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Featured Artist Interview - Hannah Morris

Hailing originally from the northeast of the United States, Vermont, Hannah Morris currently resides in the greater Cape Town area of South Africa, where she crafts her unique style of marrying aspects of cultural studies and graphic art together as an artist, illustrator and designer.

Presently an illustrator for a multi-lingual children's book called uTshepo Mde: Tall Enough, as well as a regular visual columnist for women24.com and The Weekender newspaper, the world can only look forward with much anticipation for more to come from Hannah Morris.

Meanwhile, TAXI welcomes Hannah onboard The Front Seat.

TAXI>>Hi Hannah! Welcome to the Front Seat with TAXI, what have you been busy with, these days?

Hannah>>I'm busy with a number of things - work for some ongoing freelance illustration clients; working on a new series of collages / paintings - some of these will be my first solo exhibition, coming up in September in Cape Town.

The show will feature works I've started on while doing an artist's residency in Brazil (Instituto Sacatar). I'm also in the midst of illustrating a picture book, also started in Brazil, in conjunction with a well-known children's book writer from Rio de Janeiro, Rogério Andrade Barbosa.

It's a book that will feature two stories we collected on the island of Itaparica, off the coast of Salvador, Brazil. And. I've also got several articles I'd like to write on various art and design topics.

Since I'm back in the United States for the next couple of months, visiting my family, I'm also busy socializing and 'networking' - sort of. So, basically, there's no shortage of things to each morning when I wake up.

TAXI>>What memory of your childhood did you cling to when it came to developing your style of illustration for the multi-lingual children's book titled "uTshepo Mde: Tall Enough"

Hannah>>My childhood always sits close to me, I think; I don't have much trouble sinking back into that space, and inhabiting that time.

When I was painting the little boy in uTshepo mde, I wasn't thinking much about the final product (a book); in fact, it didn't cross my mind that it could be something I could try to get published.

I just stuck with the story, and tried to put my own body - as a child - in the story, and imagine what it was like to be curious, a bit naughty, and uninhibited as we are when we're children.

I just tried to mimic on the page the motions and emotions of a child, and the people around him. While I was painting, I tried to make him come alive - in color and tone - as well as occupy a page that was beautiful and interesting for kids.

I think children like to look for details so I included little things for them to find - such as the dog that accompanies uTshepo. He's not mentioned in the story but he follows uTshepo in the illustrations.

TAXI>>How do you go about harmonizing aspects of cultural studies and graphic art into your illustrations and designs?

Hannah>>I guess I'm always looking for universals - the things we all share as people, regardless of which culture we're from or what language we speak. But I inherently seek out the differences, too, for I've found it's against these backdrops that I'm forced to define myself. Yes, we share so many similarities, but what is it that makes me different?

Maybe it's just a form of navel-gazing, I don't know. I try to harmonize these aspects on a number of levels - visually, I'm interested in colors, patterns, signs, and just the way people look and move.

Linguistically, I love languages and writing, and am quite fascinated by words and how people use them.

There's so much embedded in language as a spoken and written means of communication. Visually, I'm quite drawn to hand-lettering, so actually writing out words in languages I may or may not know is just a fun, trippy thing to do.

And then culturally, I guess it's what I said before; that I try to seek out moments that are poignant - either because they're indicative of what we share as fellow humans or because it recalls a memory for me specifically, or because it somehow defines me as an individual within a larger context.

But I guess like any artist/illustrator/writer, I'm always seeking a story or a moment or a visual impression. I want to make pictures that capture these moments in a striking, expressive, and ultimately, pleasing way.

TAXI>>What is your preferred choice of medium when it comes to illustrating? And, why?

Hannah>>I do like painting in gouache - though it's also quite a challenge. I like it because it's instantly expressive - or rather, it can be.

I can also severely overwork it, and paint the life out of whatever I'm doing. But when it works, gouache is an in-the-moment, vibrant, expressive medium. I've found I paint the best when I'm not trying to paint well, when I don't labor over something.

So when I paint that way, I love it. I also really like collage. I like it because I can be lazy or too rushed with painting sometimes, and my colors can get murky. With collage, I find I can pick up a little scrap of paper - it's clean and already a finished color - and it strikes a chord in me.

Then my little creative wheels start churning, and out pops a strange but often interesting little creature. I like the whimsical, creative side of me that collage brings out.

I also like that it uses existing materials - the idea of making something new and exciting from discarded materials is my ultimate creative dream.

TAXI>>How do you usually start on your creative process when it comes to each illustration project?

Hannah>>I procrastinate for awhile, that always helps ramp up the anxiety. And then once I calm down a bit, I try to inhabit the words or the story. Since I'm always working with words as an illustrator, I try to let the story shape itself in me; I have to run that story through my own wonky little creative 'grist' mill inside.

I have to let the story dance around long enough to generate an image or a scene or a moment that freezes. Then if need be, I tweak it - change the perspective or distort it a bit because I also just like to play with an image.

Then I start doodling. I try to keep preliminary drawings very basic - just rough sketches because otherwise, I get too attached to ideas. One thing I've learned is that I need to develop my own ideas first before I start looking at any reference materials - otherwise, I get far too affected, and actually start reproducing someone else's image without even realizing it.

The creative process for me is more and more about returning to my authentic reaction - those initial, first-response, visual reflexes (if that makes any sense.)

TAXI>>Some of your works include a a potpourri of short expressions in scribbles and words. Does this signify anything for you in your illustrations?

Hannah>>It's one way that I work. I've kept a diary since I was a little girl (written diary); I still write in a sort of diary.

But now I often combine that kind of 'diarizing' with a visual language - with hand-drawn type, words, and line drawings. I do this kind of drawing for www.women24.com as 'cartoons'; I think they appreciate my candor, musings and decidedly self-deprecating sense of humor - in a non-destructive way.

They're visual musings, I guess, and a way for me to play with languages - both written and visual. It's also a chance for me to tease out ideas or thoughts, but with the intention of sharing that with other people.

Kind of like asking someone, "so, have you ever had that dream where you find yourself..."; I guess it's another way of seeking to connect with people, and also entertain them.

But it's equally about entertaining myself, so to speak, by means of working through things in life in a thoughtful but light-hearted way.

I also think these drawings remind me of who I am - I think I am, at the end of the day, a cartoonist. Well, a 'drawer', actually. A 'drawtoonist'.

I've shirked the title for a long time but it's only in this past year that I've had a little interview with myself: "so, Hannah, what exactly IS your problem with 'cartoonist'?"

I think I resist it because it pegs me into a category that I feel like I don't fit completely. I love cartoons (particularly, Roz Chast and her ilk in the New Yorker) and admire the work of many cartoonists. But I feel like I have more languages than only the cartoon language to explore.

I think I'm just inherently multi-disciplinary in everything I do. Or I just avoid a commitment to any one single thing, I don't know. I'll have to work that one out in a drawing, I guess...

TAXI>>What fascinates you about the current design industry and your arena of expertise?

Hannah>>I think the current design industry is fascinating particularly because it's changing, or at least, poised for a change.

There's a lot about the design world that bothers me [I'm an easily bothered person, though.] I think there has been a lot of irresponsible design - products/things that are designed and manufactured to be disposable, to NOT last for a long time.

But this is not unique to design - you can find irresponsibility in any industry or profession. But what I find particular to the design industry (and by design industry, I'm broad in my definition...I guess I mean more 'creative industries') is that we're the people who come up with 'stuff'.

We design the goods that are eventually produced or 'manufactured' - whether it's clothes, brochures, posters, books, fine art, food, houses, furniture, cars, digital/web - all the trappings of our modern lives.

We are at a time now where the amount of stuff in the world is now becoming a topic and a highly influential factor not only in our day to day lives but in our relationship to this planet - carbon footprint is quickly becoming a household word.

So, I think the design industry, because it's chock full of creative people, has a particularly responsible role. I feel like it's actually (or should actually be) the new paradigm - responsible design.

As Bruce Mau described at this past month's Design Indaba in Cape Town, making sure that the "back of the house" in the design process is as clean and sustainable as the "front of the house."

So design then becomes the entire process, not just the final outcome.

Or course, this is not the sole responsibility of the design industry; every industry and profession needs to seek ways to be as sustainable as possible.

In my world, which is mainly illustration, fine art and education, for me this means practicing what I preach. How can I produce work that is sustainable? Is it authentic?

How can I use existing materials? Is my illustration work supporting a business or company whose practices I endorse? How can I teach in a way that encourages and seeks out-of-the-box thinking?

hose kinds of questions are not easy to answer and often, even harder to implement, but I think that is the only direction to move in, for the long-term sake of humanity.

But I don't think it's just a doom-and-gloom approach - I think this approach will tap into our most creative parts - will wake us up a bit and yes, make us work harder, but also perhaps produce answers we never thought were possible.

We're capable of so much, this is the flip side to the negative traits we have as humans.

TAXI>>Presently, you're an illustrator of a multi-lingual children's book and a regular visual columnist for www.women24.com. What do you hope to progress next to?

Hannah>>I want to do my own books, as well as more multi-lingual/multi-cultural books; I have a lot to learn on this front.

I also want to make some sort of crazy children's book, and publish this on-going illustrated diary project. I also have started and want to do more with stop-frame animation.

I like the idea of moving away from (as much as I love it) paper-based and into on-screen. I won't ever stop making things on paper - that would be like cutting off a hand.

But I do very much like playing with the wonky, hand-made and expressive feel of stop-frame animation where I can literally bring some of my weird little people and creatures to life. In the work I do, whether it's books, or work for someone's wall, I want to make people (can be children or adults) stop, be swallowed in a moment, and make them pause.

Whatever comes from that pause, I have no control over but I want to transport people for at least a few seconds.

So I don't know exactly which forms this 'transport' will take - maybe it will be in an entirely different form - like jello sculptures. Just kidding.

TAXI>>Meanwhile, I'm sure everyone would love to see your current working space. How about showing it to us?


This is my working space in Cape Town. Right now, since I'm in the United States, visiting my family, I'm working in a spare room that doubles as bedroom and studio (cleaned up for this photo!)

TAXI>>It's been a pleasure having you on TAXI's Front Seat, Hannah! Before we end, if you had a taxi that could take you anywhere, where would you be to go at this very moment?

Hannah>>Oh wow, is this an offer?! I would go back to Salvador/Itaparica, Brazil. I'll send you a postcard.

If I was offered a second taxi ride, I would go to India - to Mumbai and then travel around all of India. If I was offered a third taxi ride (you all are very generous people), I would go back to Africa.

Fun, quirky illustrations and designs works of Hannah Morris can be viewed here.

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