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Professor's art selected for display
in D.C.-area defense building
Sept. 1, 2011
One of an artist’s greatest concerns, Community College of Rhode Island Art Professor Tom Morrissey said, “is that after you die a dump truck comes and takes all of your work away. … I think an important part of being an artist is to have your work be collected, archived and become permanent.”
As an artist, Morrissey has already avoided this fate several times over, with various works on display throughout the world. Now, the Department of Defense has selected several of his photographs and a painting to decorate a new government building in Washington, D.C., that will house offices for the Veterans Administration Wounded Warrior Project and other veterans’ services.
It is an honor to be selected, and one that has a particular resonance for Morrissey, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot and veteran of the Vietnam War.
The pieces that the Department of Defense selected are mostly from Morrissey’s book “Between the Lines,” featuring photographs taken at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The other works selected for display are photographs of Vietnam that Morrissey took after the war and one painting, “Badge,” a mixed media acrylic on canvas reminiscent of the colors and pattern of the military’s Vietnam Service Ribbon decoration.
“Between the Lines” was published in 2000 but Morrissey spent 17 years putting it together, visiting the famous memorial in Washington mostly on Veterans Day and Memorial Day and photographing mourners and visitors. The book also features transcriptions of some moving messages that have been left at the wall over the years.
Morrissey was at the memorial when the iconic, larger-than life statue of soldiers was installed. He has been there to see Gold Star mothers – the mothers of soldiers killed in the war – lay mementos on the wall, and he has been there to see the Rolling Thunder ride, when motorcyclists from across the country roar by in a noisy tribute that lasts almost from dawn until dusk.
“I was inspired by [the wall] first because I’m a veteran, but also because as an artist you always look for something that has some kind of significance, and is not formulaic.” Morrissey said.
“There are a lot of ‘artists’ who learn technique and then they just spend their life doing technique without some kind of a statement, and as a result they just kind of ring hollow… the top tier of my requirements for myself is that I’m not just doing stuff that looks like art, but that has something to say.”
Morrissey added that “Between the Lines” also was a good fit for his preferred style of photography, an on-the-street method almost like photojournalism, in which he tries to capture a scene exactly as it is. He is inspired by artists like Joel Meyerowitz, Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, artists whose works show exactly what was in the camera lens without any cropping or editing.
Morrissey had a chance to practice this kind of photography during a post-war visit to Vietnam, and the Department of Defense chose one of his resulting works for display.
“Some Call it Ho Chi Minh City but it’s Still Saigon to Me” is a street scene of what was once the capital of South Vietnam and a center of activity for U.S. service members.
Morrissey took the photo in 2004, when he was visiting the country as a Fulbright scholar.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve been in combat and I’m chasing that rush, but working in the hustle and bustle of the street is an adrenaline high,” Morrissey said.
To get this “streetscape” image, Morrissey had to slip into Ho Chi Minh City’s famously busy streets and frame his shot perfectly, with just a moment to align his subjects in the camera lens and snap the shutter before the scene changed and a promising image was lost.
Morrissey, who also works with painting and sculpture, said the challenge of taking these kinds of realistic photos is what drew him to the medium.“I started in photography because it seemed to be the most immediate medium to work in,” he said.
However, Morrissey does not limit himself to photography and has worked in many other areas. “I don’t look at myself as a painter or photographer or sculptor or ceramist,” he explained. “I always maintained that I got my artistic license, so to speak, from the mixed media artists – the Robert Rauschenbergs and artists like that.”
Morrissey’s career as an artist began in 1972, when he attended Miami Dade College and experimented with video art, concept art and installation pieces.
Morrissey went on to earn his master’s degree in fine arts from the Arizona State University Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in 1978, taught at Miami Dade, and then joined the faculty at CCRI in 1979.
Over the years, he has returned to Vietnam several times as a tourist, an instructor and a guest artist. In 2002, he was the only American invited to take part in an international sculpture symposium in Hue, the site of a vicious battle during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
The artists created sculptures to decorate an urban park, working with blocks of marble “the size of minivans,” Morrissey said.
Morrissey’s resulting sculpture is called “Ladder Form Seven” and is meant to be specific to its location. When viewed from a certain angle, the sculpture lines up to incorporate the Perfume River as it flows through the city and past Vietnam’s old imperial palace. Some people see rifle sights in the sculpture, perhaps a nod to the city’s violent past, while Morrissey said he intends the sculpture as a comment about Vietnam’s rising modernity and economic power.
“It’s about Vietnam heading out to interact with the rest of the world,” he said. “If you follow that river you reach the Gulf of Tonkin and if you go far enough you get to California.”
Morrissey’s artwork will go on display when the building is opened during an official ceremony in October. The artists, their guests and many dignitaries will attend.