We are lucky to share the city of Los Angeles as a home with some of the world’s most renowned street artists. Artists who consistently breathe new life into an art form that is capable of having an immediate and profound effect on people. When an artist offers up a message that people can appreciate and share, when their work proves to evoke emotions that one might describe as earth-shattering or core-shaking, that is a special thing.
Street art is also fleeting — you never know where a piece will show up or how long a piece will last. So when you happen to stumble across an inspired piece by one of your favorite artists, you treasure that moment and look to share it with those who will appreciate it on the same level as you do; simply to make their day or to inspire them as you have been inspired.
And then, when that same artist has a solo show, or a book signing, or leads people on a scavenger hunt to find hidden pieces of his wisdom, you go together, you tag along, you quest for all the ways in which this writer/artist/inspiration has and will affect your thought processes and your outlook on life with profound truths and simple gestures like:
I PROMISE YOU, YOU’RE NOT JUST A WAITRESS
The first time you experience a Morley piece it typically comes as if it were a sign from the universe, or a blessing, or a happy reminder that you are not alone. Not alone in the world, or in your experiences, or in your thoughts. Morley’s overriding intent has always been an attempt to relate viewers of his art to each other through an idea — to connect people through public statements that underscore our seemingly universal self-doubt while admonishing that doubt with an equally universal faith in our potential.
Abundant with affirmations, equal parts sarcasm and kindness, Morley has made a name for himself blending the tenets of writing with those of street art into a collection of small sentiments with large implications. His work has culminated in the release of a book, and a current, timely collaboration with Smirnoff that highlights the diverse stories of American immigration. That project was recently discussed in an interview with Inverse; where it was also noted that with Morley’s art, “There’s no lampooning of commercial culture. No popular characters turned into ironic caricatures for the purpose of judgment. There’s only a version of himself.”
And here he is. We had the opportunity to exchange emails with the aforementioned artist and we are ecstatic to share this glimpse into his thought process — including an exclusive peek into his “sketchbook.”
Meet Morley: Writer/Street Artist/Wheat Paste Professional/Proud Geek
[we asked Morley to fill in the blanks] My name is Morley, I am a street artist. I am 50% dreamer and 50% doer. I would describe myself as a frustrated idealist and I am most inspired by people unafraid of looking uncool. I dream of making a lot of small differences in people’s lives that add up to something resembling a legacy and I will do that by showing them that they’re not alone.
Dreamers & Doers: Let’s start with some qualifiers, do you consider yourself to be a writer or an artist first? How did one come to influence the other?
Morley: I consider myself a writer first. I’m often humbled when I look at the artists whom I share the streets with and how immensely talented many of them are. Often when I am doing a group show I suffer a wave of terror that with my work on a wall next to an artist with more training, talent and ability that it will only display the limits of my ability. I do my best to remind myself that not all art is just about ability- and that mine specifically is about offering messages that remind people the strength they have inside and that their doubts don’t have to define who they are. So yeah, I may not be as skilled an artist as some — but I hope that people like what I do for a different reason.
How did your writing transform into street art?
Growing up, all I wanted to be was a writer. I’m from Iowa and as a kid I was obsessed with the indie movies that were coming out in the 90s — and desperately wanted to be a filmmaker among that generation. I went to college at The School of Visual Arts in New York and majored in screenwriting. It was important to me for two different reasons. The first was that I got to discover many different styles of self-expression. I met photographers and graphic designers and illustrators and comic book artists. It was amazing to have all these talented people around me to help me realize that my strengths as a writer didn’t have to be limited by any medium. I could do anything. Secondly I got to discover what street art was by seeing it in New York. I had never seen anything like it in Iowa where the closest I came to street art was curse words carved on bathroom stall doors. Suddenly I discovered an art form where you weren’t asking someone to come to your film, your gallery, your band’s show — you were bringing the finished product to them, putting it into their world. So I started slow, with stickers around the subway and it just grew from there.
Tell us about your creative process; from the moment you conceptualize an idea to the execution of that idea. Do you go through revisions of the text before you apply it to a poster or print?
Primarily what you might call my “sketchbook” is just a notepad where I write all my phrases down as they come to me. A lot of the “work” for me is just opening my mind and letting ideas in to bang around until something that feels real and honest and hopefully original spits out. After I write it down I try to work and rework it to be as concise as possible. My goal is to express the full sentiment in as few words as possible. If someone can read it while stopped at a stoplight and really get the meaning, that’s when I feel like I’ve done good work.
Can you educate us on the use of wheat paste? Did you have another process before you decided to stick with wheat paste?
I started with stickers and landed on wheat paste. A lot of artists use stencils but the sheer volume and variety of messages I wanted to put up made wheat paste the best option. It’s essentially just wallpaper paste. You can make it with flour and water or you can just order some powder from Amazon. I have over time discovered different recipes. I like to add a little sugar to make it a bit tackier. I also like to add some wood glue. Sometimes I’ll add some decoupage paste. It depends on where I’m putting something.
How did the illustrated version of you come to appear in the majority of your work? Is there a sense of irony including the street artist in the street art?
When I started it was just the text. Over time I realized that I wanted it to be coming from someONE. Not just from a logo or a brand but a person. I wanted it to feel like a friendship, like a friend was giving you advice or trying to brighten your day. I wanted people to feel a human connection — so I started drawing myself into the pieces. Looking back now I should have considered how easy it would be for someone to deface them. There’s a special kind of sting when you put up something you hope will offer hope — only to see someone’s drawn a dick on your face. Still, I think it’s worth it.
You have experimented with many forms, from large cut-outs to matchboxes, snow globes, parachute men, and many others. Is there a medium that you prefer more than the others?
My favorite is just really big posters pasted to walls. The bigger the better. On the other had there’s something great about knowing that just ONE person will see something. If it means something to them — the fact that they were the only person to see it makes the significance that much more powerful I think.
On various occasions you have involved the people of Los Angeles in scavenger hunts, where you have strategically hidden miniature versions of your art around the city. What inspires you to create that sort of engagement with your audience and what have you learned from it?
Well I love to offer little gifts for people who follow my art. Street Art is a medium that is more democratic in who gets to appreciate it. It’s not just for rich people who can afford to buy expensive art and it’s not just for highly intellectual people who have art degrees and can explain why Rothko paintings are more than just blocks of color. It’s for everyone at every level. So I like to give stuff away for someone who maybe can’t afford to buy a piece of art, and also, since my preferred gallery is always the street, it’s the best place to leave something special behind for someone to find.
Even in large print form, the placement of your street art is sometimes just out of sight and could be easy to miss if someone were not paying attention, is that intentional? How do you come to determine if a wall or an area has the potential to be a home for your art?
Well, first I try to determine how much damage I’ll be doing. I never want to do anything that will really piss someone off. I never wanted someone to see a positive message I’ve put up and think “what a destructive way of expressing that” so I try to stick to spaces that are easily painted over or cleaned up. Second I do the math of “more visible vs. easily removed.” Most times if something is highly visible it will be taken down very quickly. More people will see it in a but for a shorter amount of time. The alternative is something harder to see but will last longer. The perfect spot is somewhere in between those two.
Your work thrives in drawing out our common traits — through-lines in our humanity — and inspiring hope in total strangers. Where do you pull that inspiration from?
My primary source of inspiration is just my own life and the lives of my loved ones. If I can’t relate to something I can’t expect anyone else to. Then I try to ingest as much original art as I can. Movies, books, poems, songs, fine art, dance. It all helps us understand the human condition in a unique way and it’s all great fuel to inspire.
Did you ever imagine that your work had the potential to resonate with so many people?
In the beginning I never imagined that my art would mean much to anyone. One of the reasons that I was drawn to street art was that it didn’t require me to experience rejection. I could put it up and forget about it- and not worry if the right people liked it or not. I could just hope that whoever needed to see it got the chance. When I started posting stuff online and giving people a way to reach out to me I was worried that I’d get a lot of hate mail or people looking to have me arrested. AS it turned out, the response I’ve gotten over the years has been so encouraging and wonderful that it’s the main reason that I’ve kept doing what I do all these years. I’ve had a number of people tell me that something I’ve made kept them from taking their life — because it was the right words at the right moment. This is of course a tremendous feeling — knowing that I’ve helped in that way, but it’s important for me to remember that it’s not really ME that did it. It was God or the universe or serendipity or whatever you’d like to call it. I can’t take much credit for that person, going through that emotion and at just the right moment stumbling over a message that they needed to read. I just paste these things up and hope for the best. I let a force much larger than myself do the rest.
What advice would you give to those of us who wish to resist the allure of fashionable cynicism?
I think the first step is shedding the need to be cool, the need to be right all the time, and the need to know it all. I think if you unashamedly embrace the world for all it’s mysteries and miracles it’s pretty hard to be too cynical.
What was your thought process leading into the publication of your book, If You’re Reading This, There’s Still Time? What was that process like; essentially curating a portable gallery of your work?
You nailed it — I wanted to create portable gallery! My work was always meant to be in the streets. I enjoy seeing my work in galleries but I always felt it lacked the context of how these pieces came to exist. I wanted people to be able to see my work as it was meant to be seen- on the street, in all it’s grit and glory. My other ambition with the book was to make a coffee table book that you could really sit and read. That could bring you closer to who I am and feel an even more intimate connection than you might get seeing something I’ve done on the street. I want people to see that art that is vulnerable, coming from an artist that isn’t trying to create a mythical Robin Hood persona- but rather be who he is and show the world that they can be who they are too, scars and all- that there’s value in that. That there’s value in accepting that it’s okay to be a dopey looking guy in glasses who struggles just like you — but is right there beside you, urging you to keep going. To keep dreaming, to get back up and try again.
At the time of your book signing, you mentioned that you remembered times when you waited in line to meet some of your favorite writers. What other artists and/or writers inspire you? Who is your Morley?
Haha — well I always go and dork-out when Adrian Tomine (who is a brilliant comic book writer/artist) comes to town. I also love Eric Bogosian, John Darnielle, Sean Daley, David Sedaris, Ben Gibbard, Tom Waits and The Beatles (if I met Paul McCartney I’d soon be looking for new pants). Growing up, my biggest hero was Rivers Cuomo from Weezer. You can probably see the resemblance. I bought glasses like his, I styled my hair like him. For me, I always felt a distance to someone like Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder. They just seemed too effortlessly cool. Cuomo on the other hand seemed to speak the language of a kid like me who just wanted to play D&D in my garage and feel sorry for myself that the girl I loved didn’t love me back. My admiration has waned a bit as I’ve grown up and their records felt a bit less intimate — but I’ve kept the look.
If our wealth is the sum of our memories, how rich are you?
I like to think I’m fairly wealthy but I look forward to acquiring more and more and more until I’m swimming in memories like Scrooge McDuck.
When walking or driving through the city, do you ever pass your own work and reflect on it? Do you find inspiration in your own work?
I find inspiration in how people respond to what I do. Sometimes a piece doesn’t mean as much to me or I feel like it’s a bit weak and then someone will tell me it’s their favorite. It’s always good to know that people can sometimes tell you the value of your work even when you have your doubts.
Is it difficult to continuously come up with witty, meaningful sentiments? How do you challenge yourself so that you are always growing as an artist?
I’m constantly convinced I’ll hit a wall and never think of anything new ever again. It’s always a challenge but I just try to keep my mind open to the thoughts that others may let drift away. I think the biggest risk to any artist is when they’re celebrated for one piece of art and try desperately to replicate it over and over again. I try to just stay honest and see what that gets me.
Is it true that you misplaced your master plan?
Haha — well if life had gone the way I’d hoped it would when I was six, I’d have found One Eyed Willy’s ship long ago and be traveling via jet pack — but there’s still time!
If you happen to live in Los Angeles or if you will be visiting soon, you can check out an exhibit of Morley: BURN BLOOM SHINE from July 1 – Sept 30th, 2016 at eWKUKs Gallery on Fairfax. You should already be following Morley on Instagram and Facebook!