Ella Morton is a Canadian visual artist who lives in Toronto, Canada. Originally from Vancouver, Ella earned a BFA from Parsons The New School Design in New York in 2008, and followed that up with an MFA from York University, Toronto in 2015. Ella Morton has had her brilliant work exhibited globally, with perhaps some of the more notable exhibitions including Gallery 1313 in Toronto, Land-Shape in North Jutland, Denmark, the Photo Centre Northwest in Seattle, and The Crying Room Projects in Vancouver. On top of this, Ella Morton has also had her work featured in the Untapped Emerging Artists Competitions as part of The Artist Project Contemporary Art Fair, and Contact Photography Festival. I was excited to talk books with such a talented and respected visual artist. I am pleased to say I was not disappointed, Ella has fantastic taste in books. Not only does she have great taste in books, but it’s also a wildly eclectic collection of book recommendations – which I love. Please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Ella Morton…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I say I am an artist/visual artist, but then the tricky part comes when they ask what kind of art I make. I might say anything like photography or photo-based interdisciplinary/installation art, also working with experimental analogue processes and land art.
I’m currently struggling through the original Danish version of So Much for that Winter by Dorthe Nors after learning some Danish while traveling there last year. I’m also reading Wild East: Travels in The New Mongolia by Jill Lawless, because I would like to travel there next.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
I can’t remember specifically, but there was one book I had as a young child that I found particularly scary and fascinating, A Promise is a Promise by Robert Munsch. It’s based on an Inuit story from the Canadian Arctic about a sea monster, the Qallupilluit, who would kidnap children if they came too close to the edge of the ice while their parents were fishing. The book had eerie, painterly illustrations and I was so drawn to both the story and the images.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be?
I would recommend teenagers to read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. It’s a novel about the history of philosophy. I read it when I was 14, the same age as the main character, and it completely blew my mind at the time. In complete contrast, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller also helped quench some of my youthful rage at the age of 20.
Did you demonstrate an affinity with art as a child?
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
Probably teaching kids with ADHD. I have immense respect for people who have the patience for it, but it isn’t for me.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring artist?
My advice would be to not compare yourself to others. Just keep going, no matter how competitive things are or how much you get rejected.
Who would you say are the three artists that continue to inspire you?
Sarah Anne Johnson for how she combines photography and painting, Christina Seely for how she combines photography with relevant research on climate change, and Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller for their stunning audio-visual installations- go see their piece The Forty Part Motet if you ever get the chance! It will change your life.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
Definitely not. There is so much to read.
What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path?
Nothing in particular, but I think that every creative person should decide what specific topics interest them and read books about that.
In elementary school, we had twenty minutes set aside everyday for quiet reading time, and I was in French Immersion, so we had to read in French. French was harder to read than English since it’s my second language and, like most kids, I was restless and impatient. But then I discovered The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and I loved it. So I read that book over and over again during reading time.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I often recommend many of the books I am talking about here.
Do you think there is a relationship between books and art?
Books have a relationship to everything!
What’s your favourite genre of book?
There is an obscure genre known as Southern Ontario Gothic, which is a sub-genre of Gothic or American Southern Gothic literature. The genre features Canadian authors from Southern Ontario, my favourite of which would be Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies. I particularly love the novel Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.
Can you imagine a world without books? What do you think a world without books would be like?
I think this is becoming more and more of a reality. I have noticed that many people read online articles more than books now, which is tragic. While I don’t think books will ever disappear completely, I’m disappointed at how the internet and social media are whittling down our patience and interest in reading real books.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
My all time favourite author is the ridiculously underrated poet, Gwendolyn MacEwen. I discovered her writing when I was about 14 years old and it helped me figure out who I am. Her writing is dark, mysterious and provocative. She unfortunately died in the 80s, but I often revisit many of her poems. My favourites include her final book of poetry, Afterworlds, and her novel, Noman’s Land.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
I read about a study on reader retention involving both digital books and real books, and it was found that readers were able to remember far more details from a real book than a digital book. The conclusion was that the physical experience of turning pages and the feeling of progressing through the book in your hands helped with reader retention. I think many people are aware of this, even on a subconscious level, and will continue to read real books.
I can think of two, covering very different topics. First, Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, because he explains so superbly why it is imperative to preserve our natural landscapes. Second, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, because it redefines what our expectations ought to be around modern relationships.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
I remember a single quote from one particular book that had a big impact. The book was Mermaids and Ikons: A Greek Summer by Gwendolyn MacEwen, which I read when I was about 15. MacEwen describes her experience of looking at a statue of the god Hermes in Greece. To paraphrase it from memory, she says “The statue seems to exist in another nameless dimension of reality – perhaps in the ‘space-time’ warp, or whatever we want to call it, where beauty exists on its own terms and art reaches out to greet the infinite … and is intended to strike the beholder dead, or to make them rethink what reality is all about, or at the very least, to make them weep.” As a visual artist, I felt that those words set the bar for what art has to accomplish.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Jacques Vallée’s books, especially The Invisible College and Passport to Magonia, offer some fascinating theory on UFO phenomena. I am also a big fan of Rebecca Solnit’s books, especially River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I’m not sure. Books usually “find” me, so I’ll see what comes along.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Since this is clearly an opportunity to make a self-deprecating joke, how about Problem Solving with Duct Tape: The Story of a Technically Inept Photographer.