Alexandra Morse with a spiny lobster.
Reflecting a life spent surfing, sailing, paddleboarding and diving in the Cape Fear region, Alexandra Morse’s paintings chart the undersea worlds of the Carolina coast. Or put another way, they document what is, for her, just another day in the office.
Despite strong North Carolina roots, the 28-year-old painter was born in California. Three years later would see her return with her family to Wilmington. A self-proclaimed “water baby,” Morse eventually became scuba certified in 2007, which has become a second passion for her. Diving has turned into a part-time gig that allows her plenty of time to explore the ocean’s depths 40 miles from shore. Like most artists, however, time to practice her craft is always hard to come by.
“My first job is as an artist; diving comes second and third is a job at Mary Kay, which I just recently started doing to make extra money, so that art wouldn’t have to be paying my bills,” she said. “I just don’t do the art I want to do when I make knick-knacks that will sell at a farmers’ market.”
The extra work, while yet another time constraint, has given Morse some breathing room, and allows her to concentrate on larger, more involved mixed-media pieces.
“In a few months I’ll be showing my work at Art Factory; I have all these ideas that I’ve wanted to make happen for a long time. I feel really positive about this; sometimes I need a deadline so that I’ll find the time to make it happen,” she said.
Her job as a diving guide, beyond giving her creative mind a chance to unravel the strange undersea world, has also yielded some tangible rewards. One of the most striking features in some of her more recent paintings is the inclusion of real lobsters, which she caught and preserved after learning to perform taxidermy.
“The first one I just had to grab. I was setting the anchor, and there were these two lobsters fighting,” she explained. “Usually they’ll be under rocks or ledges, but they were right next to me. They didn’t notice me at all. So one of them got away, and this one didn’t.”
Shark teeth, including those from the prehistoric, whale-eating Megalodon, provide Morse with the basis of much of her jewelry, including her popular shark tooth earrings.
“I started getting into art as a business when I started finding a lot of shark teeth scuba diving, and I started making jewelry,” she said. “From there I started doing little shows and events, like farmers’ markets, and since I’ve always been a painter it gives me an opportunity to show my art as well.”
Other biological artifacts that she has incorporated into her work include shell fragments, whale bones, and even an entire shark’s jaw which became a crab’s outstretched claw in one of her mixed-media paintings.
“I also try to use as many recycled materials as I can,” she said, holding up a small canvas filled with rich emerald and aquamarine hues. In the foreground is a jellyfish with shimmering tentacles made from strips of clear plastic and hot glue, its umbrella and oral arms comprised of paper mâché. Smiling broadly, she added that it also glows in the dark.
Her earlier paintings prior to her scuba diving reflect a more dreamlike conception of the deep, in which yellow and orange tropical fish glow from the blue-black depths. Many of the scenes are supernaturally vivid, akin to the primitivist work of Henri Rousseau, who never saw his subjects and instead created his jungle scenes after reading books about Africa. Another early painting shows a coral twisting into fiery reds and yellows, with lighting that she says was patterned after the effect of sunlight filtering down from above. Tissue paper creates the texture of sunbeams highlighting the rough coral surface. Morse said that only later would she would gain the firsthand experience of seeing the ripples of light playing out on the sea floor.
When asked if the experience of scuba diving had any negative effect on the imagined scenes she was painting, Morse took a moment to think.
“This fish I think I saw pictures of in a book. But I completely changed the colors,” said Morse, gesturing toward a yellow and orange grouper. “I feel that diving has expanded my medium, and I get these great ideas when I’m down there. But I suppose in other ways it does confine me a little bit. Before I started diving, underwater was still an absolute mystery.”
As she has experimented with the inclusion of a wider range of techniques, Morse has increasingly found herself creating mixed-media pieces. “I love making the taxidermy lobsters, but it’s a process, and it can be an aggravating one,” she said. “But it’s also probably my favorite outcome, and I have three completed ones for which I have different ideas of how to incorporate them.”
Her artistic growth has been a journey, and Morse said she’s looking forward to continuing to learn.
“There are some things in fine art I wish I had learned; the marketing, the networking and the business sides of art are where I need to improve. But I’m learning,” she said.
Alexandra Morse’s Art Factory exhibit will open Friday, Oct. 25, and will run through Nov. 30.
To see more of her art, visit her website at www.alexandraunderwater.com