In our collaborative works, Kelly Christopher and I craft multilayered narratives. Each work starts with a blueprint created in an intuitive manner—each of us draws with oil sticks while keeping our eyes closed. The paintings evolve during our work sessions, which we call Artcells, as we explore different aspects of colors, shapes, and themes. We often work separate sections of a painting and then trade places, revising and revisiting each other’s efforts. Our work reflects a balance of order and chaos as we take each piece from its impulsive beginnings and build it up until each of us feels it is complete.
We met at art school back in 1990 in a jewelry class we both hated. We became fast friends, appreciating each other’s talent and creative vision. It never dawned on us then to actually collaborate. Years later, after almost daily emails, we thought it would be fun to have an overnight art intensive. Due to the six-hour distance between us, we decided to meet half way just outside of Boston. These sessions became known as Artcells. We are at 50+ sessions now over almost 12 years. We still text and email ideas back and forth daily, and plan a Maine Artcell for December. We can’t imagine not working together.
What keeps us engaged in the continuous process of collaborating is how we inspire and challenge each other with ideas, texture, paint, mixed media, etc. Collaborating has taught us a lot about ego and being able to let things go. It has also helped us to see through the other person’s eyes. We keep pushing limits in color, in line, and even in theory/ideas for each piece. In the end, we are pleased with the outcome.
We push each other to paint. To create. To keep on going, especially through creative blocks. Collaboration is helpful in that way.
When we jam together on a painting we talk about surrealism, cubism, abstraction, and how to string the chosen narrative throughout the composition. We are a good balance for each other. Carl polarizes. Kelly blends. Even though some of our themes in the multi-narrative are dark, they seem to come out pretty with color, composition, and narratives intermingled.
We chronicle our diminishing empire’s endless gameshow and vapid rotting culture, the hollowness of politics on a carrot and stick, global chessboard of lies and whores of gold.
Our train of thought follows each piece from spark of creativity and narrative notion, the closed eyes with oil stick blueprinting, the layered storylines, until the very last dabs of acrylic paint swirls and Morgen Berrien’s signature.
One of our main themes is the portrayal of the natural order of the world, to blur the lines between an egg laid by a fish, a hen, eggs in the ovaries of a woman, or ovum of a flower. Our narrative expressionism develops our paintings like the seeding or self-seeding of angiosperms, creating a beautiful life of color and vibrancy.
Cactus was the first real collaboration between Kelly and me. The very idea of collaborating on a single artwork and mixed media piece was Kelly’s joke, and I was not inclined to deviate from my rigid painting. We embarked on the Cactus piece for laughs at first. It is a 4 x 4-inch painting of a prickly pear with mostly acrylic paint, some denim fabric and paper images. The narrative depicts the overall decay of Western culture. We immensely enjoyed working together, so we continued collaborative paintings ever since.
Pizza with Everything perhaps best illustrates our cooperative working style as it delves into how we view each other as individuals and as artists. From this work, we have developed what we call a “pizza template,” a reusable design framework that reflects our strengths as individuals as well as our world views. Using this template as our foundation, we overlay our work with other narratives, drawing from social, political, or religious ideas.
Joie de Vivre 1 is the first in a series exploring “the happy place.” This piece depicts a woman practicing yoga on the beach. The blueprint was auto-drawn (eyes closed), our first attempt at closing our eyes and creating. Deep into the study of the surrealists and their practices, both in art and writing, we decided to give automatism a try. We loved the practice of blueprinting with eyes closed so much that we never stopped.
We draw inspiration from many historic art movements, including surrealism and abstract expressionism. In each work, we develop a visual language of shapes that tell a story, that carry the viewer through the work. The bold blue zigzag in Joie de Vivre 4 provides a supporting structure for this narrative while the female figure represents the theme of the series.
In Both Chutes and Bladders paintings, initial blueprints were done with eyes closed using oil pastel, drawing very swiftly the idea of each others’ bladder. The title is a play on the childhood game chutes and ladders. The “chutes” in our work is the internal digestive tubing we all have.
There are multiple narratives in Chutes and Asstrails. We started it as an undersea world. If we see something of interest while going down a proverbial rabbit hole while online researching it goes straight into a painting. An example is the lifecycle of the moon jellyfish and how they are one of the singular life forms on earth that can achieve immortality, if not eaten by others.
Adoration of Spanish Moss and Pepperoni Flowers With Alice Feeders is a multi-narrative piece abundant with symbolism comparisons between humans and flora, as well as an appreciation for the complexities of nature, for example the beauty and mystery of Spanish moss flowing in soft southern breezes. We auto drew this piece listening to “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie, a song about pacifism where people eat at a restaurant that isn’t even there.
Pizza Paraphile started out with a pizza template of Kelly and me working together in our cheese warehouse. The fetishizing of a pizza was the general scope of the narrative. There is also a Last Supper present (red plates for the apostles and Christ) within the pizza (that is also a submerged submarine). There are numerous flowers spewing their seeds into the water or air, pollinating the awaiting ovules.
We have held Artcells in Maine, Connecticut, and several points in between. The current pandemic has done little harm to our teamwork; it has only delayed us from meeting in person.
Carl Berrien Smith, for Morgen Berrien (a.k.a. Kelly Morgen Christopher and Carl Berrien Smith).
Image at top: Morgen Berrien, Joie de Vivre 4, detail, acrylic and oil pastel on wood, 43 ½ x 24 in., 2017.