Persona: Quinton Morris on Art, Education and Breaking Through

Posted on October 09, 2015, 1:17 pm
18 mins

It’s no secret that arts education is suffering in the states. Changes in curriculum and budget cuts have all but removed the presence of art education from public schools, including music programs. Those who do have access and who manage to pursue their musical education in a classical instrument will probably have very different career paths than classical musicians of past generations, as patronage is changing and traditional models of performance are being challenged—or at least supplemented—with more accessible, casual formats.

In the arts community, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t bemoan the cuts to education, but reactions are more diverse regarding how artists and organizations are adapting to new markets and political environments. On the more conservative side, it’s a sign of the death of the canon. On the other side, it’s an opportunity to “break through” older modes that have never really served the more global arts community, and were therefore always inherently flawed.

Dr. Quinton Morris is decidedly of the latter group. Morris has been teaching and performing for many years. At Seattle University he is an Associate Professor and Director of Chamber & Instrumental Music, while he is also continuing his career as a solo violinist. A little over a year ago, he added entrepreneurship to the mix in starting a consultancy side for artists.

“As a professor, I see countless artists come in—and not just at the university itself, but everywhere I travel—so many students and young artists who have just no idea what to do after college, who don’t know how to use what they have learned in school and profit from it. Through the consulting business, I am working with young artists who have graduated. We develop their entrepreneurial skills, which they need if they want to build careers for themselves.”

“I saw so many people struggling, including friends,” Morris says of the decision to start The Quinton Morris Project. “This is a worldwide issue. Artists go to school and they learn their discipline, which is great, but they aren’t learning the business side.”

“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and now I’m just grateful that I can turn around and make part of my practice about helping other working artists.”

In speaking to him, Morris is candid, unabashed and enthusiastic about the different facets of his career. He is not the stereotypical academic and he has no qualms about honing one’s entrepreneurial side to better support and distribute one’s artistic endeavors, especially if it is serving the community in some way. The arts are sometimes divided into camps—a more crassly commercial, egoic side and a more superegoic, institutional, nonprofit side. Both sides limit one’s options tremendously, but artists feel compelled to operate according to one mode or the other, especially if they are just emerging from school.

Meanwhile, the cutting of arts education from schools has meant teaching positions are dropping relative to the population, and this has been a default for many musicians who want to share their talents and passion with the next generation. Morris takes on a grim tone as he discusses the standardization of curriculum at the expense of humanities and the more interdisciplinary environments they foster, but he is always quick to give a positive spin. He thinks its the responsibility of the artists to create a solution where there is a need, and he has faith that the artistic community is up to the task.

“The more we as artists and creative thinkers can come up with projects that benefit communities hit hard by program cuts—I think things can start realign and change for the better. My hope is that this is just a phase and we as a nation will move away from standardization and put the arts back in schools.”

Photo by Thomas Grant, courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Thomas Grant, courtesy of the artist.

From education to the market for art, there are many problems facing artists, but Morris thinks if artists are properly empowered and given the right tools they will find a way to thrive. He likes the the term “breakthrough” and uses it frequently regarding his upcoming world tour. It is also the title of a short film that he created in the last year and that will be screened at stops along his tour.

“The tour is not about my needs, but about how I can serve the community best,” Morris says, noting how each stop is different in nature, according to the venue. For example, he will give a lecture, performance and screening to the traditional music crowd at the Louvre in January, and the following day he will give a seminar on entrepreneurship to MBA students at the University of Paris. In Southeast Asia, he will be going to more remote places to help activate small music schools that have been largely ignored or forgotten for years, and in Australia he will lead a three-day workshop for junior high teachers on how to keep students engaged.

“My focus in that will be boys,” he notes. “Middle school is typically where boys want to drop out of playing an instrument, especially violin, because violin is just not cool at that age. I can speak from my own experience. At that age, I wanted to drop out. I was teased.”

The subject of Morris’ film, Breakthrough, may help to dispel that association. It is an homage to the life and legacy of the man born Joseph Bologne, but better known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a renowned musician, composer and conductor at the end of the 18th century. Morris did his dissertation of Saint-Georges and the film is based on that research, but updated as if Saint-George were alive and at the peak of his career in the 21st century.

This Christmas marks Saint-Georges’ 270th birthday, and Morris is obviously thrilled to be celebrating it with his own work. “He was born a slave, but even in the height of slavery—and this is what is so amazing about this man—he was able to become Europe’s most renowned athlete and, in France, a concert violinist. There was no one who was as talented and virtuosic a player as he. We know this because, if you look at the compositions written at the time, the only composer who had any sort of physical facility that was enormously difficult was Saint-Georges. Mozart…obviously his music is great and well-respected, but his music is not as challenging as Saint-Georges.”

Saint-Georges reveled in his fame and Breakthrough reflects this with imagery that is glamorous and aspirational. It was shot over nine days around France, including the Louvre, Versailles and Dijon. The styling was inspired by the clean, mid-century modern looks of Sinatra and Nat King Cole, but the staging and  more akin to contemporary pop music. Those coming from the more institutional side of art may cringe at this, but for Morris it important to convey audiences the prestige of Saint-Georges, which is at once a statement in favor of the arts and also a direct challenge to racist histories and dogma.

“The reason why I [modernized the setting], this snapshot of who he is and was at the time, is this: We as black people have been doing and excelling at all things throughout time, even during slavery. The stereotypes that, especially in this country, portray black men as thugs, as men who are incompetent, could not be further from the truth. Most people today don’t even know who Chevalier de Saint-Georges was—including the French. So I wanted to tell his story in a twentieth century setting so that people might understand the impact that this man had on not only classical music, but also society during that time,” Morris adds after a pause, “especially with everything happening around race in this country.”

The broader lessons here are not confined to race. In fact, Morris says that the inspiration for the world tour was a lifelong interest in international relations, cultural exchange and just the basic joy of meeting people and artists from other parts of the world. “I’ve never taken a trip around the world that has allowed me to stay and extended amount of time in any one place and really get to know the people. So on this tour, I will be working with people of all different ethnicities and cultures and backgrounds, including academic backgrounds.”

The title of the tour—the Create Your World Tour—translates easily and is readily understood in its sentiment. It at first seems a bit axiomatic, but Morris notes one really can’t take for granted that people are conscious of the of the reasons for big decisions that they make.

“When you ask someone who has a startup ‘What the inspiration is behind the project?’ a lot of people don’t have an answer, believe it or not. My job is to help them answer these questions.”

He aims to do this by helping people assess their motivations, the larger context for actions that they may only understand intuitively. The assumption here is that these decisions come from an authentic place, that there is a cogent explanation for why people choose certain projects even if the reasons aren’t evident to them at the time. There is an optimism to this, but Morris’ extends the notion to claim that the artist or entrepreneur is most effective in helping and reaching others when they can point with clear confidence to the root of their passion.

Quinton Morris with students, courtesy of the artist.

Quinton Morris with students, courtesy of the artist.

That’s what makes some of the more farflung stops on his tour the most exciting for Morris. “A lot of these places have almost no one helping them. I want to visit these places where resources are limited and talk to these people. The directors need to be inspired before the kids can be helped.”

Morris’ film itself is an example of working around limitations to come up with something usable if one can apply an entrepreneurial, interdisciplinary approach and is willing to work even harder with the resources one has. It began when he was recording a studio album:

“I wasn’t able to finish the album with the time I had allotted, so I asked myself, ‘What can I do with the music that I have recorded?’ Because I’m such a visual learner, I thought, ‘This could be the soundtrack for a film, and I could take it on tour with me.'”

Capital is still necessary, hence the business side of Morris’ work, but he has also hustled to fund-raise and write grants to support these trips to teach in more remote communities. Most of it has come from individual donors around the world, which speaks to both Morris’ tenacious reach and a pervasive desire to see the arts thrive far and wide.

Morris notes that there aren’t many classical artists—or artists in general—doing this. World tours in general just aren’t much done, and the push-back he received from agents was one of the main catalysts that drove the foundation of his own project. More than being a world-touring musician, though, the goal is to become an “advocate for interdisciplinary art and entrepreneurship.”

“In each place that I go, I’m performing, I’m teaching master classes, I’m showing the film, and I’m also doing community outreach. I’ll be visiting hospitals. I’m a cancer survivor myself. I had stage-4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1996, so next year is the twentieth anniversary of being in remission. This whole tour is a way of me connecting with a deeper, broader audience. I’m hoping that the people I reach will be more inspired to breakthrough to their respective communities, to engage in deeper learning. It’s the same premise. I’m just doing it on a global scale.”

It all boils down to a belief that humans are fundamental creative beings, that no two paths are alike we get to create our own world, and there is joy in serving others.

“There is so much out there worth doing. We don’t have to rehash or recycle content if we allow ourselves the opportunity to listen to, embrace and develop our creative side.”

It’s a very simple notion, one that we often claim for our own society even as we create an educational system that does not foster it, praise lifestyles based on consumption rather than edification, and split ourselves into demographics. So many of us would say that we agree with Morris, but so few are actually modeling that. If our system shifted a little and our values more honestly reflected this push for individual expression paired with service to one’s community, what a breakthrough it might be, indeed.

Celebrate Dr. Quinton Morris coming world tour at the inaugural gala this coming Thursday, October 15 at Fred Wildlife Refuge, including the local film premiere of Breakthrough. Get more details about the tour and the party on quintonmorris.org.

 

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.