To observe Morgan O’Hara at work in her Midtown Manhattan studio is to witness power, something like a tornado with dancingly fluid limbs, poignant speech, and intense blue eyes that smile as they inquire under a neat crop of jagged, burgundy hair. As a seasoned, internationally acclaimed “live transmission” artist – faithfully hardworking since her undergraduate years of the early 60s’ in California, when she first met and became irrevocably influenced by the life and work of John Cage – she epitomizes the phrase “a force to be reckoned with”. Contrary to common associations with the phrase, however, she imbues it with grace.
Recently, while sauntering through Seattle’s Pike Place Market with Morgan, I noted the quiet intensity with which she absorbed the place. We stood in front of a French bakery window for several minutes, watching a young man methodically fold strands of dough between his floured fingers. The baker, at first amusedly self-conscious of his movements upon noticing her observations, eventually met her eyes, smiled, and the silent exchange as we watched his meticulous motions in weaving the pastry took on a ceremonious quality.
This moment in Seattle arguably characterizes much of Morgan’s personhood, and work, the bulk of which is now comprised of more than 3000 “Live Transmission” drawings which visually follow the subtle movements of life – hands, eyes, and the like – through the use of multiple pencils as she observes, collaborates with, or creates “duets” with those around her. She has traveled the world through five continents doing this work, exhibiting, performing, and teaching, is the recipient of many notable grants, and has work in many significant public collections. (One may wish to exhaust herself sometime in reading the commendable list of grants, exhibitions, collections, publications, and the like on Morgan’s website.) After living between Italy and New York for the last 30 years, she moved back to the City in 2010.
I first began working with Morgan on a series of performances for the Chelsea Music Festival, and despite (or because of) our concurrently intense personalities and our mutual enthusiasm for thought-provoking work, a growing admiration for one another won out. I count her as a true friend and colleague.
Recently Morgan asked me to be a part of an archival program concerning one’s artistic legacy in which she’s involved with at Columbia University’s Research Center for the Arts and Culture (RCAC). This past week, Morgan and I met for coffee and a croissant to more formally consider a topic that we’ve discussed now many times: longevity and the art world. Following here is our discussion.
JD: Morgan, you know that I love your work. As I love it, and it is well documented in the digital space of the Web (Ernesto Pajol’s recent interview was lovely), I would like to focus here on considering a comment that you’ve now made several times, that “we really must offer an alternative construct for longevity.” It is one that I have considered in the past few months after hearing you share it, and I think that a further discussion on the matter would resonate with others. Can you expound upon this?
I feel that the image of the elder person in American society is based almost entirely on frailty, poor health, lack of capability, non-contributors to progress, etc. In the United States, people who are not a part of the capitalistic workforce are considered irrelevant. It is not like this in older societies where elders are respected for their accumulated wisdom and in general are respected members of society. In some societies the elder person continues to have a vital role in the family. Without their contributions, the whole would not function as well as it does. It is fortunate for me that I don’t have to deal with major health issues, but I feel the censure and projected irrelevance which is so easily projected onto anyone older than 50.
JD: Yes, “censure and projected irrelevance” is a good phrase, as if youth were the only pathway to success (how short lived). What is it about this that is so crucial to your work, this idea of movement and vitality?
There are many different signs of vitality. Athletic prowess is high on society’s list; subtle movement mostly goes unnoticed. I focus on movement in order to catch vitality and transmit it to paper as drawing, so that it communicates directly – and often transfers the energy of the vitality observed – to the person who sees the drawing.
JD: Recently you released the fifth volume of your Encyclopedia of Live Transmission. I am curious about this idea of creating an “encyclopedia” of movement. How might this relate to the idea of vitality?
We could never make an accurate inventory of human movement. It is far too multifarious. I use the term “encyclopedia” merely because I want to communicate that the scope of the work I am doing is wide and various and can be considered in many different lights.
JD: Can you briefly talk about your recent grant with Columbia University’s Research Center for Art and Culture, and explain the program?
The Columbia Art Legacy program was developed to assist artists over 70 to begin making an archive of a life’s work. It is still a work-in-progress, just entering into its second round of artists, 12 in New York and 12 in Washington DC. The artists work with graduate students to identify and archive images of completed work in a database developed in conjunction with the Phillips Museum in DC. EmbARK is the software used by the program. Duration of the actual work period is January – June 2013.
JD: What about this program is specifically helpful to your work?
It is time for me to put my archive together to acquire an overview of my life’s work and to see where I should go from here. My life overlaps two centuries and this work is my contribution to the art of the 20th and 21st centuries. I need to put it in order so that if I were to die today, the material would be properly documented and organized in such a way as to be useful for the future study of drawing, life, and art during this period.
JD: It is about legacy, isn’t it? This interview will by published for a readership that is largely artistic, and in particular, female. You once said – rather jokingly– that you had tried almost every job that a woman could before deciding to officially consider yourself an artist. Can you speak to this?
MO: I actually said that parallel to my work as an artist I have done just about everything a woman in our society can do to support myself except prostitution.
(JD: Yes, I remember that keenly!)
MO: I suppose at this point I would officially say I am an artist since it has been my major focus since I was 17. I have made art for many, many years, but still feel uncomfortable with the label because I find it limiting. Art is my lifelong companion and interpreter and colleague and love and major challenge.
JD: You have – impressively – so deeply devoted yourself to it for decades! Alongside of your art practice, you have worked with younger artists – myself included – to help them embrace their individual paths. What thoughts might you share with emerging artists about pursuing art making as a life-long endeavor?
MO: There are three things that I’d say. Firstly, don’t do it unless you have to. It is much too difficult to embark upon if you are doing it as an “elective” or hobby. Secondly, understand the profound difference between the art practice and the career and make it clear to yourself where your commitment lies. Thirdly, understand that whatever you put your time into you will become better at. If you want to do good art, put the majority of your time into actually doing it.
JD: These are good thoughts. Thank you!
We sipped at the remainder of our coffee in white paper cups. I traced my finger along the ridges of the wood table to consider these things, and Morgan commented on what a great endeavor it was to conduct interviews while rubbing the eggplant-purple leather gloves between her thumbs.
“Shall we take these with us?” she glanced at the coffee. And we were off, to traipse the few blocks up to the next RCAC meeting.