Edith Borax-Morrison’s paintings are labyrinths, dreamscapes, brains, coral reefs, monsters, knit scarves, subway systems, criss-crossed nerve endings, and all and none of the above. Adamantly resistant to interpretation, the perplexing works have no individual subject.
Edith is my grandmother’s mother’s sister. At 92, she draws every day, and will continue as long as her hands allow.
I first got to know Edith’s paintings on the walls of my grandparents’ house in Long Island. I marveled at those lopsided elephants and that strange, dancing ringleader, made only of inky ringlets, long into the night.
I went to visit her one day, to speak to her about how she began to create her art, and how it’s influenced her life. It was a freezing, snowy day. Edith sat underneath her paintings and beside her many canvases to tell me about her life. In conversation, her stories are as labyrinthine as her artwork—symbols and images reoccur constantly, and every line of thought connects to each other, though sometimes in unexpected ways.
EG: Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood? Was art a big part of it?
EBM: My parents didn’t get along. There was a lot of tension, and they competed with one another. They came from different areas of Europe, and they’d say, who talks English better? And we had to pick one parent immediately.
My father was very gruff. All my aunts used to say to their children, uncle Abe—my father—he’s like the boogeyman. He was very rough, and he spent a lot of his hours taking care of himself. If he got a cold, he would get raspberry tea heated on the stove, and he’d put a towel around his head, and he’d put on a flannel nightgown, and he would go to bed and sweat it out. He was fine in the morning.
My mother was a depressed person, which is another story. Neither one of them knew how to show affection. My older sister says her whole youth is blanked out. She doesn’t remember any affection, any interaction. We didn’t exist, the children. There wasn’t much creativity.
But my mother used to have a beautiful singing voice, and she sang all the time. She also liked to draw, and she used to help me when I did projects for school. That’s where the creativity comes in… I thought it was magic.
My mother also knew how to sew and embroider and crochet and knit, and I used to do it with her. I paid a price, because she told me all of the reasons why she hated my father, and that wasn’t good for me at all, but there I was. One day my mother stopped singing, and I asked her why, and she said I can’t sing if I’m not happy. So that was my mother, and my childhood.
I did do artwork in school. When I was in eighth grade, one art teacher told me about a school in Manhattan, an all-girls school called Washington Irving. It was on Irving Place, right in the middle of Manhattan, in the square where the communists used to stand on the soapboxes.
I applied and they accepted me, and I didn’t know what to do, because my sister had studied to be a secretary, and my father thought that’s what girls did.
But my sister Anne went to my father and said, Edith has talent, and she should have a chance at this. That’s how I got the ten cents a day for five days.
And that changed my life. That was a change in my life. I was out of the boondocks. We were right near Greenwich Village, and I had friends from all over.
The school was interesting. They had nude models—imagine a high school having nude models? Talk about an introduction to art. We learned to work in all the mediums, watercolor, oil, pastel, pen and ink. We had a sculpture class, and we had to understand the dynamics of a figure and the gestures and the faults of the body. I loved it from the beginning.
THE ART OF CREATION
I always knew I would become a sorcerer
Making magic was a familial trait
Covering my tracks, motive concealed
I perform my mystic spells in isolation
My lair is a secluded space
Where my hand is a conduit
Unveiling tangled strings and ancient marks
At a critical point I study the labyrinth
And conjure an escape route
Following the twisted pathway to the exit
Then it takes a conscious effort
To claim the work as my own
Edith Borax- Morrison
I learned mechanical drawing, too, with pen and ink, which I used to get a job during World War II, working for the army map service. I’d hand-draw maps using photos taken of Japan—aerial photos before and after whatever our planes were doing.
EG: When did you start creating art professionally?
EBM: I had my son Bobby, who we adopted, and he wasn’t sleeping. Finally, the psychologist saw Bobby me and Leon, and he said, I think I can work with Edith alone. I had postpartum depression, I swear. When I first was going for psychoanalysis, I started to do a lot of still-lives and strange figures. I did some portraits in clay, and I won some prizes.
My biggest advancement in creativity happened on Long Island, after the war. I had a teacher, and he came onto all the women, but not me. They were all really talented, and I thought, what’s wrong with me, he doesn’t come on to me? But then he came to me and offered me a one-person show at this gallery. And he didn’t do that to any of the others so…I knew I had something to offer the world. [Laughs.]
Later, when I moved to Connecticut, I started to do collages, using magazines to make collages of completely unrelated objects. Tigers and couches, frogs and eggs, stuff like that. I would use them to create the illusion of space.
It was a revolutionary time in the art field. Acrylic paint had just come out, and then there was mixed media and minimalism. Andy Warhol made his soup cans and Marilyn Monroes, and there was Roy Lichtenstein and Jackson Pollack. The work said—this is our environment, our environment is the art.
EG: Was there an artist or piece from that time that influenced your work?
EBM: A lot. Leonard Baskin was an intellectual and artist who worked in pen and ink. In my home at Franklin Square, I had a ten foot wood cut by him on my fireplace, of the Angel of Death. Imagine my kids growing up with that. And there were nudes on the walls.
Also, once I went down to visit my sister Anne in Florida. We went to the theatre, and saw these monks, who had set up a bridge table, and they had spread different colored sand all across it. For more than an hour, the monks made a circle with all the colored sand, and made little designs within it, and said prayers while they were doing it. When it was finished, they said they were going to release it into a moving stream of water, and that was for good health and happiness.
The whole idea was fascinating to me, and I began to do my own mandalas after that. When I’d start, I would have no idea what I was gonna do. Whatever came through my mind went through my hand, and that’s what the drawing would be.
My sister never saw it, because she had already died. Anne was like a mother to me. She was only four years older. She taught me about the theatre, she was an avid reader, she looked like a movie star, and I idolized her.
I worked on those circles for quite a while.
EG: Are you influenced by spirituality at all? Where does your inspiration come from?
EBM: This one time, a curator asked me for a biography, and when he said that I just began to think—where did all this come from? These strings, these ribbons, these ropes?
I began to trace it back to my childhood, to my two grandmothers. My grandma was a wig-maker, and she’d weave the wigs on this bridge table. The table had these four posts, like a little boxing ring, with string hung up above it. She lived on the Lower East Side, in a little room behind the store. That was Grandma Schindler. When I went there as a kid, I’d walk in and see these strings of real hair hanging, and my grandmother would be weaving.
My other grandma, my mother’s mother, used to go with the Gypsies in Europe. She learned how to use herbs to cure illnesses, because they didn’t have any other medicines—when my mother had scarlet fever, they gave her an orange. But anyway, they also taught her some rituals, like exorcisms. Growing up, we’d go to my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn, and my grandma would do these rituals using a pot with some yellowish paraffin wax in it, the kind you use to make candles.
EG: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists, or lessons you wish you’d known when you were young about art? Any mantras you’ve kept with you?
EBM: I can only say to keep an open mind. If anything was true for me, if I learned anything during that era of pop art, op art, and minimal art, it’s that there are no boundaries.
And new kinds of art have merit. You don’t have to like all kinds of art, but you’re closing your horizons if you only figure art as a landscape you can see. Just keep experimenting. Art doesn’t always have to be in one medium, or stay in line. You shouldn’t have to explain to anyone why what you do is worthwhile.