In the Studios: Morgan Irons
The stillness and peace that emanate from emerging artist Morgan Irons’ paintings are primarily a result of the life of solitude she has opted to pursue from a young age. Growing up in rural Idaho and recently relocating to the mountainous region of Bozeman, Montana to set up a studio, the twenty-eight-year-old artist admits that she thrives in natural, quiet settings and needs wide open spaces in order to stay connected and centered. Realizing this about herself early on, Irons has readjusted her sails accordingly, ensuring that she is in an environment that best supports her spirit and artistic vision.
Primarily self-taught, Irons knew from a young age that she would have to pave her own educational path, and she did so primarily through inspiration, images, and teachings found in books and on the internet. Two workshops with artists she admired and much trial-and-error in the studio added to that education and guided her toward her current status of an up-and-coming artist known for her serene portrayals of everyday life. Although sometimes mistaken for period paintings, Irons’ portrait and figurative work are rather timeless images carrying universal and relatable topics that appeal to audiences of various ages and cultures.
In this Q+A, Irons honestly shares about her journey thus far—without sugarcoating the struggles and challenges she sometimes faces—and answers questions about the strides she’s been able to make through a lot of hard work, natural talent, and determination.
AM: You recently relocated studios. Please describe the new location and space and why you made the move.
MI: I recently moved back to Bozeman, Montana. For a year prior, I had been living in a small town and had my studio on the main street. However, I really missed the solitude of the mountainous areas around Bozeman, where I lived before. I now live in a log house high up a mountain outside of town, on many acres that back up to Forest Service land. We are inundated with stimuli and information these days and our brains are distracted. As artists our greatest resource is the channel that connects us to the source of our art. I can only access it when I have a lot of space and an open mind, so I protect that when I can. This quietude shows up in my work too, which is important to me.
AM: As a relatively self-taught artist, did you find that the internet (online tutorials, artists’ social media and websites, blogs, etc.) helped you discover the direction you wanted to go in or learn important skills?
MI: Absolutely. Living in Montana, there wasn’t much access to figurative artists painting in the manner I am interested in, so books and the internet were all I had at first. That was where I discovered at the age of twenty-three that artists were even still painting this way at all (representationally). Being self-taught in the beginning, I knew I needed a plan for learning. So I spent the majority of my time looking at great art, cataloging the paintings that I was drawn to, and determining what the commonalities between those were. The internet became my North Star in my calculated and obsessive pursuit of information.
Artists are really generous these days with what they show on social media. Aside from studying their posted finished works, many share their works in progress, materials, and technical approaches. I still arrange my palette in a way that I learned from a social-media post a couple years back, and I think about how grateful I am for that insight every day.
Social media gives a sort of pulse of where the art world is on a daily basis. We are mostly doing solitary work, so it’s nice to feel connected. But I am careful about the influence of others. Social media’s biggest impact on my studies has always been seeing artists I admire post about artists from the past that inspire them. It gives me the most insight about their choices, as well as some context.
AM: You took workshops with Jeremy Lipking and Joshua LaRock. What were the most important lessons you learned from each of those artists that have helped you in your path toward becoming a professional artist?
MI: The workshop with Jeremy Lipking was a one-day demonstration and guided portrait session in his studio in California in 2016. It was my first workshop, and although a short one, watching him paint made a big impression on me. He did a three-hour alla prima portrait of a live model. His approach must be pretty intuitive, as he paints and draws quickly and accurately without a lot of fuss or explanation while paying a lot of attention to the purity of color, surface quality, and overall harmony. It leads to a gorgeous painterly effect. As a beginning artist, that level of absolute control and freedom was inspiring to see. It helped me push through some of the hesitations most artists face fumbling around at the start.
It was a year and a half later in 2017 that I took a three-day portrait workshop from Joshua LaRock at Scottsdale Artists’ School in Arizona. It came at a great time because I was hitting walls while studying on my own. I was missing a piece of the puzzle, and I knew it had to do with the idea of form. Joshua has extensive academic training in this arena and incredible talent. This workshop fundamentally changed my approach to paint-handling. I learned how to build a portrait with indirect methods of painting versus alla prima. Joshua was the first to explain the idea of conceptual form to me and that opened up new doors of inquiry that eventually led me to some recent study at The Grand Central Atelier in New York.
AM: A lot of your paintings feature scenes and subjects from a bygone time. What time period/region are you most inspired by and why?
MI: I have to admit that this has never been an intention of mine or a priority to have subjects from another time. But there is a combination of things that I believe influenced this happening. When I started exploring figures in the landscape that told stories, the stories were universal themes that I think exist in every era. But from a design perspective, I preferred simple clothing and flat landscapes, which unintentionally turned period-specific: nineteenth-century rural Western America. But most of the art I look at is from the nineteenth century. My favorites are pastoral scenes from the Naturalist painters, such as Jules Breton’s The Weeders. Most of the books I read are stories from agrarian America. I grew up in Idaho. A lot of my childhood was spent ghost hunting with my dad. The influences from the past are undeniable. I was insecure about being considered a period painter for a long time, because I want to be relevant, but I believe my stories are and that’s the most important thing. I am very careful about the types of hats I put on my figures though, as I don’t want to be too Western art-genre specific. A flat-brim is more universal, somehow in my mind.
AM: Can you explain what the inspiration and process was for your painting Evening Hands?
MI: As a figurative painter I’m always trying to find a way to make a personal portrait universal. The view of the nape of the neck and a woman braiding her hair is a very intimate moment, but because her face is out of view it is less about Sarah and more about femininity. Carolus-Duran’s Study of Lilia is a favorite painting of mine, just a simple view of the side of a woman’s head. If I could paint one area over and over again it would be that: the cools of the paler skin of the neck against the chromatic pink of the ridge and transparent reds of the ear. I work with my friend and model Sarah often—she understands what I’m after and I glean a lot of inspiration from her.
AM: Seeing as how you enjoy exploring simple scenes and everyday rituals in your paintings, do you have any of your own artistic or personal rituals that help keep you centered and focused?
MI: My baseline tends to be pretty obsessive and anxious, so a lot of my day is tailored around wrangling that because it’s not always conducive for work. Ritual is the antidote for anxiety, especially when your pursuit is something as unstructured as making art. It will easily swallow me up if I don’t have a tether to the ground. I wake up with the sun, make coffee, and go for a hike up the mountain with my dog Bear. Then I write down how I want to approach the day and how I want to feel while I work. I spend a good deal of time before painting looking at works that are inspiring what I’m currently after, in a way to sort of remember the rules of the world I have chosen to exist in. I seem to have to recalibrate this way every day. If it’s a good day at the easel, I will paint happily for six hours or so. If not, I will sit there for six hours. It’s not a great method, but I will try again the next day and hope the rituals help.
AM: Do you work in any other art forms or media besides oil painting?
MI: I do a lot of writing. But it’s mostly just for myself. I’d love to get into sculpture some day, I think it would be a welcome alternative when painting isn’t going well.
AM: This past January you completed your first official art training: a one-month intensive at the Grand Central Atelier. What were your take-aways from this educational experience?
MI: I learned a lot during my month at the GCA. Their teaching of conceptual form has been a major problem-solving tool for me. Logistically, I can’t always work from life. And I want to be able to paint from imagination when I need to, so I feel more informed to do that now. It was incredibly inspiring to be around people who are so dedicated to this method and learning in general. That level of focus is rare and produces some technically stunning work. If there was any major take-away it was that the pursuit of the ideal is a noble and dangerous thing. I won’t do a training of that length again, because it is hard for me to be away from home and in the city, but I would jump at the opportunity to study short-term with a few particular artists.
AM: You also recently had your first solo exhibition at Old Main Gallery in Bozeman, Montana. What was the learning curve like in preparing for your first solo show. How will you approach your next solo show, now that you have one under your belt?
MI: A solo show is madness. I was offered the show a year out, and I had just started working with my gallery. So it all happened really quickly, and I was not entirely prepared for all that it would bring. I went from zero paintings selling to suddenly having to maintain an inventory of thirty or so paintings for that first year. I’m not naturally prolific so for me it was a lot. And I was attempting paintings for my show that were above my skill level. It all forced me to improve but also make peace with my art being valid at this point in my career regardless of my abilities. Technical aspects will become more and less important as I grow, but there are qualities that I can always be striving for that I hope make it meaningful.
I knew pretty far out what I wanted the show to feel like, but a lot of the work came down to the last six months or so. And we were framing up until the last minute of course. While I was painting for the show I felt moments of elation, but mostly it was incredibly difficult emotionally. But that’s because it is important to me, painting is really hard, and I was painting about personal things. When the show was hung, I could see all of that embedded into it, and it was beautiful to me. After all that time alone with the work, seeing others connect to it during the opening meant more than I can describe.
I’ve had a few months to reconcile that experience, and I really look forward to my next solo show. Some struggle is a natural part of the process for these shows, but it’s worth every minute. And I’m better prepared this time. For now I am working on an upcoming three-man show at Old Main Gallery, opening in June.
AM: If you could be a painter in any time besides the present, which time period would you pick and why?
MI: I would choose the later part of the nineteenth century. There was a collective apex of painting that happened at that point in realism. It would have been a difficult time as a woman, however, so I am grateful that there is a resurgence of realism now.