"Artists know how to quarantine," said painter Morgan Adler near the end of our conversation for this week’s episode of Art on the Air.
"We spend a lot of time alone."
It’s true that the artistic practice often involves many hours in solitude and, in that sense, Adler isn’t unique in being an authority at self-imposed confinement.
But this 2018 SCAD graduate has a particular expertise in reclusiveness. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the only child of a single mom, and was therefore forced by circumstance to entertain herself more than many kids have to growing up. Then, after completing her studies, she undertook a residency program that would prove equally formative in both her personal and creative development.
"I went to this very rural part of the Netherlands and pre-COVID had this very isolating experience," Adler related. "I was out of graduation and so much future was ahead of me. It was a little bit paralyzing, but also exciting. There was so much potential but that can be really frightening at times."
Prior to her journey across the Atlantic, she’d been primarily working figuratively, creating expressive portraits of diverse characters that she encountered in her daily life.
It was during Adler’s time in Renkum, a little town about an hour outside of Amsterdam, where her process underwent a transformation. "I was immersed in this Dutch landscape not just physically, but also art historically," said Adler. "The history of Dutch landscape painting, and just Dutch painting itself, is so rich. I really appreciated that."
Spending a lot of time literally walking through the countryside, the artist created what she called a "little travel journal" in the form of a series of 5x7 landscapes.
"It felt like snapshots, which they basically were," Adler explained. "Which is what painting was before photography. So that sort of relationship with reading and capturing memories with paint was also very much formulated in the Netherlands during that residency."
Returning to Savannah, she found herself facing a new type of alone-ness, as many of her former classmates and closest friends had moved on after graduation. Over the next year, she want back to the more figurative work of her college career, but that connection to what she’d experienced and learned exploring the open spaces around Renkum stuck with her.
Early in 2020 she felt called back to landscape painting again through her explorations of the Lowcountry, which Adler noted, "is very similar coincidentally to the Dutch Landscape."
Then the pandemic hit.
"During COVID, when isolation was not something that I was choosing, (landscape painting) was a little bit of escape in a certain way," the artist explained. "And they became something a little more meditative, I think, maybe starting with a little anxiousness."
Rather than the smaller "snapshots" that she’d created during her time overseas, the new works grew immersive in their scale, increasing in size from five feet, to six feet, and now seven feet in length.
"They became ways to really sort of dance around with the painting," said Adler.
Her recent compositions are disorienting and fantastical, full of uncertain story, metaphor, and intrigue. "Show Me the Constellations You Know," for example, glows seductively with phosphorescence, but feels almost oppressively barren in spite of the preponderance of stars illuminating the background. And "Scene of the Crime" draws viewers towards an ambiguous blood splatter in the snow surrounded by dark footprints, a spectacle observed by a murder of crows flying above.
"I end up thinking about what’s going on a lot when I’m painting," Adler confided. "It’s not as much of an escape as I would like it to be. I think that’s why they end up looking a little bit distorted."
With all of the challenges we’ve faced this year, from coronavirus to social justice issues to a highly contentious election cycle, the current direction of the artist’s work isn’t surprising. To Adler, it’s both her way of coping and contributing to the conversation.
"I also think a lot of 2020, I’ve felt the entire year feeling helpless," she lamented.
"What could I do from the four walls of my studio or my apartment?"
"It turns out that…you can end up doing a lot."
Join me next week when I’ll be speaking with painter Thomas Mitz about how he’s using his art classes to pass on nearly a century of painterly techniques to a new generation of students.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.