Interview with Morgan Cahn
by Lexi Miller-Golub
Once upon a time, you may have spotted a pink-haired lady, with a hoodie made of neon patches and gemstones, skipping down a Pittsburgh street. Or maybe you even peeked into a window on said street, to find this singular lady suspending a giant squid from her living room ceiling. I only hope you were so lucky to encounter the inspiring and elusive artist, Morgan Cahn, before she took off for the UK.
Morgan Cahn is a prolific 32-year-old artist who weaves a vibrant, multimedia fabric, out of illustration, textile, video, performance, mail art, and installation work.
She’s originally from Seattle, but spent nearly a decade in Pittsburgh, where she grew her practice, became an administrator for Flight School, a major career development workshop for artists, and ran a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. She now resides in Dundee, Scotland, where she is pursuing a fine art degree at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design.
We were dying to ask Morgan about her practice, her advice for artists, and her experiences with health care from the US to the UK.
HEALTHY ARTISTS: You like to salvage, reuse, and repurpose materials in your work. What are some of the top treasures you’ve found, while rummaging through other people’s “trash”?
MORGAN CAHN: I have found so much good stuff over the years. In Seattle I once found a porno video and magazine. The content wasn’t as interesting as the incredible way in which the items were disposed of; wrapped in multiple brown bags and tossed in an industrial dumpster (I wish the US was more erotophillic.)
In Pittsburgh, I found a huge jar of buttons. I love buttons, and am constantly picking them up if I see them on the street. Finding so many at once was like discovering a small universe. In Dundee, I found a huge refrigerator-sized block of upholstery foam. I used it to make an Iceberg that people could enter into. Ever since I was small I’ve made forts, and now as an adult I call them “immersive environments”, but basically they are giant wombs (worlds.)
Your aesthetic is often very colorful, playful, and even, child-like. How did you develop your style?
Perhaps, one could say I started being creative and making as a child and haven’t ever properly ‘grown up’. I let myself play when I am making art because that is fun; I also work intuitively and let the physicality and materiality have an equal footing with the context. I also know myself pretty well, and this aesthetic works really well with my temperament (aka I am messy, curious, playful, and experimental.)
You’ve been pretty prolific. What’s one of your favorite past projects?
‘Squidemous’, is the first piece I made, knowing there would be an audience. It’s a life- sized, giant squid. I really wanted to understand the size of one of these mollusks. To grasp the immenseness I had to build one with my hands using fabric and batting, with only children’s books on the subject as my guide. The books are scientifically accurate, but the tone used has an imagination and playfulness that fits with my aesthetic, so even my choice of research materials was important.
You talk about art as a means of getting out of your comfort zone. What is something uncomfortable you have done for your art?
Oftentimes I will devise a project to help me overcome a specific problem. I used my 365 book project to help me thwart my social anxiety by talking to people I didn’t know and leaving the house every day. It took two years, but now I can pretty much talk with anyone, and I don’t get embarrassed in public (a huge help in doing performances.)
You raised nearly $3,000 through Kickstarter for a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. What advice do you have for other artists trying to run a successful Kickstarter campaign?
Like many of my projects, the first step was research. I had gotten into a residency I could not afford on my own and turned to a tested crowd-funding company. I looked on their website for clues to running a successful campaign – including the ‘Hall of Fame’.
The large majority of people who donated were family and friends – and they received my art in exchange for a reasonable donation (but not too cheap.) I think the big ‘sell’ was that I was working on my art, growing my practice, and had gotten into a well known residency program, which was worth supporting. I also used social media, emails, and even flyers around town to promote my Kickstarter.
Was your month at the Vermont Studio Center as productive and distraction-free as you had hoped?
VSC was amazing! It was my first proper studio residency and I was very productive. I wouldn’t say it was distraction-free, but the social aspect was something unexpected and really lovely. I still keep in touch with the friends I made there, and have even had my work in art exhibitions as a result.
You worked as an administrator for Flight School, a career development workshop for artists in Pittsburgh. What advice do you have for artists who are trying to make it?
Flight School opened my eyes – There are a lot of learned skills that can help artists spend more time doing what they love. Some of it is luck, but a lot of it is work and persistence. I joined the Flight School team after a decade of working shitty jobs and making art on the side got old. That’s where ‘career development’ comes in – it was pretty scary to own up to the fact that I wanted making art to be my career and that I may need to mix strategy and money in with my passion. It was really sad to leave Pittsburgh after working with all these great artists and learning so much. The things I’ve learned through Flight School have helped me immensely here in the UK.
Pittsburgh to Scotland. Quite a leap! Why Scotland? And, how is the art scene over there?
The short answer is that my sweetheart got a huge opportunity in Edinburgh and we decided to move to Scotland together. The art scene is great. I have utilized many opportunities through the University. Dundee is small enough that everyone can know everyone (which is mostly a good thing) so the hierarchies are flattened. The director and the curator of the big contemporary art institution will come to exhibitions at the small artist-run spaces. In a way, that can be said for Pittsburgh too – it can be a more supportive environment than say New York or London – and lies only a few hours away from those big art centers.
What do you miss most about Pittsburgh?
Definitely, the people and the activities. Pittsburgh has so much going on because the cost of living is reasonable, so people have more time for things beyond work. It has lots of great infrastructure, leftover from the toil of the steel workers, like the Carnegie libraries and museums. Things aren’t perfect, but there are many great projects and people: Healthy Artists, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Artists Image Resource, Cyberpunk Apocalypse, Encyclopedia Destructica, Roboto Project, Free Ride, The Big Idea, Be Well! Pittsburgh, Weird Paul, Rick Sebak, and Manny.
Did you ever struggle with access to affordable health care in the states?
Yes, Yes, Yes! I didn’t have health care for most of my time in Pittsburgh and when I did have it, the deductible was huge. I would volunteer for research studies to get routine check-ups or blood-work. I signed up for a program to get free yearly gynecological check-ups. Luckily I am pretty healthy, and knew to stay away from dangerous activities that could land me in the hospital.
My partner had insurance from his job, but also, a recently discovered medical issue. Leaving his job and the insurance behind became a tough decision. We had to gamble; what would happen if he pursued his dream (reason we are in Scotland) and ended up having to return to the US, only to be denied insurance for a pre-existing condition?
How is the health care system in Scotland by comparison?
I love the NHS and the perspective living here has afforded me. It is embarrassing how I have learned to put off going to the doctor. I couldn’t afford to get treated in the US, and even though I am covered here, it is my bad habit to wait until things are really dire. I talk with people often about the health system in the UK. In Scotland we get our doctor visits, prescriptions, and eye-exams covered. The part that doesn’t work very well is the privatized Dentistry system – yet that is what the US points to when criticizing their socialized medicine. The NHS is under attack over here as well, but is still miles ahead of where the US is currently.
What would you like to see from the US health care system in the future?
First of all – seriously – the bullshit that is surrounding women’s reproductive health needs to end. We are in 2012 and I cannot believe all the debates, about access to birth control, abortions, and sexual education, are happening. I am an ardent feminist, and if you are trying to legislate against access to 21st century medical options for women to be healthy, than you are being anti-women. Also – by being so erotophobic as a culture we are harming the entire population. We are a bunch of horny apes, so deal with it already; abstinence only education is a bad policy.
If people can feel responsible for their bodies and have a good understanding of the natural processes involved, they will be at a greater starting point to becoming responsible adults/members of society. I am happy to hear that people with pre-existing conditions will have access to affordable healthcare and not feel stuck in whatever job they had at the point when their diagnosis was made, if they were lucky enough to have insurance at the time. Overall, I think preventative care and education are the best ways to invest in the future of US health.
What are you working on now and how can we learn more?
I am finally finishing my undergraduate degree in Fine Art. I am working on my final project and getting ready for my degree show at the end of May. It is still coming together but it will be related to psychology and the concept of Ego States. Ecology is a theme in most of my work and that will continue forward.
When I was younger I loved Art and Science, but felt I must choose one; now I am finding a way to negotiate between the two. I am trying to embrace my idiosyncrasies, accept that I am overly busy and a watcher of bad TV, that I love how much information is available from the Internet, but can’t digest most of it. I am living in the 21st century.
My website – www.morgancahn.com – is a good step to seeing what I am up to.