CW: Hello, Sean Morris! Interviewing you is essentially like catching up with an old acquaintance: you were a familiar face/name/style around Perth until you moved to the east coast. Give me a rundown of your existence in Melbourne. How do you operate these days?
SM: Yeah it's nice to catch up! Did we first meet through that Bakery show you and Karen (Wellington) organised? Was that 10 years ago? Or 9? I've shifted around different parts of Melbourne since I moved over in 2013, but for the last year I've been in Fitzroy. Which I like mainly because I can get to almost everything I need on foot, or by bike. I exist in a bit of a bubble between home and my studio, which is a ten minute walk away in Collingwood. I've been running a group workspace called Black Lake for a couple of years, we've got the back corner of a converted warehouse, in amongst a bunch of little creative businesses. I'm down there most days - I'm mainly working on illustration projects rather than art shows this year, but still painting for myself whenever I have the time.
It is quite possible that we met in 2008 through the show you mentioned (Candy Cult, a group show of character designs which took place at the Breadbox gallery/Bakery - both venues no longer exist but are still sorely missed). A lot has changed since then, and since you first started working as an illustrator. Looking at your presence online I get the impression that as a commercial illustrator you get hired for your own specific style these days, rather than having to adapt to the needs of clients too much. Am I getting the right impression?
That's partly true - with almost all of the commercial work that I do, I'm getting approached because of my own style, but I usually still need to adapt to the needs of a client. Occasionally I'll get a genuinely open brief when working with a brand, but I would probably call that an art collaboration. I see all illustration as adjusting to serve a client or a brief, but that's not a bad thing, I enjoy the process (most of the time). But on my social media etc, you'll only see the projects where I have a majority of control over the execution... I do a lot of other jobs through my agency which I enjoy and I'm proud of, but I won't promote it personally - they do a good enough job of promoting that part of my work. Social for me is about putting forward a strong idea of the sort of future work I want to do, and it's more skewed towards my long term art goals rather than my illustration ones.
Getting approached for one’s own style is a pretty damn good place to be working from. What is it that attracts clients to your artwork? I personally find many aspects of it appealing. Aside from the fact that your illustrations are character focused, I am a fan of your use of simple colour palettes or your line work, which is satisfyingly sparse but has just enough detail to invoke a very specific kind of ugliness at times…
Thanks! Yeah I think that's all pretty spot on - the fact that I draw people (and people love to look at pictures of people) is easily applied to advertising, editorial, branding, whatever. And I guess keeping lines and colours simple helps with communicating a big idea to a lot of people. It's also accessible and consistent enough for a client to look at it and see how the style could suit their needs. And yeah, I've always had a soft spot for a bit of ugly art - but I think simplifying my lines over the years has added a bit more kindness to the ugliness... I don't lean into those gnarly details as heavy as I used to!
A lot of your earlier characters showed traces of what Australians would recognise as “bogan” (an often rather classist cliche of what Americans might call redneck, combined with the look of 80s metalheads - at least this is my vague understanding). As with every cliche, some truth is out there: I have definitely encountered people who matched these aesthetics precisely. What is your personal connection to this part of Australian culture?
I think I just have the average level of connection of anyone who grew up in the Australian suburbs! My imagery was an amalgam of personal experience and pop culture, but to be honest, I didn't really have anything interesting to say about that part of society, I was just making dumb jokes. Back then (9-10 years ago) I was attracted to certain figures, and I had an understanding of what aesthetics people would respond to, but I didn't understand tone yet, or take it seriously. I over-applied this piss-taking mentality to way too many subjects, because I learned quickly that it had an effect - it was a fast track to an striking image, sometimes it made people laugh, and I thought I was doing the opposite of the pretty, decorative illustration that was so popular at the time. When you're starting out, you're so focused on figuring out how to make images that cut through, that it can be hard to think about their actual value, or their impact once they're out in the world. It took me a while to work out that making fun of everything was a pretty negative way to make work - especially after I drifted over some lines in the way that I depicted women. The specific metalhead drawings that started it all off were an exception, there was a lot of affection in those, but looking back - when I moved on what seemed like equivalent groups (bogans in cut-offs with guns, sorority girls doing keg stands) I lost the affection and the tone went off track. Nobody reigned me in though... I just had to figure it out in my own slow time.
Over the years your work has referenced a range of styles and culture which fit under umbrella terms such as low-brow. Recently there has been a noticeable tendency towards the occult or goth, as well as BDSM aesthetics. Which kinds of influences have steered you in this direction?
The general move away from low-brow was mostly about ending these unnecessarily negative takes, and wanting the work to be a little more socially conscious. About 4 years ago, I finally understood that my art had a life beyond me - and I think I grew up, and became generally more aware of the social impact of all digital / painted / printed images. So I made a quiet but conscious pivot towards art that's intended to make people feel good - especially the non-male consumers of my work. I’ve also been trying to take a more positive and interesting approach to the power dynamics in my images... While still trying to touch on unusual, occasionally extreme subject matter (not playing it safe) that's also more personal and raw... So maybe all that explains the pro-witch and BDSM art?
There's also been the influence of certain friends, and changing tastes in aesthetics, movies, artists etc... as well as just getting bored of old stuff, and moving on to another chapter, another set of imagery to dig through.
I think the through-line the whole way though, has been this attraction to cultures that get referred to as 'sub' or 'outsider' or whatever. Like extreme metal - Trailer parks - Bikies - Cultists - Nudists - Satanists - Latex enthusiasts. I've only recently become cognisant that it's all fantasy to an extent... every one of those archetypes exists inside me, just on the lower end of the scale. Some of these archetypes are a class product, sure, and some are a lifestyle choice - and not all should be romanticised - but for better or worse, even if just for a moment, I've imagined my life going those ways. The more rational (or repressive, depending on how you look at it) part of me (along with maybe a lack of the right/wrong influences) has stopped me from buying a motorbike, joining an Ashram or pulling on a full rubber bodysuit. But those glimmers of curiosity are there and the drawings are kind of an exploration, in lieu of making wild life decisions.
What sort of relationship do you have with the characters you create, are they mainly representations of a style, or are there any narratives or other details that emerge in the process of creating them but remain hidden to the viewer?
These days, the former is more true - though I'd say it's as much about a particular mood as a style. The latter used to be 100% the case - there used to be a lot more narrative behind it. For a long time, each series of work would begin with an extensive writing process, but then move on to a design process... which ended up shaving off story elements, in the service of making stronger stand-alone images. So there was lots of character and story stuff that kind of got paved over? It lives only in old sketchbooks. I've often wished that I had the aptitude for comics, to tell more full stories.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve just started working on a split show with a couple of friends - Sam Octigan and Ben Baker - which will probably be in Melbourne in December.
Top 5 artists at the moment?
Top 5 songs/records to listen to while working?
These songs have been on high rotation lately!
Another Top 5 of your own choice?
Fave podcasts to put on while working…