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Wait finally over for Newcastle artist John Morris

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The wait is finally over for fans of acclaimed Newcastle artist John Morris.

His new exhibition, Fleeting, will be unveiled at The Owens Collective this weekend with the official opening taking place from 6pm on Saturday 2 July.

But, you’ll have to be quick as the Islington gallery is only accessible, between 11am and 4pm (Friday, Saturday and Sunday), for the next fortnight.

The much-anticipated exhibit features atmospheric paintings of the Hawkesbury River landscape – subtle studies in light and shade with a haunting, ephemeral beauty that reveals itself slowly to the observer, marking the passage of time and evoking an emotional response.

Sadly, COVID-19 postponed this exhibition three times.

A result of this delay was that several pieces were sold without a public showing and new work had to be created to take their place.

The artist’s last exhibit occurred in 2020 and also featured paintings of the Hawkesbury River landscape.

A couple, who purchased a work at that show, offered Morris the use of their home at Milson’s Passage located on the Hawkesbury.

He took the opportunity to visit the small, isolated community, hiring a dinghy and exploring hard to reach places including Bar Island, where he found the ruins of a chapel and the graveyard of early white settlers.

While he was there, Morris would rise at 5am to bear witness to a silver, foggy landscape shaded by the escarpments and within half an hour, as the sun began to rise, it would burn off the fog creating flames of dancing mist in shafts of white light.

“I was struck by the ephemeral nature of what I was seeing,” he said.

“One minute it was there and the next, it was gone.

“It was etched in my consciousness, and I became obsessed with capturing these moments in time, their transience and precariousness.

“In this show, I focused on the water surface, not so much the bigger spaces, escarpments and plateau, but fell into concentrating on the reflections, tides and mist of the river.

“There’s a lot of play between light and dark, luminosity and shadow both with paint and the emotive themes in the works.

“Reading Kate Grenville’s novel Secret River or Grace Karskens’ People of the River has set a focused lens through which we can view the Hawkesbury River and its colonial and Darug past.

“I am hopeful that the emotive tonality of the exhibition gives an indication to this history.”

Morris’ process includes working from digital images which he manipulates and then creating compositional sketches that help clarify format and scale.

He paints with thin layers of oil, working wet in wet and building up the paint over a period of time.

“The trick is knowing when the painting has come to life and to stop working on it before that life is destroyed,” he explained.

“The last work usually lays the foundation for the next, working with an idea that was found in previous work.

“A beautiful structure or a good idea can be mined again and again.”

Morris knows what he’s talking about.

A leading light in the art education sector of Newcastle for more than 25 years, he was one of the head teachers at the Newcastle Art School at TAFE.

The artist has mentored thousands of students in his time, although he no longer teaches.

His website lists countless exhibitions and awards with the most recent being shortlisted in the 2022 Muswellbrook Art Prize and being a finalist in the 2019 Moran Portrait Prize.

Well-represented in public collections, the highly-respected artist still has no intention of retiring from painting.

“The obsession to do better, to keep striving, never leaves, never stops, so retirement is not something that I think about,” he said.

“I believe that a content artist is one that dies with an incomplete canvas on his easel.”

Earlier this year, Morris was caught up in the Wickham warehouse fires and the resulting asbestos contamination, with his home and studio being affected, which severely delayed the flow of his work. 

After deep cleaning and much time had elapsed, the artist was just getting back into his groove when a fall from a bicycle landed him in hospital for surgery on his painting arm.

“I was feeling like life was back to normal,” he said.

“I’d been working on a piece and wanted to check the light and colours at Nobbys Beach.

“I was feeling quite joyful until I fell.”

When asked what the future holds, Morris talks about landscapes with a difference.

“I’m interested in doing landscapes that are not of the earth – SpaceX rockets launching and Martian terrain for example,” he stated.

“But, of course, it could all change.”

One thing is certain, Morris is a highly sought-after artist.

Catch this exhibition while you can because as its title suggests, Fleeting is only showing for two weeks.

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