In memory of Robert Morrison
Every adult I know has stories about a special teacher who inspired them, a teacher who believed in them, a teacher who made a difference. Robert Morrison is that teacher for dozens upon dozens, maybe even hundreds of students. With the news of his passing, it has been stunning to consider and realize that as incredibly influential as he has been in my life, he has been that important to so many others.
I have encountered scores of people recently who have fantastic stories about Bob to share. He was central to this place, to who we are as a community—on and off the University of Nevada, Reno campus, and throughout Northern Nevada and Northern California. It is hard to imagine him not being here. He was our common denominator; Bob always showed up—to everything. Not only did he show up, he participated. An artist lecture or gallery talk would not have been the same without Bob there to ask difficult and pointed questions from the back row. It did not matter how large or small the event, how well publicized or esoteric, if it involved art he was there. His continuous presence reverberated throughout our community, across generations of artists and students. He bonded us all together.
I had the immense privilege of studying under Professor Morrison when I was an undergraduate student at UNR back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. In 2000, he was instrumental in my coming home to Reno after graduate school to be hired as an assistant professor of art. Once back, I had the honor of co-teaching with him side-by-side in sculpture, as well as having the pleasure and immeasurable sense of pride that came from participating with him in a number of art exhibitions.
Bob was my mentor in every sense of the word. He was my teacher, guide, counselor, trusted advisor, supporter and dear friend. I was in my early 20s when I first encountered him in a drawing class. I was absolutely horrible at drawing in that first class. My drawings were weak. In fact, they stunk. I was young, shy, intimidated and clueless. Despite all of that, without wincing (or laughing), he took me seriously. He engaged me in conversation and critique, and he pushed me hard to challenge myself. He invited me again and again to reevaluate the way I thought, and, of equal importance, the way I saw. His presence was indomitable.
With his Danish complexion, light eyes and reddish beard, he looked the way I imagined a tall and lean Van Gogh would look. He was smart, funny, encouraging, demanding, superbly peculiar and so elegantly and eloquently brilliant—very, very brilliant. Without exaggeration, I can say that my world was forever changed by encountering him in that first unlikely class. I soon enrolled in every class he instructed—figure drawing, watercolor and, ultimately, sculpture—where I found my place. He gave me the courage to become a full-fledged art student and declare a major in art, and after I graduated, he pushed and encouraged me to leave home to pursue graduate school. He believed in my potential as an artist, and he encouraged me to believe in myself. His teaching is what inspired me to become a teacher.
Artist Joseph Beuys said, “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.” Teaching was indeed a work of art in the hands of Bob. In the university art studios, he was not content with merely instructing students to acquire drawing, painting and/or sculpting skills. He insisted that we understood the bridge between making and thinking. He demanded that we apply ourselves, not only manually through labor, but creatively and intellectually, always at the highest level. He operated under the premise that critical thought is an essential aspect of the creative process. Nowhere was this more evident than in his critiques.
Every assignment from Bob was followed by an in-depth critical analysis of each individual piece. And his critiques were like no others. They were a combination of project evaluation and art lecture.
I can’t remember a time when Bob lectured down to students; rather, he treated each of us with extreme seriousness and showed respect for what we had created. He generously delivered lectures about ourselves and about how our work fit into the bigger scheme of the art world and culture in general. He brilliantly wove together careful and hard-hitting scrutiny of our work with contemporary, historical, literary and philosophical references. His critiques were intellectually demanding and rigorous. No doubt much of this was over our heads at any given moment, and all of it could be wildly intimidating, but that did not deter him. Bob trusted we would eventually “get it.”
Countless people’s experiences mirror my own. Robert/Bob/Professor Morrison greatly affected our individual worlds. Truly we are better human beings and better artists for having known him, studied with him, worked with him—even briefly. Many of us wandered into his classes not knowing what to expect. He led by example, showing us how and why to believe in and care deeply about art and the mysterious, unpredictable and elegant ways it communicates ideas. He invited us and gave us permission to be artists, whether for a semester or for the duration of our lives. We carry his generosity of spirit and brilliance with us, forever changed by the things he said and did and the incredible art he made. It is a struggle to imagine the world without him here. Our collective hearts ache that we do not have more time to spend talking, listening, laughing, learning and making art with him. He is, and will always be, sorely missed. Bob’s influence will live on in all of us.