Interview with Josie Morway for ‘Watershed’

Thinkspace is pleased to present Watershed featuring new work by Providence-based artist Josie Morway.

Moway’s paintings are fragmented narratives, inspired by everyday words and phrases that bombard us – old signage, broken billboards, overheard conversations. Substituting animals for human characters in her visual narratives, she explores gestures, postures, and expressions that are familiar and universal but at the same time ambiguous. 

In anticipation of Watershed, our interview with Josie Morway discusses her creative process, rituals, and record audiobook consumption.

For those that are not familiar with you and your work, can you give us a brief look at your artistic background and zodiac sign?

I’ve been painting for pretty much as long as I can remember, and my artistic background includes a lot of detours through photography, sign painting, graffiti, ceramics. For the past several years I’ve been making oil paintings with wildlife as my primary subjects, combining photorealism with bits of abstraction, lettering, and gilding. I pair a classical, Dutch Masters-ish painting style with hyper-modern color and design elements, to create somewhat surreal compositions that have been described as “votive cave paintings from the far distant future”. (I can’t overstate how much I love that description.)

I’m a wildlife lover with a deep concern for the increasing imbalances in our ecosystem, and a rising terror for nature in the face of extreme weather, climate change, habitat loss. I’m always looking to address these concerns in my work, and I’ve started to include some explicit references to threats in my more recent paintings, but I still instinctively veer away from showing my animal subjects in a state of despair or disaster. Instead, I feel compelled to invest them with this feeling of omniscience and a kind of supernatural resiliency. I hope this comes through… I hope this combination of peril and power gives my work a sort of tension, leaves the viewer feeling a bit off-kilter, sparks some thought and conversation.

My zodiac sign! I’m a Scorpio. I don’t understand or follow any things astrological, but every time I’ve accidentally read a characteristic of a Scorpio it has certainly seemed to describe me spookily well. 

What is the inspiration and themes that were explored during this latest body of work?

While making the work for “Watershed” I’ve been quite literally thinking about water. The substance that’s within all of us, the most crucial central element in our ecosystem, our bodies, etc. 

I’ve been thinking about water rights; who has them and who doesn’t, and about the movements and state changes of water. About the way ice is disappearing while floods increase in previously safe areas, about places inundated by saltwater as seas rise while even more places are suddenly without water… losing crops, losing drinking water. About pollution and diversion of bodies of water, but also about the redemptive nature of rain, of water’s capacity to heal.

As usual, I’ve turned to birds to explore all of this. They’re often among the first living things to manifest symptoms of change in the environment, in this case, the liquid environment.

Couldn’t resist the double-entendre in the name Watershed as well, since we’re at a “watershed moment” in human-caused climate change. 

What is your favorite and least favorite part of the creative process?

Eh, I like all of it. But I get the most uneasy when I’m planning new work. There’s a really long research period where I’m just looking, compiling references, trying and discarding sketches. Intellectually I know this is probably the most important part of the process, but I still get edgy when I’m not physically working with the paint. 

My favorite part of the process is varnishing. Does that count as creative? When I lay on a coat of varnish the black turns black, the highlights turn light and all of a sudden this piece that I’ve been flailing away at becomes real.

Do you have a pre-studio ritual? How do you get your butt in gear to paint?  

I pretty much roll straight into painting the moment I can get to the studio. You kind of have to tear me away from it, rather than motivating me to start. I hope that doesn’t sound braggy… it’s more about desperation (there’s never enough time!) than energy.  As I get older I appreciate more and more that I get to do something as potentially frivolous as drawing pictures for a living and wanting to make the most possible meaning out of that. Also, I had a kid three years ago. My husband and I are both self-employed and we had to scramble like crazy to figure out how to accommodate a baby and not lose our careers, passions, personalities. That makes me appreciate every moment of painting time too.

That said, if there wasn’t an alternating current of coffee and wine flowing, there would be no art at all coming out of this particular factory.

Is there a particular piece in this exhibition you feel really challenged you? If so, why and what makes you proud of this piece?

The two “Mirage” pieces were satisfying challenges. (And not because of the bubbles, I knew I’d be able to do those!) The mysterious slashes of gold, the areas of bright color, the botanicals that emerge and disappear into texture… these are the kind of intuitive, mysterious moves I want to make more of in my paintings. I get so terrified to let go of any detail, any realism. I’m glad that in this case, I was able to be a bit bolder, and I’m really happy with the result.

In a world where we are exposed to the end result, and not so much the process it takes to get to mastery, how long did it take you to master the gorgeous beauty and realness of the birds and animals you paint?  To the point, you have the confidence and skill you possess today?

It’s generous of you to use the word “master”, since I’m most certainly learning, and hopefully evolving. I definitely felt something click a few years ago though… an understanding of how paints and brushes behave finally became part of my body, and everything started flowing and happening more easily. Realistically, I’d have to say I’ve been oil painting for over 20 years, and that makes all the difference. I’ve never taken oil painting classes so there’s a decent chance that there are shortcuts I’m unaware of, but it seems to me that if you want to gain mastery over a medium like oil, you simply have to experiment for thousands of hours!

I went to college for a variety of other things, and have worked a ton of different jobs over the years, but throughout all that, I just could never stop painting. I’d skip classes to sneak home and paint, paint while I was on a conference call, etc. Eventually, painting just insisted its way to being my full-time gig, somewhat to my surprise. 

If you could make a movie poster for any film, what film would it be?

Hmmm. I was a film studies minor in college and now I essentially never watch any movies, and literally can’t think of the names of any at the moment. Gimme something with really dense dialog and a surreal plot twist and I could make something perfect for it! Just no sci-fi… I’m constitutionally incapable of following sci-fi.

What is the coolest or most exciting thing to happen to you thus far in life, and is it because of or connected to your work?

Whoa, I can’t imagine choosing one coolest thing from my life! I mean, like I said, I had a kid, and that’s obviously turned my head inside out and changed me in all sorts of ways. In a way, it does connect to my work. I suddenly have this acute awareness of myself and my choices as I’ve become an EXAMPLE to this little person, which makes me take my work both more seriously – because I want her to see what it means to stick to your passion and make something meaningful from it – and less seriously… because really, paintings, whatever.

The most memorable moments of my life have generally come from travel, though. I realize that’s a fairly predictable answer… can’t help it. My clearest and most transformative experiences have come from throwing myself into a totally unfamiliar landscape, cityscape, ecosystem. Those moments have inspired my work a ton, cleared my eyes and reminded me how to look. They’ve also been supported by my work, by the excuse to travel to visit galleries, to paint murals, deliver work, go to openings. If the only thing my painting did for me personally was to allow me some unplanned wanderings (I really like to travel without making sufficient plans, so I don’t know where I’m sleeping, etc.), then it will have done enough.

When painting what do you have playing in the background? What was the soundtrack to this body of work ( music, podcasts, tv shows etc…)

Good question! I used to listen to music all day and eventually came to feel like I’d used up all the music in the world. I moved on to podcasts, and eventually audiobooks, and now I’m blowing through something like 200 audiobooks per year. While making this work I hit a streak of REALLY good writing… 10:04 by Ben Lerner, Kudos by Rachel Cusk, the seasonal series by Ali Smith, and all of the novels about Northern Ireland I could find, for some reason. I’m sure I listened to some Wolf Parade and Young Fathers albums during this work too because I’m predictable and repetitive.

If you could download any skill into your brain, Matrix-style, what would it be? 

Okay, instinctively I just started picturing something really cool that would turn me into, like, The Remediation Bandit, where I’d be able to look at any polluted or damaged ecosystem and remediate it back to its natural state with beams from my eyes. But now I’m realizing that’s an imaginary superpower, and that you probably mean a skill that actually exists. It’s so hard to choose. They’re probably not the “best” skills to have, but I don’t think I’d be able to resist gaining some rad physical prowess. I’d like to be able to do every trick I’ve ever seen in a mountain biking video. Partly for the fun of it, but let’s be honest, also just to show off.

I’ve never seen the Matrix.

Opening Reception with the Artist(s):

Saturday, February 1, 2020 from 6:00pm – 9:00pm

Josie’s Morway “Watershed” opens February 1st, 2020


Advance Collector Preview will be shared on Wednesday, January 29

Opening Reception: Saturday, February 1 from 6-9 pm

Josie Morway is a painter and designer living and working in Providence, Rhode Island. Her works have shown widely, from the DeCordova Museum in Massachusetts to the streets of Juarez, Mexico.

Moway’s paintings are fragmented narratives, inspired by everyday words and phrases that bombard us – old signage, broken billboards, overheard conversations. Morway is of the opinion that omissions tell half the story.

Substituting animals for human characters in her visual narratives, she explores gestures, postures, and expressions that are familiar and universal but at the same time ambiguous.