Fine Art Fauna

By Andrea Louise Thomas    Photos Yanni

Mornington artist/designer Emma Morgan draws animals with such precision and passion they practically leap off the page. She has always loved animals and from earliest childhood wanted to capture their likeness. Her first model was a stray cat that appeared in her family’s garden. Jess (named after Postman Pat’s cat) was quickly adopted. The tortoiseshell cat inspired many a portrait, but even before Jess, Morgan was habitually drawing. It was almost inevitable that she would become a professional artist.

She received her degree in Visual Arts from Monash University specialising in drawing and design. She then studied interior design at RMIT thinking it might be a more practical option than becoming an artist. Her talent for design and styling came naturally. During this time she started to draw animals in pen and ink developing the style that now exemplifies her work. Coincidentally, a friend suggested she should apply for an exhibition at a Fitzroy gallery. This first solo exhibition was a great success and she then realised art was her calling. She quit her design course and started a career in art.

Her process is precise and meticulous, but her artwork is not just representational; her drawings have soul and story. She is passionate about animal conservation. Her drawings show respect and insight. Her most recent work, a large-scale elephant drawing, was inspired by her time volunteering at an elephant rescue park in Thailand – an experience that was both confronting and rewarding. Embedded in the four-panel drawing are visual stories depicting the complex lives of the elephants and the culture surrounding them.

Morgan is very interested in the way people relate to animals. She is puzzled by peoples’ phobias about some animals and their downright disdain for others, particularly introduced species. Clearly it’s not the fault of the animals that they were imported and yet some people hate them as a result. She can’t grasp that prejudice. She also wonders why, historically, humans have presumed superiority over the animal kingdom as if animals’ lives are less valuable.

Incidentally, the tiger is her favourite animal. She loves its strength and majesty. Because she can’t always view an animal, like a tiger, in real life, she refers to photographs – ideally ones she has taken herself. Once she has a likeness, she can apply her imagination in ways that bring the animal and its story to life. She hopes her art provides insight so viewers can experience the connection she feels. She’s optimistic that it might just change the way people think about animals.

In addition to being an artist, Morgan is also a designer. She works with graphic design, interior design and textiles. Her design background means she constructs her artwork a bit differently and her art prints translate well into homes. While not in her own studio, Morgan works painting and printmaking for a homewares designer. Although she loves both art forms, she says, “I can’t always express what I want to express with paint or through prints, but there is something about the particular type of drawing I do that resonates with me so I keep doing it.”

Her advice to a budding artist would be to study art. It’s not just the subject knowledge that is important, but the professional connections made at university. “The biggest thing in forging an art career is networking. I think the art community is pretty supportive. Everyone wants to help each other,” she says. She also thinks artists’ work is taken more seriously if they have formal training because their knowledge translates to their artwork.

Her heart is clearly connected to animals. She’d like to see more people building relationships and empathy with wildlife. Though some people are against the idea of zoos, she thinks zoos are a good starting point for building that connection. She thinks people would be more likely to care about animals if they could see them up close and consider them as sentient beings.

Morgan works from a studio at Commonfolk Café in Mornington. Her studio has a little window at the front so visitors can have a peek at her pen and ink menagerie. It’s kind of like a trip to the zoo.