Local inspiration: Artist Miriam Morris highlights Nevada County locals in latest work | TheUnion.com

Local inspiration: Artist Miriam Morris highlights Nevada County locals in latest work

Miriam Morris works on a ceramic bust in her Nevada City art studio. The artist has spent decades creating ceramic art inspired by well-known figures.
Submitted photo |

Visitors to Miriam Morris’s Nevada City art studio might catch a glimpse of Nancy Reagan, Gavin Newsom or Rush Limbaugh — or the top halves of those famous figures, at least.

For years, Morris has created several-foot-tall ceramic busts of well known actors and politicians.

But the inspiration for Morris’s latest series of art comes from her own neighborhood.

For months, Morris has been creating a series of sculptures based on “visible locals” — the people who are regularly seen around town, but aren’t always known by the community.

“I want people to think, why is she spending all this time and energy making a sculpture of that person? I want them to stop and think about who is in our community. Who are the people around you? What do you know about them?”Miriam Morris

She started with Ron Lowe, a fixture of downtown Nevada City. She’s completed sculptures of local Robert Kaplan, Clayton Stamper, a homeless man Morris often encounters in Nevada City, and Daniel Grunewald, a former artist and writer who often hangs out near SPD Market in Nevada City. She’s currently working on a ceramic bust of R.L. Crabb, a cartoonist for The Union newspaper.

After completing each bust, Morris has put the artwork on display for one day in Nevada City’s Calanan Park, where those who pass through not only view the sculpture, but often, meet or talk to the person who inspired it.

And her bust of Lowe has received wider recognition; through Saturday, it will be on display at Blue Line Arts in Roseville, as part of the America’s ClayFest competition.

The idea behind her series of ceramic pieces, Morris said, is to encourage locals to pay a little more attention to the community around them.

“I want people to think, why is she spending all this time and energy making a sculpture of that person? I want them to stop and think about who is in our community. Who are the people around you? What do you know about them?” Morris said.

The ceramic busts are just one way Morris is focusing her energy on the local community. For the past six years, she’s dedicated much of her time outside of her art studio to beautifying and caring for Nevada City’s public spaces.

That effort began in 2011, when Morris and her husband, Jim, were walking their dog in downtown Nevada City and noticed the foxtails growing in the areas next to the sidewalks.

“I thought, I can do something about that,” Morris said.

And so she did. She began her work in Robinson Plaza, where she repaired planters, installed a bench designed by fellow artist Mike Oldland and fixed irrigation; her husband mended the damaged rock wall around the stamp mill.

Morris moved on to Calanan Park, where she removed garbage and weeds and planted new plants, among other work that is ongoing. She’s also re-landscaped a strip of land outside the post office that was home to weeds and juniper bush stumps, and has been working on rehabilitating the Commercial Street parking lot.

It was her work in Calanan Park that led her to the first subject in her series of ceramic busts of locals. She and Ron Lowe crossed paths often on the days Morris was in the park. Eventually, she asked Lowe if she could take some pictures of him — a series of 360-degree pictures, in black and white, that she would use to create the ceramic bust.

“I thought she was crazy,” said Lowe. “I’m not inhibited, but I didn’t think I’d make a very good subject.”

But Lowe was exactly the type of subject Morris wanted to focus on. She said the series of busts depicting locals isn’t meant to portray her subjects as symbols of eccentricity, homelessness or any other particular characteristic or social class.

She instead tries to represent each subject in a “worthy and dignified way” that inspires conversation. When she displayed the bust of Stamper in the park, she asked those who passed through to write short comments in a book detailing their perception of, or experience with, Stamper. When she displayed Grunewald’s bust, Grunewald wrote one-liners on origami paper and passed them out to attendees.

“I wanted to do a thing where everybody comes together and tells their stories about this person so we can figure out, who is this person and realize we all know, or think, different things about these people,” Morris said.

Common to both her sculpture series and her work in community spaces is a desire to affect positive change, Morris said.

“I love to show my sculptures in galleries and museums, but I wanted to use my talents in a more direct way,” Morris said.

Gardens and artwork enhance the city’s public spaces, Morris said, and give each space a sense of identity. Her talents and hard work have earned her the respect of many people in the community — including some of the subjects of her artwork.

“I really admire Miriam for all she does in Nevada City, taking care of Calanan Park and her strange little art projects that show up here and there. She’s kind of like our version of Banksy,” said Crabb, referring to the well-known British street artist.

Lowe was pleased with his likeness when Morris presented it to him. His only complaint, he said, was that Morris made him look “too good.”

“It was so amazing,” Lowe said. “I looked at it and I thought geez, on my best day maybe I look like that.”

Morris said she knows the change she aims to affect with her art and her work caring for local public spaces might be relatively minor in the grand scheme of life, but she hopes her efforts do make an impact locally.

“The biggest thing,” Morris said, “is to make people think and not just go about things as usual.”

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email elavin@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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