When Neko Case was looking for cover art for her latest CD, 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, she rang up Vancouver artist Julie Morstad. Morstad was busy preparing for an exhibition, but Case—who went to Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design with Morstad's brother Paul, and had worked with Julie on a music video—was persistent.
“She said, ”˜I really want you to do it—is there anything you have?'” recalls Morstad over tea at a coffee shop on Main Street, near her home. Morstad suggested Case take a look at her latest batch of drawings, and something clicked. “Her album title is derived from a Russian folklore tale, and I happened to be looking at Russian folklore as well, so we were like, ”˜Oh my God.' We both freaked out.”
A delicate, evocative drawing by Morstad graces the cover of Fox Confessor. In its depiction of a young moon-faced girl addressing a group of attentive foxes, the image has several identifying Morstad characteristics: lovingly drawn fur, an elaborate dress design, a disembodied, almost ornamental head, and, perhaps most disconcertingly, deerlike limbs in place of human legs.
This mix of the macabre and the innocent underlies much of her work. Along with Morstad's spider-leg-thin lines—she uses the finest nib she can find—that balance has drawn comparisons to the late American artist Edward Gorey. These are not off-base, she says, but she didn't discover the Amphigorey author until she was at art school in her mid 20s. By then, her style had already been determined by influences as disparate as '20s fashion images, art-deco design, the work of illustrators Maurice Sendak and Arthur Rackham, and paintings by Edgar Degas, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele.
Her work has also been compared to that of the Winnipeg-based Royal Art Lodge. Morstad says she doesn't know most of the artists involved in that collective, but she can see some similarities between herself and its most prominent member, Marcel Dzama. “We probably have some of the same influences,” she notes. “I've heard him say he'll write down a bunch of ideas he gets for drawing, and it's the same with me. I can see where his drawings come from. And he says he often draws from his dreams, which is something I do as well.”
Interviewers, meanwhile, have been quick to play up the importance of the disembodied heads that appear in her work. But the decorative noggins aren't meant to imply the violence of decapitation—even though, as a child, Morstad was obsessed with Marie Antoinette. “They're more like faces representing something,” she says. “They're heads without bodies, rather than decapitated heads. They're not intended to be something that's dead.”
Birds and animals also figure prominently in her work, for the simple reason that she likes drawing feathers and fur. “Usually I just think of something I would really want to draw,” says Morstad. “Cascading hair, heads, and faces, eyes, whatever—I'll figure out what it means later, if it means anything.”
In Milk Teeth, a new batch of 30 ink and watercolour drawings on display at the Atelier Gallery until March 17, birds and animals have given way to moths and plants. In Moth War 1, a group of children retreat from a scene of carnage—dozens of huge moths swarming over a pile of clothes on the ground. In Hearts Ease, a plant, its stalk emerging from a pile of bones, sprouts flowers of miniature Edwardian-looking gentlemen and the heads of cats.
The new works “have a visceral element to them, from me having just gone through pregnancy and birth again”, says the 30-year-old, who had a second child, Henry, last year. “A lot of stuff in this new batch references all those things about the body, like breastfeeding, bones, hair, limbs, all kinds of flowering things.”
As word of Morstad's work spreads outside of the fine art world, her career is also blooming. She has an early March deadline to contribute illustrations to a chapter of I Live Here, a humanitarian-crisis-themed anthology of words and pictures that actor Mia Kirshner (The L Word, Exotica, 24) is helping to put together. Montreal comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly has approached the artist to do something, and a sequel to When You Were Small, the 2006 children's book she collaborated on with writer Sara O'Leary, is in the planning stages.
It seems, decapitated heads, disembodied limbs, and all, Morstad's macabre aesthetic is hitting a nerve. Neko Case was clearly onto something, after all.