Lily’s World

Painter Lily Morris plumbs her Island upbringing in her latest series, Coming of Age.

When artist Lily Morris was ten, her father gave her a video camera. She started shooting around her hometown of Vineyard Haven. She captured the antics and weird fantasies of her and her friends. They recorded themselves lighting their fingers on fire with bug spray, terrorizing the hot woodshop teacher with late night phone calls, and interrupting WVVY broadcasts in costume. They could often be found skulking around the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club late at night where the security lighting would extend shooting hours. When I met Morris at her parents’ house in Vineyard Haven, where she was visiting from Hudson, New York, in June, she told me, “I would get arrested if I told you what was in some of those tapes.”

Morris, now thirty-two, went back through the tapes in January after her parents gave her a digitizing device for her birthday. “Watching them was like watching my entire life condensed in six hours of footage,” she said, opening a beer and leaning on the counter in the Morris kitchen. One of her older paintings, a seascape with a sea monsterlike figure exploding from the water, hung on the wall next to us. For the first time in a long time, Morris said, she saw herself in context. “It was almost like a gift. I felt like I was dying, seeing my life flash before my eyes.” She started thinking about growing up and what’s involved in “arriving into yourself,” how to make sense of the contradictory experiences of power and vulnerability, ecstasy and violence, beauty and danger that she felt characterized getting older. “You feel like a god and you also feel like you are hurled into this raging river of life,” she said.

Celebrity 1 (American Dream Series), oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches.

That thinking evolved into an ongoing series of paintings she titled Coming of Age. The first few paintings in the series each depict a young woman mounted on a horse in front of an epic end-of-a-Western sunset. In one painting the horse bucks its rider, who seems to hang on to the mane only by some magical bond between her and the powerful animal. In another, the rider buries her face into her horse’s neck as though sobbing. The horse’s head is also bent and seems to extend the woman’s gesture of grief, or maybe exhaustion. In all of the paintings, horse and rider are linked in freewheeling motion, neither one in control. It’s an apt depiction of Morris’s own coming of age, which she describes as a “chaos montage.”

Overhearing those words from the living room, her father, Len Morris, came in to the kitchen to make sure I understood who was responsible for the chaos. “She was a spirited, crazy, demented child,” he explained. “She was pissed off to have anybody supervise her in any way.”

“Thank you, Dad,” said Morris, then suggested we go out to the porch for the rest of the interview.

Entrance (Coming of Age series), oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches.

If there was one person whose supervision Morris did welcome, it was Pam Benjamin, whose Sense of Wonder after-school program and art camp in Vineyard Haven Morris credits as a creative home. “I went to camp as a little girl and worked for [Benjamin] as soon as I could until I left at seventeen,” she said, putting her feet up on the table out on the porch. A turkey emerged from the hedge across the yard and watched us blankly. Morris was surrounded by creativity at home as well. Her parents are both documentary filmmakers and would take her and her brother Sam on shoots. (Morris speculates one shoot she attended as a six-year-old involving a wagon train on the high desert is a source of the cowgirl imagery in the Coming of Age paintings.) When her mother, Georgia Morris, wasn’t working on documentaries, she was writing plays and screenplays and co-running the Fourth Grade Theatre Project, an educational program for students at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, throughout Morris’s childhood. It wasn’t exactly a laissez-faire household, but it was no dictatorship. A brief clip of Morris’s childhood tapes reveals her standing on her bed in a wig, lip-syncing the 1954 Chordettes ditty “Mr. Sandman.” The walls are covered in intricate psychedelic doodles. In the last shot Morris gives the camera the finger with both hands.

Rather than make her feel penned in, Morris said the Vineyard community encouraged her wildness, for which she’s grateful. “Everyone’s so connected that you have a different kind of access here to different parts of life. And if you’re a weirdo, you can barrel yourself into great experiences.”

Perhaps inevitably, though, coming of age eventually meant leaving the Island behind. After graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston in 2009, Morris spent several years working a slew of odd jobs in Brooklyn. She fabricated pieces for other artists. She churned out unsigned abstractions for hotel rooms. She edited footage from upscale weddings. “It made me tough,” she said thinking back. “I was like, ‘Okay, I can survive in the world. I’m a random-ass girl from a very small place. I can go to a huge city and survive and figure out who I am in the cracks.’”

Prom Night (Coming of Age series), oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches.

In 2015, she left Brooklyn for Hudson, New York, a small town on the banks of the Hudson River two hours north of Manhattan and home to many artists and writers. “When I first rolled in I thought, ‘This feels like a place I could be,’” she remembered. It’s no coincidence that Hudson shares much of what she loves about Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s small. It’s manageable. It’s a dinner-party culture. You know the people you see.…Everyone will come out to your show.…And that’s a really rare community that will support in that way.…Everyone’s also experimenting and on that path.” Hudson even shares a maritime tradition with the Island: it was settled by whalers from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and remained a whaling center throughout the nineteenth century.

Morris’s instincts about Hudson proved right. There, she found the community and stability she had lacked in New York City. She had time to paint again and soon had a commission for a series depicting the seven deadly sins in 2016. She followed that a year later with American Dream, a series of dark musings on celebrity and wealth, which showed at the A Gallery in its former Oak Bluffs location. Some paintings from American Dream appeared as the artwork of Sandra Bullock’s character in Netflix’s hit apocalyptic film Bird Box. Her 2018 series, POV, illustrates a number of surreal erotic encounters that Playboy Magazine called “delightfully uncomfortable.”

Morris’s work on Bird Box led to more connections in Hollywood. Paintings of hers will be featured on the upcoming HBO show The Undoing, and Susanne Bier, the director of both projects, has expressed interest in working with Morris again. Audiences noticed the paintings too. Fifteen days after the release of Bird Box, Morris posted on her social media accounts that she woke up to more than 11,000 new followers.

Lookers (POV series), oil on linen, 48 x 68 inches.

“Talk about being a random girl flailing in the world,” she laughed. “Now I’m, like, teaching Sandra Bullock how to paint….I couldn’t believe that any of my ideas would be worthy of, like, round-tabling with these badass women. It was fucking awesome.”

Morris tends to paint with photorealistic accuracy, a style that requires long hours of focus and detailed research about her subjects. “Painting is obsessive,” she said, “at least the kind of painting I do.” For Coming of Age, for example, she searched frame by frame through videos of horse-jumping accidents and stunts gone wrong for models in which “your awareness is totally evacuated from your physicality.” She also watched videos of people sneezing. “Those are very honest physical gestures I’m attracted to. Especially in the internet age when your awareness curates everything you do,” she said.

Indeed, part of what Morris found fascinating about the childhood videotapes that kicked off the whole project was the pre-internet unselfconsciousness of her younger self. She was struck by the way she and her friends didn’t seem to be performing for anyone despite the presence of the camera. It was that uninhibited feeling that she hoped to capture in Coming of Age.

Fisher King, oil on canvas, 28 x 67 inches.

To achieve her goal, Morris imbued precise details with romantic, allegorical qualities. As in much of her other work, natural elements – clouds, animals, light – seem to illustrate the emotional experience of the people in the scene. She points to Thomas Cole’s allegorical quartet The Voyage of Life as one of her inspirations. In Cole’s paintings, a man appears on a golden boat at four stages of his life: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. In true romantic fashion, the tumult of the natural world around the man symbolizes the spiritual experience at each stage of his life. Morris was attracted to the way Cole’s paintings “pump real life with myth,” and imagines future paintings in her Coming of Age series might follow Cole in depicting life as it progresses through stages. To date, she has completed five paintings in the series.

In addition to further work on Coming of Age, Morris said she plans to continue exploring work in Hollywood, but will be based for the foreseeable future in Hudson, where she’s found stability and supportive audiences. Still, if anything’s clear, stability for Morris, like everything else, involves a bit of chaos. “Stability is the ability to embrace the chaos,” she said. “The vulnerability and power of everyday. And power to me looks different than a war captain on a horse.…Power is not about control. It’s about accepting that balance and being able to ride the wave.”

Whatever she ends up painting for the rest of the series, and wherever she ends up painting it, she admires the way romantic art can elevate individual experience.

“Build your own life into a fantastical, absurd film,” she counsels. She should know. She’s been doing it since she was ten.


This article has been updated from the print version to reflect a change in Morris's gallery representation.