiana University.

Following the hiatus, it was good to be back. “I felt so vibrant, and Mike made me a studio in the garage and enclosed it so you could keep it heated,” Morrissey said. “It was small and cozy but a getaway place. You could close the door; it was very nice.”

Plus, life experiences had given her new motivation. She felt she finally had something of significance to offer the art world.

Morrissey soon joined forces with another mentor – the painter Henry Chodkowski, who helped her find her artistic voice, introducing her to Walt Coon and his circus-themed work. This seemed a good fit for a mother of young children. Off to the circus they went.

“I started to pick up not only on the animals and the figures in unison but the skills and the balancing and the juggling, which later came to be metaphor for me – the agility of walking on a tightrope, the juggling that you do to balance your life,” she said. “And I have used those ever since.”

The family then spent nine years in Chicago, where Morrissey’s work thrived. She found great stimulation in the thriving art community there and was well-received.

Circling back home

But certain prompts alerted the couple that it was time to return to North Dakota. In Valley City, Morrissey found new inspiration through her relationship with her ailing mother, Regina, who passed away on Christmas Day 2009.

Though she misses Valley City, Morrissey said she’s beginning to feel more at home in her new south Fargo place, located just a few blocks from grandchildren. The more art she hangs, the more content she feels. “It seems to have the proper spirit in it now to create.”

These days, she’s less adamant about pushing her art into the world, but Morrissey remains grateful for the exposure it has attained, including several exhibitions since 1979 and permanent pieces in places as far away as Great Britain and New Zealand – not to mention an exhibit in our own Plains Art Museum in 2000.

And just as she’s been influenced by other artists, Morrissey has left her handprint on others, whether within her family and friendships or her sphere as an artist.

Linda Whitney, an art professor at Valley City State University, spent much time with Morrissey during their 15 years together in Valley City.

“Sue participated in many ways with the institution, encouraging young artists in our program, and all people for that matter – from children barely able to crawl to the elderly – to participate in creative activities,” she said. “She was a real force in the community.”

Morrissey declined offers to teach at the university, wishing instead to devote her retired years to working on her own projects, according to Whitney. Nevertheless, she would frequent the art department and offer her thoughts whenever needed.

“She’s a very creative person, and I loved watching her,” Whitney said, “Not only in the studio, but we would go on walks through the woods and she would notice things not everyone would – like sticks and stones, leaves and moss. And she would take them back and make these incredible pieces with them.”