Westmont Magazine The Painting Life
John Morra ’85 went to Westmont even though he wanted to be an artist and the college’s art department barely existed. After he graduated with a major in English, he went across town to complete a bachelor of fine art degree at UC Santa Barbara. In the intervening years, he has become an acclaimed still-life painter — and art at his alma mater has blossomed. He finally found an artistic home at Westmont as part of a group show at Reynolds Gallery in 2007.
“Westmont presented a unique environment,” he says. “The rigorous intellectual tradition of decoding difficult works of literature with the Christian world view thrown in created a compelling combination. I didn’t appreciate it as much at the time as I do now. I find the secular vision of things monotonous, myopic and annoying, as I do a Christian vision that is hostile to culture. But Westmont was neither of these. I’m astonished how secularists all agree — there is no dissent. At Westmont, everything was up in the air, and there was lots of honest questioning. It was a broad education.”
Seeking a thorough training in his craft, John earned a master of fine arts degree from the New York Academy of Art in 1991. Then he spent five years painting commercial murals and old master reproductions. At the same time, he produced still lifes on commission and spent three summers in San Diego painting suburbia: homes, palm trees and telephone poles. A small gallery there hosted his first solo show in 1996; his first major show appeared at John Pence’s San Francisco gallery in 1997. Since 2002, Hirschl and Adler Gallery in New York City has represented him exclusively, and he shows there regularly.
John has transformed a lovely old church in Stuyvesant, N.Y., into a studio. He and his wife, Isabelle, a floral designer, live a few doors down.
All artists, even those who do abstract work, should learn traditional drawing and painting, John says. “Artists need to be grounded, and that means studying the craft until you’ve got it. It takes 10 years to learn how to paint, just like it takes time to become a doctor or a violinist. Musicians know they have to practice every day; artists need to learn and study constantly as well.”
Paintings with two different themes have contributed to John’s reputation: still lifes of old kitchen mixers and carefully arranged collections of junk. “Someone gave me a mixer and said, ‘Maybe you can paint this,’” he says. “It has become my most durable icon. I find the design on the old ones beautiful, and I tap into the sentiment of a time when mom baked cakes. Painting takes ordinary things and elevates them. It helps people see things they don’t normally pay attention to.” The junk — bottles, engine parts, lab equipment and other bric-a-brac — emerges as fanciful cityscapes. John constructs these elaborate still-lifes before painting them, changing lighting and design as he works.
“While art can be a vehicle for the intellect, its main power is visual,” he says. “It’s important to make yourself intelligible, because your audience plays a vital role in a work’s success.” He thinks that traditional painting (as opposed to purely abstract art) dovetails better with Christian thought and the incarnation. “Painting should be grounded in reality,” he says. “God’s creation is part of the observable world. An artist has to submit to it, which is another Christian idea. You have to believe in some kind of objectivity, accept it on its own terms and be modest and humble in approaching it.”