Sofia Gonzalez

Sofia Gonzalez visits Morgan Hill of Morgan Hill Creative, Little Rock, AR

With introduction by Seth E. Barlow 

“When I started, drawing was the thing that excited me the most … the thing I was using my hands with the most.” She realized early on that she wanted to focus on design. After an attempt at interior design, she found the Applied Design program that allowed her to mix her interest for design with her passion of hands-on processes. “I always cared a huge deal about space, the space around me, what makes me feel good in that space, so furniture made a lot of sense.” She was immediately hooked. “It was exactly what I wanted to do. Finally, after eight years.”

“It’s next to Big Lots,” was all she had told me. When I had agreed to meet artist Morgan Hill at her studio on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s campus, I wasn’t expecting the small, shackled building that had been tacked on to an aging strip mall. As is typical for artists and their workspaces, the outside is rarely indicative of the art, artist or process that resides within. Inside, the workshop was cavernous, an endless stock of materials and tools, all permeated with the restless energy of creation. The building holds a woodshop, facilities for metal-smiting, and a textiles room, each one ready for the next class to revive it. As I sat down with Morgan, it became clear that the space was more than just a facility of convenience, but had become an integral part of her growth as an artist.

A native of the small, delta swept town of Wynne, AR, Hill made the move to nearby Memphis to study at the Memphis College of Art and later transferred to the University of Central Arkansas in Conway before finally finding herself and her art in Little Rock. “I knew I wanted to do art, but I didn’t know what I do with it,” she says.

How would you describe the art scene in Arkansas? In Little Rock?

New, upcoming. I’ve gone to Austin for the East Austin Studio Tours the past three years – I have seen how much development there’s been there, and I see that happening here now. Exciting things are going on in SOMA and Argenta: co-ops starting to form, people are starting to get spaces together and have group shows. I hate to leave right now – but I want it to happen and then come back to it. (She is moving to North Carolina to become a fellow at the Penland School of Crafts) I would have loved to be really involved in the first co-op shop for metal/wood work. I was trying to get that going, but at this stage in life people have things they have to do. I realized this was the time that I should go do a residency. I don’t have a child or job that is holding me back.

The time is coming for this city. Little Rock hit the moment where there was enough people coming to the city that there had to be someone looking for a shop or art scene. Most likely these people couldn’t find what they were looking for here and just decided to make it for themselves. Our location in the country has a lot to do with being a tad behind.

Have you experienced that the Little Rock arts community has grown since you’ve been here?

Oh, yeah. I’ve been fortunate enough to be really involved in it. Once I moved here, I immediately became really close to Mia Hall, my Furniture Design professor, and she tried to tell me about everything I needed to be a part of and everyone I needed to meet. So I was quickly friends with a lot of people who were very involved in the art community. That grew, and as I was about to graduate, I became friends with people who could help me post graduation. I met Anita Davis who owns the Esse Purse Museum and has done a lot for the SOMA area to bring up the arts there and develop it. She hired me to be a sales person, and then I became involved in whatever creative project was going on at the museum at the time, and I am now the Creative Director there. I have been with the museum since it opened in 2013.

It’s so much more than people think it is. Everyone just thinks it’s a purse, but it’s not, it’s women’s history. The gift shop is its own exhibit in itself with all handmade things. It’s really awesome.

I don’t know how things just happen, but the last year has been amazing for my career. I have met the right people and been in the right place. You hate to say it, but that’s how it happens and it really, really did.

Tell me more about your business Morgan Hill Creative.

About 6 months before I graduated, I realized I needed to get professional with my work. I learned about websites, how to photograph my work, and everything in between. I started business cards, website, all that stuff.

I started making jewelry because I knew I needed something small that I could make fast and sell because it takes a while and is expensive. The furniture is very much for a certain type of person. This last year has been focused on developing my jewelry more than anything.

Is the jewelry wood too?

Yes, wood and metal. I carve shapes from a piece of wood. Each piece will speak to me in a different way. I layer with colors and then rub them back to reveal some of the wood.

I have a shop on my website and sell jewelry at the Esse Purse Museum and various shops around the country. That’s been growing. It’s been awesome to see that I can sell jewelry and live off of it; I can actually have a career in this. I wanted to get the jewelry moving in a new direction, but it’s gained such attention that people are interested in the current aesthetic. People are seeing it for the first time in different places so I have had to keep the same aesthetic but also tweak it so that I can stay interested in it.

The furniture is where my heart is. It’s what I want to do whether I make money in it or not.

I saw recently you have done some commissioned work, like at Moxy Mercantile. How do you think about the commissioned work and how does it function differently than your jewelry or furniture? Do you create proposals or have businesses come to you?

So far people have come to me. The first piece I did an installation with yarn. There was an alternative space in Argenta where a women’s group got together and put on a show. I had wanted to draw with string; it’s in the craft field, still, so I thought if it was successful that I would stay interested in it. I began with a portrait of myself with string. From that point, it turned into a thing where people wanted their signs made out of the same technique or random objects. Those commissions are something that I would probably be the least interested in doing now. The first piece I did was the most meaningful – I still have the desire to draw and do line work, but I would rather that stay with me. But because it became such a thing and people were interested, I realized it would be a good advertisement and money. I thought I’d rather do it than not. I would like to move from that and somehow incorporate it into the furniture and the three-dimensional stuff that I am doing. I still like it, it isn’t something I want to let go of, but it definitely turned into something that was a little too commercial.

What are you currently working on?

The larger work that I’ve done has been more from workshops that I have taken. Because having a job everyday, I get here (her studio) after work and it doesn’t allow me a lot of time. I have to keep my space clean, so it limits me on the bigger things that I get to work on because I don’t have long periods of time. So the jewelry has been my focus, to get that going and make it something that can sustain me. I have had in the back of my mind that I can’t let go of the furniture part even though I can’t focus on it right now. I have done everything I can to get into a program that allows me to do that. After two years of trying, I got into Penland School of Crafts. In February I will move and be there for two years.

Have you been thinking about the furniture in terms of research, materials or plans since you haven’t been able to work on it?

Yes – I have a stack of ideas and materials that are ready to go.

The taxidermy work that I did for my BFA show is definitely something that is the most important right now. I still want to work with taxidermy. I have been learning the past two years how to taxidermy on my own. The taxidermy work is where I feel most like who I really am, my heart and soul. It’s where my concept comes through and is my more meaningful work. I’ll try once, I am at Penland, to do as much furniture and involve the animal aspect of it.

How did the taxidermy come about?

I grew up on a farm. My dad was a hunter; I was the only child and a girl at that. I was going to go hunting with him, whether I liked it or not. I was immediately disgusted by hunting. I would fall in love with the dead thing that we brought home, and it would become this thing that I thought was precious and I wanted to memorialize it in some way in my mind. My dad wouldn’t let me keep the animals, but I lived with these things on the wall as a child. As I got older I realized that my parents and I had more differences than similarities. Taxidermy became the thing that represented all those differences as I grew – how things changed from what I was taught as a girl to how I think now. It’s been the thing that has stuck with me. I am very attracted to the animals, and I have always been obsessed with death – the lighter aspect of it, at least. Not the heavy, ‘where do we go’ part of the death, but the lighter, humorous, macabre side of death. It just fit with me – it was the thing that had all of those aspects that I was drawn to. All these things are the total opposite of my parents, it’s not something that was ever instilled in me.

Taxidermy is everywhere now, as far as art. I am glad because I get to move anywhere and find a place for myself; it’s not just in the South.

A lot of the taxidermy I have to buy online or on EBay. I just bought a piece of taxidermy that’s a toy that a kid would play with. I really hate seeing older pieces of taxidermy that someone throws away; that’s really sad to me. It’s like throwing away a human being once they are so old that there’s no use for them. The animal has still had a life and is beautiful. I want to find a way to honor these animals. They’re trophies for somebody; let me give them a time to be looked at like they deserve to be. I feel like one day there will be a big movement against the discrimination of animals, like civil rights or women’s rights. I would love for people to consider these animals more than just something to run over. I realized just having a piece of taxidermy in my work said all of these things and I didn’t have to try to verbally explain it.

How do you choose your materials, in terms of wood, etc?

I am attracted to high contrast things. It definitely depends on the animal I’m using. I start with the animal as the source and respond to its color. I’m attracted to light wood usually, the whiter the better. I like more mid-century lines, clean, simple lines, so whatever piece of taxidermy I use stands out. The animal becomes be the most detailed, involved thing for the eye to look at.

Do you see your furniture as functional?

It’s hard for me because I do want it to be gallery work, but I also want it to function now that I am far enough in this field and I know I’ll have to support myself. If I’m going to say I’m a furniture maker, I want it to have function. I want it to have the sculptural, organic gallery presence but also for it to function and work in someone’s home. I’ve encountered those problems already. I made a cabinet that was for bats to live in; it was strictly something for you to look at as art. I need to figure out how to let the audience interact with the work a little more. For the chair and ottoman I made, the ottoman stood on the piece of taxidermy so no one can rest on it.

I want to make sure those things can work together.

I think it’s the right time to be a craftsperson – it’s the beginning of this huge boom. Not that there hasn’t been craft around, but it feels like craft is now something I see everywhere all of a sudden.

What is the best way for you to connect with your audience?

I forced myself. I am not a computer person; I knew Facebook and basic social media, but I had to make a decision to be on top of that. I don’t read books either. I am so visual that it is really hard for me to read. I forced myself to read things that were going to teach me how to do the social media part of business and to talk to people outside of the Little Rock community. That part was easier. I knew how to talk to people and go to things. I could handle Little Rock. But as far as Instagram and Facebook and reaching out to other website that could sell my work, I needed help. I read a whole book about Instagram and how to do it, and it totally worked. I worked really hard on it for a while and now it’s an easy thing. I’ve gotten jobs from Instagram. It really is a thing to know – there is a lot of power in it. It’s just how the world is now.

I keep applying to shows in different places. I have gotten in little shows and some bigger ones that I never thought I would get into because of social media. On Instagram, you tag the right person and that’s it, that’s all that has to happen. There’s a store in Michigan that has my stuff, a really cool boutique, just because I tagged a picture.

Do you look to any artists for inspiration? What type of conversation would you hope your work to be a part of?

I hope to be involved with different groups, but I don’t think I’m there yet. There are a lot of artists working in taxidermy and I would love to jump into that and somehow be a part of that conversation. When someone wants to write about work with taxidermy in it, I would love for my work to come up. There aren’t a lot of furniture makers who use taxidermy in their work, so that’s a good thing. I would really feel successful if those people that I’ve looked at the most throughout this taxidermy work recognized me.

Other than that, it’s really local. I definitely feel a part of the group that I graduated with; we are still very close and are really trying to make it. We’re really worried about each other and about helping each other. The group is about to spread out a little bit from Little Rock. It’s been different from what I’ve seen in other schools or other relationships that I have. We all want to find success in our degree and are sticking with it. Right now my classmates are trying really hard to be the people who change things here in Little Rock. I haven’t felt that way any other place I’ve lived.

I tried several different things and realized this [art] is the only thing I know and the only thing that is going to make me happy. It’s the only thing I am going to allow myself to do, if that’s the case. Money doesn’t mean a lot to me; as long as I can take care of myself that’s all I really need. My parents absolutely hate hearing that, but they’re coming around to the idea of me being an artist for the rest of my life. I’m very lucky to have parents who are still growing.

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Any parting words?

Recently I’ve been really thinking about where I want my work to go. Talking about my work used to be really complicated. I would really like to simplify what my work is, not just visually, but to make it a more universal thing that people can really walk up to and understand. A simple understanding, not something that makes them feel all of the emotions. Something peaceful and funny. I would really like my work to be easy and express what I feel about it. It’s very simple. It’s this silly idea of the death part of life.

You Can Find More of Morgan Hill’s work at:

Wildwood Park for the Art’s Art in the Park exhibit until February 15 and at UALR’s  The Penland Experience

www.morganhillcreative.com

You can follow her on Instagram here and on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/morganhillcreative

Sofia Gonzalez meets with Meghan Bogden Shimek of Native Textile

A couple months ago I discovered Meghan Bogden Shimek’s work on Instagram through one of those deep pits of textile and natural fiber hash tags and searches. Going by the name of Native Textile, Meghan is a fiber artist who has lived across the United States and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She draws inspiration from the places she has been and the materials she encounters. Much of her interest in local fibers developed from a previous career in farmers markets and local food economies. I had been an admirer of Meghan’s process and was interested in learning more about her materials, her honest dedication and passion for local fibers, and the way in which she navigates the contemporary textile community in the Bay Area.

I met with Meghan on a sunny afternoon in her home in San Anselmo, a tucked away neighborhood in Marin County. Through shaded oak trees and up a steep twisting one-way road, I made my way and found Meghan’s garage studio waiting for me. She welcomed me openly with a cheese plate and tea, and we sat down to discuss her weaving practice and her involvement in the Bay Area textile community.

How long have you been on the West Coast, and what brought you here?

After I finished my second degree in Nutrition I moved to Washington, DC doing nonprofit adolescent health care. I really didn’t like living in Washington DC. It just it wasn’t for me, very fast paced, business oriented and political. My husband had been living there forever and was looking to move. So we visited both San Francisco and Denver, and then we just decided on San Francisco. It was kind of fluke; we picked a date and decided that’s when we were going to move. It was the height of the recession and neither of us had jobs lined up. We were like let’s just do this; this will be a great adventure. We lived in San Francisco first, and then when I got pregnant we moved to Marin. We really love living in the Bay Area now.

How long have you been weaving? What other textiles arts do you do?

I started weaving about a year and a half ago. I had always had this kind of draw toward fibers. I had done some crocheting, quite a bit of knitting, and felting. About a year and a half ago I took a weaving class when I was visiting my family at home in Flint, Michigan. As soon as I took that class, that was it. Weaving was all I wanted to do after that. I have taken every weaving class I could take, I have read all different things, and been following different weavers. I feel like I have way more ideas and things I want to do in weaving then I could ever have time for.

Can you talk a bit about your career in local food economy? How does that tie in with the local fibers you use?

When I lived in Washington DC and Michigan before that, I had worked at farmers’ markets as a weekend kind of thing because I always really loved being a part of that. When we moved out here, my dream was to be able to do that full time because there are so many farmers markets here in the Bay Area. So I was running farmer’s markets and teaching nutrition classes. I loved it; it was fantastic. When I had my son, we decided that I would stop working because working in nonprofits is not the most lucrative career. It was spend all our money on daycare or stay at home.

I have always been really interested in agriculture, local foods, and supporting our local economy and small farmers, so that has transferred into my interest in fibers. Especially when we moved to Arizona for a year, it was hard to find local fibers and yarns. Now that we are back in the Bay Area, more and more I am only really buying fibers that are local. I am hoping as I use up my existing yarn stash, eventually I will only be using local fibers.

Do you have a connection with the farmers or where the fibers are coming from when you buy locally?

I have met several of the farmers. I just joined the Fibershed. I am now considered one of their artisans and I am really excited about that. I’ve gone to the Fibershed Symposium, and I have met several fiber artists through that. There are two in particular, Mimi Lieberman of Windrush Farm in Petaluma and Sally Fox, who does cottons and some wool as well. I have gotten a lot of stuff from them. About a month ago there was a wool festival, which was really great. I got a lot of stuff when I was there, and made some connections there as well, so now I know more farmers. We are also lucky that at the Larkspur Farmer’s Market nearby the Fibershed people sell there. I feel like people are becoming more aware of local fibers and it is becoming really accessible. If it’s a Thursday afternoon and I really need some white locally grown yarn, I can just go to Knitterly in Petaluma instead of trying to contact somebody or driving out to a farm 100 miles away.

Being from the Midwest, it is a luxury to have that accessibility here. You don’t have that other places at all. Even in Michigan in farmers markets, a lot of the food wasn’t even grown locally. There was a lot of trades of foods to Florida during the winter and summer months in order to sell all year.

We are so lucky here because people are so interested and willing to spend a little bit more money on local goods because they see the value in it.

I have noticed you have taught some weaving classes at various alternative art spaces in the Bay Area like Ogaard and Makeshift Society. How is that going, and how did you come around to teaching?

It’s been going really well! It’s been a lot of fun. I was not really intending to start teaching. Christina from Makeshift Society contacted me and asked if I would be interested in teaching a workshop. And I was like, well, I haven’t done it before, but I will give it a shot. In my mind I told myself that if I crash and burn and its awful, I never have to do it again but at least I will have tried. It went pretty well! Right away they asked when I could teach another class. At the same time Ogaard was looking for artists to teach workshops. I had been following them for a long time, I think it’s such an amazing place, so I contacted them to teach. It was a little intimidating since both of my workshops sold out really quickly because a lot of people want to learn weaving. I was a little bit worried that I wasn’t going to be giving the students what they wanted.

Now that I have a half a dozen under my belt, I feel more confident in what I am doing. Even if they don’t always go super smoothly, it seems everyone knows how to weave when they leave and can continue doing it.

What are you currently working on in the studio?

I have been trying to work on a big loom I just bought, but yesterday I realized there is a piece that is broken so I have to get that fixed.

I am also starting a project that will be kind of a side project that I’ll will work on, and it will probably take me years before I start to show it to anybody.

There is an artist Josef Albers and he did the Homage to the Square series. So I am starting that. I am going to make a bunch of weavings of the paintings that he did.

I am just barely starting that. It will be like my in between during other things. I want to do a whole series of them before I really publicize it. I found out about him through his wife who was a really famous weaver.

Have you seen any of his work in person?

Not in person yet, I haven’t. I have only seen pictures. I have to admit that I have not been to many museums in San Francisco. When I first moved to Washington DC, I went to every museum because I thought it was amazing that there are so many great museums. So the first two months I went to everything. And then we started getting visitors who wanted me to take them to the museums again. So in San Francisco I said I am not going to any museums until we have visitors. Being pregnant and having a baby has made it hard to go to museums too. I am hoping to finally get to some this summer.

How will you be getting the colors for the Josef Albers homage series?

I am using a tapestry style of weaving in which you use really, really thin yarn. So for this first one that I am working on now, I bought the yarn at a shop in Oakland. A good friend of mine Ama Wertz does a lot of tapestry work, so she has been looking for local sources of tapestry yarn. I feel like I have just barely scratched the surface of it, so I will see what kind of research and sources she finds.

I really love to dye. I like taking dye workshops, but it’s not something I do at home. As much as I would love to, I only have so many hours unfortunately. I am so amazed by the artist Erin Riley; she does a lot of her own dyeing. She does so much stuff, and her work is so incredible. With the amount of work that she does she just must not sleep.

Are the pieces all going to be the same size?

I think so. The first one might be the oddball; I might use a different loom moving forward.

How did you find out about Josef Albers?

I am taking a tapestry weaving class right now. My instructor, Tricia Goldberg, has been teaching for several years and she started weaving when there was a lot of people in the Bay Area who were weaving. Even though Annie Albers was older than her, it was somebody that she really knew of. In taking my class we started talking about the Bauhaus school and began looking at Albers older work. My instructor began talking about Josef and Annie Albers. After that, I was up in the middle of the night researching them, and was impressed by the color theory that he has done. It has been recent that I discovered them. I hope to get his book of color theory soon. I think it’s really amazing work.

Is this the first time that you have worked with a really specific inspiration with research along side your work?

There have been a lot of weavers who have inspired me, but this is kind of the first time I have transformed something really outside of weaving into something I really want to work on. In the beginning I was looking at other weavers and copying their techniques to learn how they were working.

Tapestry weaving is based on painting; it’s weaving in a painterly way. My weaving instructor takes tons of painting classes to make herself a better weaver, which I think is really interesting.

It’s sounds like you already have a lot of great connections from teaching weaving. How have you found it to navigate the textiles community here?

I feel like I am still learning it. It is very new. When I started weaving it was the thing I did at night when I needed something to meditate to. I had no intentions of it becoming a business or anything more than something I did for my own personal enjoyment. Everything I made in the beginning I gave away to my friends or relatives. Since February I have started meeting other local artists. People often ask if I have met specific people. I exchange emails with a lot of people. I feel like I am starting to get in-roads, but I am still very new in the community. It’s been hard with my son to make it to events and openings in the evening.

Have you found that social media has been an effective way to get your work out there?

I think Instagram for sure. I have a Facebook page that I don’t keep up on as much as I should. Instagram has been phenomenal; I am shocked by it. I only started my Instagram page last September, and I feel like that has been a really great way to connect. Especially now that there is such an interest in weaving, I think people are seeking it out.

What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?

I usually spend a maximum of 16 hours a week in my studio. A lot of days, I wake up and go down to my studio in the garage at around 5 in the morning. That is my most productive time of the day. I am a morning person. I think we are a strange group. If am working on something, I will pick it right back up and just get going. A lot of times that is when I am my most creative so I like to start projects then or I’ll brainstorm the day before and start early in the morning. After I work for an hour or an hour or a half, I will come back upstairs and get everybody going for the day and take my son to school. Then when I come home I usually have a couple more hours in the afternoon.

The couple of things I am working on now are smaller, but I like to work at larger scale.

I just did my first really big weaving and I want to do more. It was over 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

I think when I started weaving I was very critical of myself. I am feeling excited and proud about what I am doing now, instead of comparing my work to someone else’s.

Do you have any specific aspirations in the art world? What’s next for you?

I am doing some craft shows coming up, like West Coast Craft, and I will be selling at theFibershed Symposium as well. It would be a total dream to someday be in an exhibition.

Right now I feel really good about where I am. I want to keep learning and experimenting and have more time to do the stuff that I want to do.

I also really would love to collaborate with other artists, whether it’s other weavers or people. I have talked to a couple other people about using their art and trying to include weaving in it. I would like to try that sort of thing moving forward. I think that’s the next step.

I also want to create fabric with the big loom, I don’t really know what I would do with it, I just want to try it and see how it works. I want to play around with the big floor loom and see where that goes.

I really want to, something I am hoping to do next year, start making some more connections with shops across the Bay Area and then build looms to go in their store windows and have mini weaving projects. Then, at the end of the year, we would have an exhibition with all the work so it would be an accumulation of what the community has made. Or have an auction for the final piece to give money back to the community. I feel like there is such a desire to learn to weave right now, which is really exciting and inspiring.