“Threads of Influence”: a well-told tale

“Threads of Influence,” an exhibition featuring works by graphic designer Tom Morin ART ’68, is excellent. But at leastat first glance, it seemed nothing more than an ordinary library display case. Obscurely nestled in the corner of the lower floor of the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, its layout is neither extravagant nor unique. Even the selected works of Morin are mundane.

The excellence of the exhibit lies, rather, in the skill of curator Jae Rossman. Whereas most curators select the best pieces of an artist under a particular theme or time period, it appears that Rossman has chosen a selection of mainly mediocre works ranging through Morin’s entire lifetime. Here, the tradeoff is the inclusion of many unimpressive designs for the sake of presenting a retrospective on Morin’s artistic career. To me, at least, the opportunity to clearly trace the artistic development of the essentially nonfamous Morin is vastly more fulfilling than, for example, a disjointed Yale Center for British Art exhibition of famous British art.

The small exhibit starts with two works from Morin’s adolescence — an anatomically incorrect figure drawing that represents more of a ladybug than a man and a messy sketch of a two-dimensional boat magically floating on three-dimensional water. Both works show no signs of prodigy and, frankly, seem to herald an unpromising career in the arts. Fast-forward a few years and in the following glass case, we see Morin’s work while studying at Syracuse University. There is technical improvement in his original letterpress and stationery, but, as expected, there is nothing groundbreaking or impressive. A handwritten letter (in Morin’s much more impressive cursive) to his parents while studying abroad in Denmark is even included. Rossman, the curator, clearly has a focus on presenting an authenticity rather than glamorizing Morin’s unglamorous works. The result is an honest exhibition of mainly Morin’s art homework, and while these assignments often lack content, they are perfect fodder for this retrospective.

The rest of the exhibit, housed in 14 glass cases, traces the rest of Morin’s studies into his career. The bulk of the remaining displays are filled with Morin’s assignments for numerous professors during his time studying graphic design at the Yale School of Art. Elements of the student’s style can be traced back to his professors, whose art is conveniently displayed in panels directly above. His assignments, as expected, are very standard and generally quite average. The viewer should be warned that Morin’s artistic training and development — not his professional designs — are the physical center of the exhibition. By the physical and chronological end of the presentation, which features works from Morin’s own design firm, his technique becomes more elaborate, meticulous and impressive. The retrospective even implies, perhaps intentionally on Rossman’s part, that artists are built, not necessarily born, contrary to the popular belief that artists are either artists or they’re not.

Ultimately, “Threads of Influence” does not succumb to the pressure to make the artist more famous than he is — after all, a Google search of “Tom Morin” first yields results on some other Tom Morin. The exhibit deserves applause not for its fascinating content but for its storytelling ability. If you’re at all interested in how an artist develops, then “Threads of Influence” is a must-see.

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