Visual Arts

Social Identities Lost and Found in Ann Morton's "Unentitled"

Local artist Ann Morton just finished filling up Harry Wood gallery on Arizona State University's Tempe Campus with caution tape, nine-digit numbers, and disembodied voices.

Morton, 57, who passed her MFA defense in Fibers with "Unentitled" on Monday, weaves (pun inevitable) non-traditional materials to themes of social and political helplessness in her art. She says her exhibition's goal is to raise awareness for the local homeless community, not oppress them further.

Her latest effort employs some of those hit hardest by social malfunction: "Driven by a desire to make right, the exhibition reflects my own handwork, but also orchestrates handwork of homeless individuals," she writes in her artist statement.

"Unentitled," which opened Tuesday and runs until Friday, March 2, began when Morton started collecting "lost items" -- clothes, rugs, toys, a swivel chair -- she saw littering Valley roadsides.

She says she didn't quite know where her growing collection was headed, but that she trusted her gut to gather (and keep gathering) the items, fancying that when their owners forgot or abandoned them, the objects also lost their identities. Morton photographed each item and assigned social security-like ID numbers by date and order found. This led to an online mini-timeline of the project, which featured each item with its photo, along with the headlines, top movies, lunar phase, and other historical tidbits from the day they were discovered.

Finally, she chose about 60 items from the 200-plus "collective" and shrouded them in thick, white cloth. She stitched their faux-SSID numbers in with black thread. (Exhibition viewers can scan the barcode tags on each piece and bring up its online history on smartphones.)

The rest of the "lost item" collection is hanging in a large net in the center of the gallery, above a large carpet woven entirely out of CAUTION tape.

Morton says the seeds for her "Unentitled" sprouted with 13 Fridays, a 2011 project that began in a class by Gregory Sale. Morton called for knitters to come to the Human Services Campus in Phoenix to knit warm hats for winter and give them away.

Through this, she met a homeless woman named Tilly, who had formed a group for local homeless called Women of Wealth.

Morton started teaching crochet workshops at nearby Arizona Organizing Project, an organization to get homeless people out of the heat and working on small projects. Soon after, AZOP lost its funding, and the workshops moved to a nearby church that only allowed women. Morton continued volunteering all summer, ending in an epiphany that the "lost" people in her workshops were conceptually tied to the "lost" items she'd been collecting for years.

"Over the summer [of 2011], I was thinking about my thesis and was like, 'I'm wasting my time, procrastinating, working down here, spending too much time [on the workshops]'" Morton says. "And then I finally realized it was the work."

She says she worried her work could have "a parachute effect," in which the artist flies in, gets inspiration from marginalized community, flies out, and makes critically-acclaimed art -- none of which benefits the community in need.

So Morton hired 10 of her workshop attendees to weave the exhibition's biggest piece and paid them roughly minimum wage for each square of CAUTION tape carpet.

"It's just been my constant effort not to exploit," Morton says. "Once I got connected, you know, it was hard to just walk away."

Morton says she wants to continue her work with arts outreach programs in the Phoenix homeless community, and plans to set up a new knitting and sewing program that focuses on creating small products to sell in local businesses.

The thesis exhibition marks a shift in her work; Morton says she still wrestles with political and social issues, but now feels her perspective is from "in the crowd" and no longer "on the soapbox."

"Instead of a piece that figures it all out for a viewer, I think this [exhibition] causes anybody who looks at it to take away all kinds of things," Morton says. "It's not the end of the sentence. That, to me, is much more rewarding, to work on art that's a more open-ended expression and not controlling the whole experience for the viewer."

See Unentitled now through Friday at Harry Wood gallery, 900 S. Forest Mall (west of Forest and Tyler Malls intersection), open 9 a.m. to  5 p.m. daily. More info here.

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