Julie Morstad’s Subdued Creepiness

If you were forced to describe Julie Morstad’s drawings in a few quick words “subdued, languid creepiness” might do the trick. Subdued and languid: no matter how macabre the situation her characters find themselves in they never scream, their almond-shaped eyes vacantly stare out at their bizarre predicaments, and an air of genteel languor, as at an Edwardian tea party, hangs over every scene. Creepiness: insect and snakes crawl everywhere, limbs have a way of mutating into odd shapes (often looking like the furry squirrel tails), heads are frequently detached from bodies.

The line between animals and humans is constantly blurred. One drawing shows a young girl in bed, sitting up with her legs covered by a quilt. Her arms and legs are all fur, which is the obvious animal part of her. But there is a subtler form of animalization in the drawing: her dress looks like a leopard’s spotted skin. In another drawing a similar girl nonchalantly lets a hoard of bees enter into her right ear and exit from the left one. Her turtleneck sweater gives her head the layered stripes of a beehive: she’s a queen bee or a honey pot.

If we spend enough time on these drawings, we can tease out the histories of her characters. A young man, crew cut and nattily dressed, has a crowd of girls (Barbie doll sized but very much alive) stand on his head. Some of the girls are falling off since his head doesn’t have room for all of them. One could surmise that he’s a lady’s man who doesn’t have enough brain cells to remember all the skirts he chases.  

Of all the modes of modern art, surrealism is the one least susceptible to sloppiness or imprecision. If you are going to create a dream like environment, you have to be a damn good draughtsman, able to fool the eye into believing impossible things. It’s generally the case that the best surrealists have been the artists with strong basic drawing skills: Pavel Tchelitchew, Max Ernst, Winsor McCay. Morstad belongs to this tradition. 

 Edward Gorey is her artistic uncle; but her drawings are darker and more foreboding than his. Gorey influence can be seen especially in the way Mostad draws hair and fur, brushy lines that a little bit thicker and denser than verisimilitude requires. Hair is a big part of Morstad’s aesthetic: it’s constantly getting entangled or growing wildly like a jungle.

Julie Morstad lives in Vancouver. Her drawings can be found on her website and in her new book Milk Teeth (available from her publisher Drawn and Quarterly; or you can find it at better bookstores everywhere).

2 thoughts on “Julie Morstad’s Subdued Creepiness

  1. Very interesting, Jeet. I’m glad you flagged Morstad’s work, as I’d never heard of her. I agree with the Gorey influence you’ve identified, but don’t agree that her drawings are “darker and more foreboding” than his. Judging from the work on her website, I’d say she’s certainly more of a surrealist than him, via both her juxtaposition of human and animal identities and her depiction of mental states as tangible objects. But Gorey, though more realistic in his portrayal of physical environments, gets very dark and disturbing indeed. The Gashlycrumb Tinies is an A to Z that starts with “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil, assaulted by bears…”, while some of his other small books have plot lines involving the sacrifice of children to an insect god, and the kidnapping and accidental death of a small girl (The Hapless Child). I’ll have to put his stuff out of reach of my daughter soon!

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