Self-taught artist Josie Morway explores both “the fragility and the fortitude of the natural world” through mesmerizing oil paintings of animals, plants, and objects in peculiar, fascinating combinations. Her work has been shown in museums and galleries worldwide, including Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, New York, London, and Australia, as well as at fairs like SCOPE at Art Basel Miami Beach. In our interview, we talk about seeking the unexpected, abandoning the narrative, and finding the natural in the unnatural.
You’ve noted that your newer work is “realistic, albeit often improbable” and that exploring what nature “feels like” is much more exciting than creating accurate natural scenes. Is this what you’re thinking about when you introduce your beautiful cosmic imagery and hyper-intense color?
Yes, I think so! Over the years I’ve come to realize that, from whatever twist of good fortune, I have this decent ability to replicate the natural world in paint. I can create depth, light, and detail pretty well. And that often leads people to pay me the compliment that my work “looks like a photo.” Over time I’ve found myself wondering if that’s a limitation.
As a painter, I’d like to create something that didn’t exist before me, rather than just trying to replicate nature (which of course I could never be equal to anyway). I’d like to be the kind of artist who creates a distinct feeling through color or texture, and who prompts people to ask questions, rather than just performing the trick of replicating reality.
Has your past employment as a sign painter and muralist affected your artistic journey?
I’m sure it has! I have much less experience with mural painting than with other art forms, and I find the scale, the visibility, and the speed of mural work really challenging as someone who can tend to belabor things. So I really hope that that work is helping to loosen me up a bit. As far as sign painting, I waver between inviting it and avoiding it in my painting projects… I absolutely love painting words, and sometimes I want them literally in my paintings, sometimes I think they don’t belong. I’ve honestly had a lot of jobs, and been really drawn towards a lot of careers and passions… everything from GIS/mapping and data science to writing and urban planning… but at the end of the day (at the end of four decades of life, rather) I’ve only found myself really capable of following through with painting. At times it seems like I’m tempted to try to cram all of those interests INTO the paintings, and I’m not sure that’s the best way to make art, but I’m sure every artist’s work is in some way infused with all of their interests.
Your Instagram posts have intriguing, poetic messages, and you sometimes quote other authors with compelling ideas. What are you reading these days and how does what you read show up in your paintings?
Oh boy. I am essentially “reading” for most of the hours that I’m awake, if you count audiobooks in addition to print. I spend so much time in the studio alone that at some point I fell out of the habit of listening to music all day, because I just needed more company and more input! So I blow through both podcasts and audiobooks, and those inform my state of mind to a huge extent.
This past spring I read a bunch of essays by Eula Biss and Barbara Ehrenreich and Anne Helen Petersen, which are certainly bubbling around in my politics, and maybe my approach to the art world and work itself, but aren’t necessarily being directly translated into painting imagery. In contrast, some novels or poetry I read definitely churn up imagery that probably goes straight into the paintings themselves.
Recently I’ve read The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, everything by Ali Smith and Gina Apostol, and revisited some old comfort reads like Jim Harrison and Adrienne Rich. I mean, of course now I’m just naming things that I like, and that I think other people will like, or like me for liking. I go through so many books that I definitely read a lot of things that I don’t necessarily enjoy, but I’ll finish them out of… pride? Spite? Not to mention some very dumb podcasts. I’m sure those all make their way under my skin and back out into my work as well!
I appreciate that you challenge the oversimplification of nature as a metaphor or a comforting escape. What techniques (either intellectual or in the application of paint) help you convey that elaborate and unknowable wildness?
I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in conveying it yet. I have this growing, visceral sense of opposition to making wilderness into only metaphor or a comfort, but I largely feel it in response to things exactly like my own artwork! Of course, I come to painting with a reverence for the natural world and a desire to celebrate it, but intellectually I often find my final product too simple, too didactic. One basic thing I’ve been trying recently is to shake off my own desire to create a narrative. That is, I used to be like, “Oh, I’ll paint a hawk holding a certain object or plant and that will mean (insert heavy-handed message here).” Now I’m trying to combine elements in a less seamless, less calculated, and perhaps more confusing way, which I believe is how I actually experience the fragments of wilderness and nature that I come in contact with. The glimpse of a wild bird of prey, the gaze of a domestic animal, the hot breath of a botanical garden, a weed on a walk… all mixed in a somewhat UN-natural way, as they inevitably are in contemporary life.
You mentioned feeling a little creative restlessness over recent years and that this show at Roq La Rue is a step toward something weirder and more exciting. Can you tell us more about where your work is heading?
Essentially this is an extension of everything I’ve been talking about! I will always be an artist primarily interested in our relationship to the natural world. I assume there will always be feathers, fur, and leaves in all of my paintings because that well of inquiry is bottomless. But I hope to keep moving more toward feeling rather than replication, and toward questions rather than premeditated messages. I’m also hoping to experiment more with color, as my palette has sometimes been a little limited, and I’m always yearning to make larger work… fingers crossed that the world has room for it!