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WORDS BY Katie Marchetti
PHOTOS BY Ronan Donovan
What immediately strikes you about Morgan Irons is her gift of stillness. In a crowded room, currents of people are streaming by, and she remains a quiet buoy of grace amidst it all. As I turned the corner in downtown Bozeman, Montana, this morning, she was sitting outside in the early-morning light, coffee in hand with her dog Bear lying watchfully at her feet, both of them bearing witness to the yawn and stretch of Main Street as it woke. I’m greeted with a hug, and although it’s been a while since we last met, the conversation flows seamlessly from catching up on the intimate particulars of our lives to the details of her illustrious career as a painter. Yet the Idaho-native moved to Bozeman where, encouraged by the local community of working artists, she began to study painting in 2015. Deeply inspired by master painters and with a quiet will of iron, she taught herself to paint figures on the landscape that she calls home. Quiet waters do indeed run deep, and from them, Morgan has developed a narrative and timeless collection of work in a few short years.
She has been a featured artist in Fine Art Connoisseur’s “Artists to Watch,” Southwest Art Magazine’s “21 Under 31: Young Artists to Watch in 2017,” and Big Sky Journal’s “Ones to Watch.” A two-time recipient of the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant for emerging figurative painters, Morgan recently released her solo exhibition in June 2021 at the Old Main Gallery in Bozeman entitled, “Vernal.”
KATIE MARCHETTI — Tell us how you find inspiration. How do you decide what you’re going to paint?
MORGAN IRONS — I do this thing where I set up all these paintings that are already done, with different characters and scenes. I like to put on orchestra music and then I just sit for like an hour and imagine myself in the paintings. I imagine walking around and what else I would see in the landscape, what else might be happening. And I come up with new ideas that way, I can see them pretty clearly. It’s been a really interesting process to develop that is so fruitful for me. I can do that in an hour and think of 10 paintings — it’s wonderful, because I feel like I have an endless well built on the work I’ve already done.
KM— How long did it take you to figure out a process that worked for you?
MI — A couple of years. They say that your best creative time is when your mind is in between things. So you can kind of tap into that by walking or right before you fall asleep. And I found that this was another way to bypass that more intentionally. I also have big catalogs of paintings that I have found over the years that I have filed and organized. So I have that to look at if I’m needing inspiration or help solving problems. I go to that every day, to those old master paintings.
Most of them tend to be from this certain time and place in France, late 19th-century naturalist painters like Jules Breton and Jean-Francois Millet. The artists working at that time and the figures in the landscape they painted — they’re definitely who make up the most of my catalog. And I try to find more contemporary painters that are doing similar things. There’s a painter now living, Bo Bartlett, who doesn’t paint a pastoral landscape, but he’s a figure painter. And he uses a lot of allegory in his work and archetypes and they’re just stunning.
I really am drawn to the figures of the landscape because it’s a really easy way to play with the archetypes of the characters. Like the pastoral landscape, you could have the field labor, the mother, the father, the steward of the land, and you can have the relationship between them. It’s just a really clear way for people to connect to the characters of the story and what’s happening.
KM— Why do you think you’re so drawn to those characters?
MI — It’s interesting, because when I started painting, I started compiling all these paintings that I was drawn to, and it was immediately clear. I think I’ve always been drawn to figurative work in general, because I think that you can get the emotion and you really connect with a fellow human being. I also think that with the Western art genre as well.
I read this survey of America’s favorite paintings, compiled from everyday people and the paintings that they loved or recognized. There’s this painting by Jules Baton called the “Song of the Lark,” and it was the most recognized and beloved by middle-class women. The painting is of a woman standing in this field — she is taking a break from doing fieldwork, and she kind of looks up, like she heard the song of the lark, and I’ve personally found it in three or four of my friend’s kitchens.
So it’s true! I think that there is something with the way the world is right now with everything so chaotic. And there’s been a return to small agriculture and just rethinking how we exist in relation to the landscape. I think this imagery is very relevant right now.
KM— What genre do you categorize your work under?
MI — I’m definitely in the realism genre. I don’t really know how I relate to the Western genre as far as I don’t paint cowboys. I think my imagery is a lot softer, more feminine, and I’d hope it to be a little bit more in alignment with the landscape, not so domineering or conquering as some of the imagery that you see in the Western art world can be. I think it can be appealing to a lot of the same buyers though, the people who are ranching or have that connection to the landscape — they’re going to key into that. But yes, 90% of my buyers are women.
KM— So I know you’re self-taught — looking back now, is there a trail of breadcrumbs leading to this, or is it still out of the blue for you to have become a painter?
MI — Growing up, my grandma did art and still does. So I spent a lot of time with her and she would always do little art projects and pastel paintings. I always had an aptitude for it and an interest in it, and it always came naturally to me. But living in Idaho in Boise, there were no art galleries at all. And I didn’t know any working artists. I had no conception of what that could be. My family all had pretty traditional jobs; my mom is a principal, my dad’s a pilot. It wasn’t that I was told that you can’t be an artist because you’ll make no money, it was just “you can’t be an artist because no one’s an artist.” So when I went to college, I studied psychology, because that was the only academic field that I was interested in. I thought I was going to be a therapist.
After college, I found my way to Bozeman and started going to the galleries in town. At the time I was working at the hospital doing psych testing, making no money, working in a windowless office from sunup to sundown, and it was terrible. When I met working artists, it felt like it was such an “aha” moment — it became really clear to me that I should be doing that or at least give it a really good shot. I had this kind of stubbornness or something. If other people were doing it, then I could do it. I literally went and bought paints and canvases. I had no idea what I was doing, I had never oil painted before. And there’s a science to it, things to learn about materials, etc. I had a few paintings melting off of the canvas.
I was living in this little cabin up in the mountains and I didn’t know where to start. I got some books from the library, and thought, okay, I need some parameters here. I’ve always been of the school of thought that it’s better to have a serious focus about the types of painting that you want to do, and that was a part of my cataloging process too — I didn’t want to just shotgun it. I wanted to have a really clear direction. I thought that my paintings would have more meaning and I would dive deeper if I had a clear direction. So I told myself that I would only paint the landscape I lived on and the people that I knew.
At the time, some friends lived and worked on this flower farm, and they became the subject of a lot of my paintings. It was very idyllic. So I started making these paintings, starting with a few landscapes. It was so hard, and I did hundreds of really bad paintings. Then I would start to see inklings along the way that were interesting. I would say, my biggest teacher in all of this is that I would make a painting and I would put it next to an old masterpiece painting. And I would be really, really honest about what the differences were. I think having that kind of very realistic scrutiny, of where I’m not matching up to the work that I love, made a difference.
KM— Did you divert at all intentionally? Saying “this is different from the masters, but I’m keeping it?”
MI — That’s an interesting question, because I think that I’ve differed from the way people are painting today, more than from the old masters. For example, a lot of artists use photography to paint their paintings, but if you are too beholden to the photo, you’re basically just translating what you’re seeing in the photo to paint. I think that there are some imbalances in that. There are things that you can only get from painting from life, which works well with how my natural hand is. So I do differ from the way a lot of painters are painting now. I try to have a lot of honesty in my paintings about where I’m at skill level wise or what I’m thinking about or what my intentions are in the painting. So if I were translating from the photo, everything in the painting would be the same level of detail and finish, but if my intention with a painting is to have this mood or one part of the painting stand out, that’s where I spend my time — I try to remember that I’m a painter, I don’t want it to look like a photo.
Sometimes that’s hard to do because of social media. I think there’s a lot of reward for paintings that look like a photo. I look at how the old masters used paint in a way that is symbolic of things. If I were to paint the background detail in this big painting, the same level of detail as the big figure in the foreground, it would flatten everything. So I’m using like three brush strokes for people in the background. And that’s enough because our eyes are looking at a scene and we’re only focused on one thing.
KM— That’s where the storytelling comes into play. You’re picking who you want the story to be about.
MI — Yeah, exactly. And you have to orchestrate it in a way that the eye looks where you want it to look.
KM— I want to talk about social media. Does being ultra-connected affect your process?
MI — I’ve gone through many iterations with how I feel about social media — where I’m at right now is that I think that it can be a valuable tool. But I will never prioritize it over painting or allow it to take away from my workflow. It’s also just not my personality to show the behind-the-scenes stuff. I think that there’s a bit of sacredness in the process.
I know artists who do that and it aligns with their personality and their work style. But my work is meant to be seen in person. It’s meant to be seen in this particular study. So I struggle with the fact that most people are only seeing art on their phones and it’s a very different experience. I would really like for it to be a place where I can share Sunday studies about what I’m looking at and what I’m thinking about. I love sharing my knowledge of art history and things. As I’m preparing for the show, I’m doing more of a social media build-up
KM— Do you feel pressure to show more?
MI — Yeah, I do. We’re so programmed to think that social media is necessary. And, for a lot of artists, it can be an incredible sales tool. I’ve never sold a painting on Instagram though, that’s not part of my ecosystem.
It’s hard because it kind of contradicts a lot of my core values and principles of, you know, I’ve purposely moved somewhere where it’s secluded and quiet and a little bit removed. I don’t wanna ever feel beholden to be, to be a public presence in that way too.
KM— When you’re in the thick of it, do you feel like it’s a distraction?
MI — Yeah, because if you’re sharing little things or sneak peeks, then you get a flood of comments or feedback. Even if it’s good feedback, it will steer your work. And that means I’m holding my phone up to a painting, and it might look good on the phone but not good in real life, it’s just not a good translator.
KM— Do you feel like social media has changed the art space in general?
MI — Definitely. I’m working with a new gallery, based in New York City and they have this amazing online presence. They’re doing that very intentionally because a lot of the galleries’ box stores, in general, are closing down because the retail space is suffering. Everything is online now. They have an amazing in-person gallery, but they’re also doing a ton of online with an online marketplace and a big social media presence. They’re kind of what I think will be the next iteration of galleries.
I think it’s funny, because I have my artist hat and I have my business hat and I actually really enjoy the business side of the art career. I spend a lot of time thinking about it, strategizing.
KM— I would assume that most creatives struggle with that side of it.
MI — Well, I see that it serves my ultimate purpose, which is to get my art into the world, and I can always make more of it. So it serves my artist self to have a good business.
KM— So run me through your day-to-day when you’re preparing for the show..
MI — I wake up and I like to sit on the porch of my little cabin for a minute. We live in the woods, so we’ll do a morning walk, but my brain is most fresh in the morning so I have to get to work pretty quickly — I don’t like to waffle around in the morning. I work until 11, and I reserve my most difficult part of whatever I’m working on for that time, which requires the most brain presence. Then I’ll usually have some lunch and then work some more. Ideally, I would only paint like six hours a day, because that’s when you’re tapped. After that, I just don’t see as accurately or see color as accurately. So that’s my ideal. I’m also not a very energetic person. I need to be really intentional about how I use my energy, and it wears me out. I’m exhausted right now.
KM— Do you take time off after?
MI — Yeah, I have to. Last summer, I took like three months off. Which is great. It’s very seasonal and cyclical. I’m not a very prolific painter. I know artists who paint like 80 paintings a year, but I do like 25-30 usually. My dream is to only do six really big, beautiful paintings and just live on those all year, that would be awesome.
KM— Do you work well under pressure or do you feel like you create better work when you have no deadline?
MI — You know, it’s funny, because I always wish I had no deadline. I want to be free. And then I will have no deadlines and then it’’ll take four months on a tiny painting, and it’s not necessarily better.
My ideal is to have solo shows every two years when I have time in between to really create these big paintings that I want to do that would take a year to do so. This spring I was invited to work with this new gallery, and I was so excited about it, but we also had this show in Bozeman coming. So then I was trying to do both at the same time. And I’m very limited. Like I just can’t crank them out like a printer.
KM— Do you follow the work of other artists?
MI — Well, besides the masters, I keep really up to date as far as who I think is the best thing alive right now. It’s important for me to kind of know what they’re doing and what collectively the representational art world is doing.
KM— Does it change a lot?
MI — There were clashing worlds for a while in art. There’s the school of training that is passed down from the old masters — a very traditional method of learning where you’re drawing and painting from life only. I did a month-long drawing course in New York City at this place called Grand Central Atelier — it was amazing and rigorous and very dogmatic. It’s really interesting in the last few years to see the people who have come out of that school who are now kind of transitioning into more of the contemporary art world, and for a long time the representational realism world was clashing with the contemporary world and they just thought that the other one was asinine — now they’re kind of bridging the gaps.
I think that the imagery in the figurative and representational art world is interesting because you have a lot of people painting very modern scenes in a very traditional way. Very few people are painting the grandioseness of some of the old paintings, people aren’t painting really large or big multi-figure scenes, which is a shame.
KM— Is there a place for those anymore?
MI — I think here we have so much wall space out west and with all the new homes in Big Sky being built, yeah. I think there’s more room than people think there is, and our market is stronger than ever. Even through the pandemic, it was very strong.
KM— Do you feel like the pandemic changed anything?
MI — I think that it pushed a lot online, which was going to happen anyway, but I think it shuffled it along. The interior market exploded. When it all started happening, I got really freaked out. I thought the economy was going to crash but that just didn’t happen. I had my best year.
The gallery world is changing in a way that artists have more power now because we have access to our own market more than ever. They don’t control everything now, they kind of have to be more artist-centric than before. I wouldn’t be here without my relationship with the Old Main Gallery over the years and all that they’ve given me. But the bottom line is it’s hard financially to be an artist. This new gallery I’m working with, that’s kind of their biggest priority. If you make a sale, they’ll write a letter introducing you to your collector, which most of the time galleries won’t even tell you who bought your paintings because they don’t want you to have access to them.
KM— Do you have a favorite piece you’ve done?
MI — I have a few I’m proud of — any of the larger ones I’ve done. The sheep one, which was featured in Modern Huntsman Volume 6 for winning the Field Outrider competition, that one was special because I had that familial connection to it. And there are two that I have in my home that I’ve held onto that are really big. There’s also one with a mother and a son that I’m really attached to.
There’s some of the new show that I am pleased with. It’s all spring paintings, so it’s all very happy and I think it’s beneficial right now. I think it’s very needed and very fresh.
KM— Has your own happiness played a role in that?
MI — Very much so, and after such a long dark year, I needed something lighter and that felt good.
KM— So tell me about the painting that you’re doing for the special edition of this volume.
MI — I was talking to Tyler and he mentioned that it’s the Water Issue. I’ve never painted a hunter or anything, so I had to think about what would fit into my work. Doing something about drought felt relevant; it is a really big issue right now, especially out in Oregon. I have friends who are ranching out there and it’s a really big problem. So I thought that’d be really fitting instead of painting water, showing the lack of it in an honest way. The cover is an 18 x 24 inches oil painting on a panel of Ronan Donavan, and he’s standing in the field after the rain. I’m thankful Tyler trusted me to do it my way. I hope people enjoy it.
KM— Is there a moment in your career that felt like a big turning point?
MI — Yeah. I had an early painting that was part of a small show and it was the first time I had ever shown any paintings publicly. I had been painting people, but mostly portraits, and I painted this single figure in a field; it was very simple and kind of uninvolved, but there was something about it that was really intriguing. I went to the show and there was this older artist there, Michael Ome Untiedt, and he was also exhibiting. He is just a wizard of a human, an incredible storyteller. His work is very narrative, and he looked at all my paintings and he said, “That one. All the rest of them are, you know, but that one’s really something.”
He traded a painting for it, which was really neat, a huge honor. That was my first kind of major stake in the ground of like, okay, there’s something here. I need to go down this road. So that kind of started the figures of the landscape. And then there was a painting called “Bone Man,” which was of this figure that you’re looking up at and he’s reading out of a book standing over what could have been a burial, but it’s not clear and that was my first, big, significant painting I would say.
It was the first one that felt like a substantial piece of work. I’m really proud of that one, compared to the other ones I’d been doing. And it came together fairly easy and simply, it just kind of clicked. So that was a huge one.
KM— Do you hold your work up to your own work?
MI — Yeah. And it’s funny, because I look at some of my older work and I can see very clearly, the ones that I am not as proud of are the ones that I was painting for reasons that were out of alignment with me.
KM— What stands out about those paintings to you?
MI — I can see the ones that I was painting with an earnest attempt at capturing something or a little moment, and even if they’re not technically as good as the other, newer ones I still love them because they are just very honest. For the ones that I was painting because I saw other artists get accolades for a similar technique or something like that, I can just see right through it.
KM— How do you toe that line of gauging success by your own standards and also by other people’s approval?
MI — Yeah, it’s really hard. I am the type of person that has always valued approval, people-pleasing in a way. So I think that gets hard, especially when you see artists on Instagram that have hundreds of thousands of followers and get so much attention, and it’s not always valid.
I think it comes down to when I see people interact with my work and have a very emotional response to the work. I have had so many wonderful collectors and appreciators who I have seen crying in front of my paintings at the galleries. And to me, that is more than anything I could ever want. It’s truly more important than followers or things like that. I’m making these paintings with the viewer in mind, and I know that they’re not paintings for everybody. I know that they are a quieter offering. I’m not a very gregarious person, so I think that it would be weird if my work was shouted from the rooftops. My paintings are not flashy, bold or supersaturated. They’re much more honest than that.
KM— I’d rather have a few of those really deep connections than a lot of surface-level connections in every aspect of life.
MI — I agree! I think you can find quick success if you do those flashy things, because people’s attention spans right now are a blip. You see that happen to artists. You see them rise really quickly and then it falls off. I think a better route is to have a slow build and just always be doing the work that you’re interested in doing.
I think that if you can be really, really clear about the essential truths in your work, if you are touching on the archetypes for all humanity — those things will always be relevant. It will always hold some inherent value.
KM— What are those essential truths?
MI — I think common themes in my work are the reverence for life and the land and our relationship to it. I think there’s this quiet reflection and longing, my figures are always in thought. And they often are holding tools, which are symbols to me of our responsibilities and roles in life.
When I’m composing these paintings, I never want them to be too specific. So I don’t often include landmarks, types, or methods of agriculture; even specific tools are usually fairly obscure, because I want them to be more universal.
Like that painting of the sheep, the universal truth was the steward of the land, the shepherd who was in charge of this herd of sheep and nature intervened. So it was him reflecting on what is out of our control. But also what is our responsibility as people who are putting animals on the landscape — which I think in the West is really very relevant. I see so much disconnect with the way that we relate to the land and animals here. And I think it is part of my hesitation with the Western art field, because I think there’s a lot of really dangerous tropes in it. There are some of the universal truths that are in the Western market that are not handled with as much care as they should be.
KM— Do you think that might be a product of Western artists who didn’t grow up in the West?
MI — Yeah. It could be why there’s that sort of fantasized version of it. I often think about what are the stories we keep telling each other? I think a lot of the buyers of the Western art market are corporate people. They want an image of a cowboy wrangling cattle in their boardroom because they’re making deals. They’re empowering men of action. And when you look at what’s happening now with our new wildlife bills and things where there are real consequences to these stories, there are still beautiful universal truths that they include, which are man’s desire for freedom and place.
KM— I think a large part of why that painting [“Shepherd”] stood out to me is because it was very honest. It’s easy to romanticize life in the West, but there are very real struggles in choosing that way of life. And that was a perfect example. It’s often the cowboy riding the bucking horse that’s captured in art — you don’t see the real grief of losing livestock the next day. Two sides of the same coin.
MI — I got a lot of very sweet, meaningful messages and emails from people who didn’t know that kind of grief, who were really touched by seeing that represented instead of always the other side. So I think that’s important too. I had this guy who’s very successful in the art world talking to me about how people only want happy paintings and I was working on the painting at the time thinking, “That’s not great news for me.”
I think our role as artists is to be a mirror, an opportunity for people to feel things. And most of life is not that happy, crazy, beautiful butterflies. I think it’s a real disservice if you’re not showing that range.
I think that if you are painting these hard truths in a way that is very orchestrated and siphoned down to its essential truth, removing the unnecessary, meaningless gore, then there’s a place for that in any market.
Make History, Reforge A Legacy