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Artist Spotlight: Morgan Harper Nichols

by Magnolia
Published on September 28, 2020

Morgan Harper Nichols is an artist and writer whose work is inspired by real life interactions and stories. Her creative journey has taken many turns, but all along she was preparing to become the artist she is today. After years of full-time touring as a singer-songwriter, Morgan turned her attention to a new project in 2017. She began inviting people to submit their personal stories to her website, and from there, she created art as a response. With permission, she then shared the work on social media and began to see her following grow, which has led to various creative collaborations and installations.

We recently connected with Morgan to learn more about her unique story, her creative process, and where she drew inspiration for the exclusive art prints she created for Magnolia’s fall collection.

Magnolia: Let's jump right in! If you could describe what you do in a few sentences, what would you say?

Morgan Harper Nichols: I’m an artist and a writer. I feel like I've been on a creative journey my entire life. I come from a very creative family, and because of that, I'm a lot of different kinds of artists. The art that I enjoy and share the most typically is coming out as some type of visual art. When I see words and colors I hear music—it's all kind of working together.

Can you talk more about your journey as a musical artist and dig into specific moments where you felt a calling towards the type of art you are creating now?

Yes! My family is very musical. Growing up in a creative family, music always came very naturally to me. However, I tend to be a little bit more introverted. Up until recent years where we have social media like we have it now, introversion and music don't always go hand in hand. From the get-go, I was always faced with this really weird tension of, I felt equipped and called to make and to share music, while simultaneously I didn’t feel like I had the energy levels to do so. I didn’t feel like I had the capacity that I saw a lot of other young artists have.

I was playing and sharing music through my teen years, college, and halfway through my 20’s. There was always this really big question of, why do I feel so exhausted? And then the second component of that was, why am I also broke? I could be exhausted or broke, but both? For decades, that was a lot. I knew something had to give. So I started to play shows. Sometimes I would be singing background vocals, sometimes I would be playing guitar—many different things. At the end of the night I found myself sitting on the tour bus or in the hotel just writing about the limits of what I was feeling and all of the things that I wish I could have said or expressed on stage. I'm a really slow processor, so it takes me time to just sit with things. I was feeling these things for years!

I recently just moved houses and I was pulling some old journals out of a box, going through them and realized that when I was writing after shows on tour, I was also doodling and making art in the margins of all of my journals. I didn’t remember or realize I was doing that! Even at that time, I was unconsciously sowing the seeds of what I’m doing today.

When you first started sharing your work online, was the vulnerability of that scary to you?

When I started to share my poetry and art online, it actually wasn't as scary as sharing music. I had a little bit of anxiety and nervousness—but to this day I am still ten times more nervous to get on a stage or play music. Whereas, I've always felt comfortable sharing my thoughts in written words.

I started sharing my work on Instagram in a time where I specifically remember listening to podcasts and they were saying, ‘if you want to grow on Instagram, don't post photos with words on them.’ I was doing the exact opposite. I thought to myself, ‘well I guess I'm not going to grow.' It all felt unknown, but because I've dealt with so much in the past and have struggled with how to be an artist in this world—I told myself I was going to try it and see what happens! I continuously asked myself if this was just a hobby or if it was something that I'm going to actually do? Little did I know it would change everything.

Can you walk us through your creative process for the three pieces exclusive to Magnolia?

In a way, when it comes to my process, everything kind of hits me at once. I don't really wait for inspiration—I don't wait for a poem to come to me or even a strong emotion. I think this might just be because I'm an overthinker, but typically if I just hear a word, song or story, something comes to me. I immediately start to think about colors and shapes and how that makes me feel, and then how that could make someone else feel.

With the specific word, rhythm, when I heard it, I saw actual rhythmic patterns in musical terms, and then the rich colors along with it. A lot of my process is breaking down the little pieces of everything that comes to mind with an idea so that it can better unfold on the page as a reflection of those thoughts. I think a lot of times people may feel like, and I've dealt with this too, you have to share all of yourself when creating. I’ve found that in moments of making things for others, it’s ok to just share a piece of where you are in that moment.

My hope is that others feel a piece of that too. I think this is one of the best things an artist can do. There's a lot of things changing in my environment and in my life. Ultimately, that’s how I fall on a lot of what I am writing and sharing, because that's true for me right now. And for that reason I'll put it on the page.

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Why did you choose to share your work through Magnolia?

As an artist, I love to look for opportunities to take what I do into spaces where other people can experience it in a tangible way. These framed prints are a really great way for people to be able to hold these words in their hands.

Whenever I create, I close my eyes and imagine a person holding the art, and even though I don't know who's going to interact with it or what their story is, I hope people feel and see those words in their space in a new light.

I think that was one of main reasons I chose to [work with Magnolia] as well as the fact that I really do enjoy collaborating with people who value stories and value the stories behind things. It's not just a product on the shelf, but each of these things are picked, selected, crafted and created for a reason and a purpose. That’s how I feel when I see Magnolia as well as for what I create—I hope people feel that way too.

Why do you think people connect with your work so much?

That's something I've honestly tried to figure out. I have no idea! The 12 year old homeschool version of me wouldn’t believe that this is all happening. Even though I don’t fully understand, I know that I have to listen in order to find out.

From what I’ve listened and learned, these are two top answers:

The first is Pinterest. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that without even trying, visual art has a way of being very shareable. It usually takes more to respond to the song, podcast, or video than it does to just look at an image. In an age where there is so much going on all the time, there is something special about just being able to have that still image. I really believe the stillness of an image could help bring about stillness for someone else.

The second answer I get a lot from people is that they connected to my work because a friend had sent it to them. To me, that’s really special and I’ve tried to unpack that more. Because I'm kind of a slow processor, reflection takes me a minute. I look back at situations and there were things that I wanted to say but I didn't get to say them at that moment. As it turns out, I think a lot of other people feel that way too. I find myself saying things after the fact like, oh, I wish I could have said this to my friend on that day, but I didn't have the words in real time. So a lot of what I do is I go back to moments like that in my life—some of them are big moments, some are small moments—and write to those moments. I think this speaks to why I try to keep my work very conversational.

Over the past few years, so much has changed in terms of how we communicate with each other—a lot of that is technology and social media. As an artist, what is your relationship to social media?

My relationship with social media has just been a tricky one because when I'm receiving messages from people, even if it's just comments, I want to take time to respond. I want to take time to sit with them, but it's very hard because these platforms are so fast paced. I often see these messages—whether they are lighthearted or heavy—and look at them and I say, oh I can feel something starting within me, but I don't have anything to say right away. There's a certain guilt and stress that comes with that—just feeling like I'm not doing enough. That's something I daily have to work through, I remind myself that it's OK to not always feel like you have to have the right thing to say at the exact right moment.

This is a good reminder for myself that there are other ways of being in this world. There are other ways of connecting with people—social media is just one way of doing that. It’s a great tool, but I have to remember this is just one way.

Another huge part of this is realizing that I’m not just an avatar online—I am a person and am free to take breaks if I need to. I deleted all social media apps from my phone for about a week (I still had them on my iPad because I still have work to do). But even just that small act of deleting them from my phone—even as a business owner, even as someone who has to use social media, it's OK to take those breaks!

Last question! What does the next year look like for you and your projects?

I’ve been really inspired by my one-year-old son who I've mentioned a few times! My husband and I'll often turn on something for him to watch, and being an artist, I look at a lot of that media and wonder what my version of that would be. I’ve been thinking a lot about getting in touch with my own childhood self. I've decided that whatever I do make, I want it to feel like something you can still enjoy even if you're an adult. We all have that little kid that's still inside of us, filled with wonder and still wanting to ignite our imagination. I don't know exactly what that is yet, but that’s what I’m exploring right now!

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