Sean Morris

WORDS Michelle Canning
PORTRAITURE Heather Lighton
Story #1

Perth native turned Melbourne based artist, Sean Morris has exhibited all over the globe – from New York to Malmo – but finds himself most at home within the density and competitiveness of Melbourne’s art culture. Sean’s work is like a witnessing something you just know you shouldn’t be privy to, Torn between curiosity and instinctiveness, you want to look away but you just can’t.

We chat to Sean about survival in the uncertain world of freelancing, his brand of beautiful weirdness and the seriousness of Instagram.


How did you get to where you are now?

I originally studied creative advertising at a university in Perth, and then went on to study an animation diploma at the Film & Television Institute in Fremantle. I got some good things out of each course but at the end of four years I found myself out in the world with no real desire to work in either of those industries. I had a pretty directionless year after that, but a lot of free time so I used it to draw. Eventually, I decided to put on an art show with a friend and another friend in advertising offered me some illustration work. Both things went well so I continued doing more and more of each. I had art shows in Perth, then Sydney, Melbourne, the US and Europe and illustration work for different ad agencies and magazines, along with a wide variety of private commissions. I guess you could say I stumbled into freelance life.

It’s been interesting balancing both the art and illustration paths, commercial illustration has been a little soul-crushing at times and made me not want to draw at all. However, there have been periods where commercial work has been extremely rewarding, on both a creative and financial level, going on to become a full-time thing for months on end. At the moment, I’m hardly undertaking any commercial illustration at all. Instead, I’ve been focusing on art shows, and fashion work based on my art. I’m sure I’ll swing back the other way at some point. It’s nice to keep changing things up.


What’s your previous work and how is it working freelance?

I’ve been freelancing for seven years now, with a few stints where I’ve had to supplement art and illustration with part-time work but it’s been two years now since I’ve had to do that. If I had tried to work out in the beginning how I would survive those seven years, it would have been pretty daunting. I didn’t even think of this as a long-term prospect until a year or two in. I still can’t really think too far into my future as a freelancer without my head spinning a bit. The uncertainty of it all is pretty scary and difficult to plan for, but good things come to those who stick it out and are ‘living in free fall’, as a friend of mine put it the other day. For now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I was lucky to have friends in Perth, like Kyle Hughes-Odgers and William Heerey, who made the commitment to full-time art around the same time as me. They were a big help and inspiration. We’re all self-taught artists and learnt a lot together about survival methods in the freelance wilderness. In 2009, we started the Last Chance Studio collective with Ian Strange, Tim Rollin and Ryan Boserio. It was a really important time, the art life can be pretty lonely and it makes a big difference to feel like part of a team. We helped each other get jobs, worked on projects together, and I guess we reinforced the idea to each other that this was a legitimate way to live and make careers out of art, even though we were coming at things from a pretty non-traditional angle.


Can you describe your practice?

I shift a lot between considering myself as an artist or an illustrator. At the moment, I spend most of my time working on my art practice, but I still take on commercial and illustration work as it’s still more financially rewarding than selling my own drawings and paintings. The majority of the art that I make is for exhibitions, but these days I end up selling more of my stuff via my web store or social media than through galleries. The internet is an amazing tool these days and it’s nice to have some independence from the gallery system.


On average I’ll spend about two months working on a solo exhibition, with the second month being really intense. Organising a group show is usually created pretty casually over four to five months, with a hectic last week or two. If I’m organising a group show, I’ll initiate contact with a gallery but with solo shows I tend to wait for an opportunity to present itself. I’m only really into doing solo stuff if it’s going to be a new experience.


You’ve also spent some time working overseas, how did that come about?

In 2013 I showed a lot of work overseas, through a few different sets of circumstances. I flew to Spain in April to hold a solo show at a gallery in Madrid. Just after that I put together a group show at a new gallery space in London, an opportunity that arose through an Australian friend who was working there. It was all organised in the space of a few weeks, I pulled together a bunch of Spanish, English, American and Australian artists I knew, and they sent work straight to London. I then went to the US for a couple of months and ended up in LA for a group show at New Image Art, which had been in the works for a while. It was the most recent in a series of US shows by Luke Pelletier from Chicago. It featured an awesome group of guys I’ve become friends with over the last couple of years, like Michael Hsiung and Eric McHenry from LA and Dillon Froelich from Florida.


You’re originally from Perth, what made you decide to move to Melbourne?

I was born in Perth and lived there until 2013. Coming from a small, disconnected city also forces you to work harder; you have to want it more and you have to think big if you’re going to get anywhere. My reasons for moving to Melbourne were more personal than career-based, but it’s been good on a work level too. I really like the density and competitiveness of the art culture here. Art, especially the sort of stuff I do, is a lot more ‘normal’ here than in Perth. The average person seems more likely to have a frame of reference for it. I spend less time explaining and justifying my work here and more time working. There’s part of me that thinks it’s more important to make art in places where it isn’t such a normal & established thing but for now it’s nice just to be working in an environment with so much energy.

I live in Abbotsford, a pretty interesting area and an easy trip into my studio in the Nicholas Building at the heart of the city. I’m lucky to be surrounded by some pretty amazing creative people in my own studio and with a lot of other studios near by. I find the community side of art really important; it’s no fun if I’m in my own head all the time.


What advice would you give to the next generation of creatives?

I think there are a lot of different paths to success. For me it’s about constantly trying to make better work, and about exposure. Not the type of ‘exposure’ that sketchy clients will try and convince you is reason enough to work for free (red flag anyone throwing that word at you). I’m just talking about making sure as many people as possible see your work, and that the right people see it. Be confident, email websites, email galleries and take Instagram seriously.

Stress management is very important. I’ve been derailed by work related stress so many times. For me, the key is having a separate work environment. I go to my studio to get things done and I leave my work there. I’ve had plenty of stints operating out of my bedroom, and it’s not great for my work or my sanity. Switching off completely is almost impossible when you’re surrounded by unfinished jobs. If you can make it happen, I’m jealous. But if it doesn’t feel right, make the sacrifices you need to in order to afford some sort of studio space.


YOUR next one to watch?

Arron Billings


Sean Morris