Formal training in the Old Masters way of painting led Morgan Wilcox into a career as an art conservator. It also whet her appetite to play with food — the subject of her own paintings.
The serious, carefully orchestrated work of a conservator repairing paintings that are often hundreds of years old may seem like an odd pairing with the artist's own lighthearted paintings of such edible items as melting chocolate, steaming spaghetti and meatballs, sizzling bacon and eggs, and gooey Gummy Bears. But when Wilcox explains the evolution of her two vocations, it makes perfect sense.
The young artist takes her work very seriously, but not herself too seriously— a well-honed sense of humor infuses her worldview as well as her artwork.
Born in Idabel, Okla., in 1988, Wilcox came to Old Lyme in 2009 to attend Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, graduating in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in painting and a minor in art history. She now lives in Westbrook.
She is a recipient of the Lyme Academy College's Wordlaw Prize for Excellence, and won Best in Show multiple times in the professional division of the Owa-Chito Art Show in Broken Bow, Okla.
Wilcox's classic background in painting started when she was 16 and studied with Frank Covino, a traditional artist who gives nationwide workshops in the 15th-century Florentine method of painting with oils passed down through his Italian grandfathers.
"He made me very aware of artist materials so that when I went to college I was already interested in solving problems with mediums, knowing about pigments," says Wilcox.
"No one else knew about that stuff I nerded out on," she says. She says she's always enjoyed doing research and solving problems, like her father, who's "an IT guy."
Wilcox credits an art history teacher at Lyme Academy with picking up on her interest in materials and encouraging her to do projects based on artists using the materials of their period.
She describes her education as "a good marriage between painting and the science of artist materials."
"Rembrandt is my true love. His interest in materials actually made his paintings better," she points out. "Looking at that work informs and inspires me — as clichéd as that sounds."
To the rescue
Wilcox plans to apply to graduate schools for a master's degree in painting conservation. Internships are a prerequisite and she's been getting lots of hands-on experience this past year. She's worked on projects for Joseph T. Matteis Jr. conservator of paintings and murals, Clinton Fine Arts Workshop; Sarah Dove, Fine Art Conservation LLC in Mystic; and object conservation for the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport.
"It's like being a painting doctor," she says. "As a kid, I wanted to be a pediatrician, but I didn't want to be around sick kids — it's so sad," she says. "It's the same concept: fix the painting and give it back to its mom and dad. They're so excited to see their well piece."
Conserving a painting is very exacting work. As an example, Wilcox describes her work on a mid-1800s landscape painting from the Norwich Free Academy.
"The sky was all blotchy. We stripped off the old, dirty varnish, lined it onto another canvas, and re-adhered the paint back on its surface, filling losses where the paint is gone, and then put clear varnish over it," she explains.
"It's important to in-paint just the spaces where the paint is missing and not over-paint. That's the difference between being a conservator and a painter," she stresses.
Food, glorious food
Although Wilcox has a large portfolio of traditional, representational paintings and the skills and training to be a portrait or landscape painter, food interests her much more.
"The difference in this work is the subject matter isn't traditional and it doesn't demand what a portrait demands," she says.
She says she loves to "exploit the luscious nature of oil paint."
"Food and paint are so similar in and of themselves. It's a material thing," she continues. "My chocolate paintings have to be oil to make it melting, running like chocolate."
Communicating a social or political message through her work is not something that interests Wilcox.
"Some people have thought my (food) paintings are about obesity, consumerism, but they're not. My thing is, 'Isn't paint awesome?' That could be the title of all of my paintings."
Her foray into food paintings began with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich she did as a freshman at Lyme Academy that she says everyone loved.
She is currently working on chili cheese fries.
"It's so awful (for you) and when you look at it you think, 'God, that's disgusting and delicious!'"
Right now she's also starting a series of popcorn sketches, and a soft-serve ice cream painting.
"I think it's going to be chocolate."
Wilcox points out that she worked from a "live model" with her spaghetti and meatballs, but the ice cream will melt while she's painting, so she'll need to take photos.
Morgan Wilcox's work is on view at La Vita Gustosa, East Haddam; Da Ciro, New York City; and Noah's Restaurant in Stonington through May. She is represented by Six Summit Gallery in Ivoryton and her work will be in the gallery's "Food, Fresco, Farm & Fotograph" juried exhibition, opening July 16.