February 2009 Issue
An Artist at Heart
Cincinnati painter Gail Morrison found a home for her second career at the Pendleton Art Center.
On the last Friday in December, Gail Morrison, 65, tidies up her sixth-floor artist studio at the Pendleton Art Center in Cincinnati. Dressed in black pants and a sweater, with a bright-yellow scarf draped around her neck, she greets visitors with a warm, broad smile. Dozens of oil paintings hang on the walls above the pine floors, and in the background, 8-foot-high, arched windows showcase the city lights.
Visitors have been coming to the Pendleton Street artist studios on the final Friday of each month for the last 16 years, and for 15 of them, Morrison has been a featured artist.
Morrison has been blessed with a second career — the kind that many people only dream about. In 1989, after raising three sons and spending 10 years working in marketing, she boldly took a year off to travel around the world. It was a life-changing experience, she admits, but more important, it was during this time that she started to paint.
Soon after returning to her home in Chicago, Morrison left for Italy to learn the language. Upon returning to Chicago for the second time, she snagged a job marketing materials for a new aquarium under construction in Genoa, Italy. After the aquarium opened in 1992 and her one-year contract was completed, she stayed in Italy to study oil painting. “I always wanted to paint, but I never did,” she says, “although I knew I was artistic.”
What Morrison didn’t know was just how talented she was. At the age of 51, she honed her skills in a studio that overlooked the vineyards of Tuscany. “I had never had oil paints and brushes in my hand,” she says. “I spent the first six weeks in this workshop in Tuscany. Then I extended my stay to three months. That’s when my teachers said, ‘Don’t stop painting.’” She didn’t.
Morrison returned to the States, stopping in Cincinnati to visit one of her sons. That’s when she was introduced to Jim Verdin, president of The Verdin Company, a six-generation bell and clock manufacturer. Verdin had just purchased an old warehouse building on Pendleton Street in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine district, and he was marketing it as studio space for artists. “He agreed to give me [a studio] for the six weeks that I was going to be in town,” says Morrison. “I never went back to Chicago.” That was November of 1992, and Morrison has been painting at what is now the Pendleton Art Center ever since.
As more artists rented space in the eight-story, century-old building, they began to showcase their work during a monthly event called Final Friday. “I hung things up on the wall, and within two months [they were] gone,” recalls Morrison. “I liked what it felt like to make art on a daily basis.”
Morrison’s marketing background helped in the beginning. She quickly printed business cards and crafted a bio sheet. She got serious about her art. “I knew it was good because I was so happy inside,” she says. “For the first time in my life I was doing what I was passionate about.” During these early years at Pendleton, Morrison says she painted almost nonstop, breaking only to eat and sleep. “I would go home at night exhausted, drop off my clothes and then put them back on in the morning and paint all day again,” she says. “I did nothing but paint.”
Camaraderie among the Pendleton artists was strong (and still is). Another Pendleton artist checked in occasionally to comment on Morrison’s paintings. One night he noticed a drawing Morrison had done — her first pastel. He encouraged her to enter it in ViewPoint, a prestigious competition sponsored by the Cincinnati Art Club. It was November 1993, and Morrison’s drawing, “Poppyfields in Tuscany,” won first place. Morrison’s reputation as an artist took off.
Fifteen years later, she is still at the Pendleton Art Center — but the prices on her paintings are significantly higher. She is now only slightly less passionate about her work, which competes for her time with seven grandchildren and her 10-year relationship with the gentleman in her life. But even now, she spends 30 hours a week in her studio, admitting that there is no place she would rather be.
Pendleton Art Center, with more than 100 artists, describes itself as the world’s largest collection of artists under one roof. It was originally built in 1909 for the Krohn-Fecheimer Shoe Company, which eventually became U.S. Shoe. Later purchased by Shillito’s Department Stores to serve as a warehouse facility, the property was purchased by The Verdin Company in 1991. On the advice of a visiting New York artist, Verdin converted it to artist space, and before long there was a waiting list to get in. Its popularity has never waned.
On most Final Fridays, Morrison displays a work in progress — a conversation-starter for her guests. An oversized, wooden “G” sits on top of her large workbench. Artist tools and props for still lifes fill the studio shelves. It is impossible not to get the sense that Morrison is the Pendleton matriarch — this woman who never knew she could paint.
After “Poppyfields in Tuscany” won the ViewPoint, Morrison went from being a little-known to a well-known Cincinnati artist, a reputation she still holds today. She believes that her work has gone through many transitions over the years, although the one thing that has remained constant is her use of color — her favorites are yellow and red. “In the beginning you want to try different surfaces, and I think I have tried a little bit of all of it,” she says. “And I have moved from landscape to more floral. I grew up with flowers.”
Morrison views Pendleton as the place where she could showcase her talents. “Being here has made a tremendous difference,” she says. “Had I gone back to Chicago, I don’t think I would have had the success I have had here.”
Morrison never imagined that she could make a living as a painter. “When in Italy, my intent was to paint for one year and see how it went,” she says. “Now I can’t even imagine not doing this. When I am away from painting, I long to paint.”