From the back porch of Suzanne Morlock’s home along the western border of Jackson Hole, Wyo., I observed on a mid-May day how the sky, a color like office paper, illuminated winter’s final gestures: gray aspens, brown leaves in patches on the ground, matted grass, granular snow full of debris. Morlock pointed to a gap in the porch railing where snow from the roof had wiped it out, and then to the tilted fences around her berry bushes, trampled by a herd of deer that inhabit the hillside. The depressed landscape seemed to punctuate the dichotomy between humans and nature so prevalent in her artworks: In the midst of conditions designed for decay and renewal, humans strive for durability to the point that even our disposable products last indefinitely.
Morlock creates large sculptures out of found and discarded materials (some more biodegradable than others) that not only call our attention to the amount of unnecessary waste our society produces, but also question our idea of permanence. Newspapers, the most disposable of media, become durable yarns when rolled together. Audiotape, made to preserve the preciousness of its content, outlasts its usefulness in the face of new technology. And petroleum-based materials headed for the dump take the form of comfortable “everyman” clothing. Morlock became interested in repurposing trash while working on her master’s thesis at UCLA, a project that took her to the region’s landfills. “At that time, I said that every child should have to go to one of these landfills to see at a formative age what we create, what we produce,” she said.
Jackson Hole residents who don’t recognize Morlock as the jolly reference desk guru behind Ray Ban eyeglasses at Teton County Library probably recognize her name as that of the artist behind a particular installation, a 13-foot-tall work titled “Sweater.” Made from black and gold Mylar, Sweater hung all winter along Jackson’s Broadway Avenue. Most people called the piece “the Charlie Brown sweater.” Because of its similarity to the Peanuts character’s shirt, a museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., dedicated to the work of Peanuts creator Charles Schultz asked to include it in an exhibit, titled “Pop’d From the Panel.” Morlock traveled to the Charles Schultz Museum recently to hang Sweater and prepare a few videos on her process. She finished on May 20, and the exhibit will hang until December.
I first became familiar with Morlock’s work when she sent me a press release in August 2010, announcing that she’d recently installed a work, titled “Nets,” on the docks of Skagaströnd, Iceland. While on a National Endowment for the Arts-funded residency there, she discovered wads of frayed netting used to wrap hay and, simultaneously, spools used to transport industrial fishing lines from the UK. Both items ended up in the trash after they’d exhausted their usefulness, and though the spools certainly seem like they could be reused, the company found the spools too expensive to ship back. Morlock wove the netting into colorful nets that look from a distance like shawls made of fine wool, and then she wrapped them around the spools.
Since then, Morlock has created two sculptures with recycled regional newspapers that she rolled into long stretches of “yarn”: she installed “Magic Carpet Ride,” in Lódź, Poland, and “Interior” in the Queens College Art Center Project Place. She funded these works and others through grants, not wanting to have her living depend on her artistic output and commercial viability. “I started my art thing at UCLA and one of the things that was so impactful for me was this idea that art was not a commodity,” she said. “Art was this deep expression of who you were as an individual and that was precious, that was to be guarded at all costs. I don’t look for any kind of grant that doesn’t serve my purpose. I’m very clear on that.”
The Center of Wonder in Jackson Hole made Sweater possible through a grant for its public art project, ArtSpot, an outdoor exhibition space converted from an old gas station sign. Running on a suggestion from the Center’s one-time “art ambassador” Bland Hoke, Jr. that she use Mylar because it’s so durable, Morlock found a factory in Florida that discards whole rolls of the stuff after punching out sequins of various shapes. She wove the strips together with six-foot-long knitting needles made from PVC piping. Showing me a four-inch roll of gold Mylar with heart shapes punched out, Morlock wondered whether the factory used as much of the material as it threw out. “It’s wonderful because it lasts so long,” she said. “But the whole thing is kind of bizarre. In this day and age, it seems weird that there’s a company that punches out of these things – who knows what gifty applications they have. And they throw all this crap away.”
Having worked in outdoor retail, I noted the contradiction of an object made out of a petroleum-based product designed to represent another object traditionally made out of wool. In fundamental ways, the outdoor recreation industry opposes environmentalism: biking and hiking trails cut through wildlife corridors; energy foods are processed, packaged and shipped; and outdoor gear, from outerwear to sport-specific items like snowboards or climbing harnesses, consists of non-biodegradable plastics. Wool remains my preferred apparel material, because it wicks water, remains warm when wet and it’s not made of corrosive materials. It’s also more expensive.
Sweater is the first public art piece Morlock has hung in Jackson, though she’s had a number of smaller shows at local galleries and exhibit spaces. In addition to finding the opportunities in the valley limiting, she’s also found it more difficult to create works that hit so close to home. “The narrative here is more personal,” she said. “When I go somewhere else, I don’t have that relationship, so that’s when my eyes are a little turned to a narrative of place.”
If Morlock were to tell a narrative of Jackson Hole, she might use the black roofing paper she found recently at the county landfill to reflect on the region’s static construction economy. The standstill is actually fine with her. She and her husband, Glenn Messersmith, have lived in the same home in Jackson Hole for 20 years, and twice they’ve had to reappraise their home to keep their taxes from reaching the level of the mansions sprouting around them.
Not that they couldn’t use a little more space themselves. What began as her one-room studio in a cold corner of the basement has become a house full of garbage, plucked from the landfill and rescued from factory dumpsters. All this “kipple,” as Douglas Adams would call it, lines the base of the walls, rests in the corners of the stairs and even hides on chairs tucked under the kitchen table. If it weren’t for Messersmith, Morlock said, she would fill every last inch of the house with salvaged items. Unlike the accumulation and latent chaos of winter surrounding their home, however, the detritus of society collecting inside won’t anytime soon transition into something new without intervention, though the spring may help.