Into the Mind of Visionary Artist Greg Mort

Piece of art entitled “Salt and Pepper.” Image Credit: Greg Mort.

“Salt and Pepper.” Image Credit: Greg Mort.

At his home and studio in rural Maryland, Greg Mort pulls his hand away from his painting, “Salt and Pepper” and shows a blue piece of tape on the end of his finger. Mort explains the term “Trompe-l’œil,” a French phase meaning to fool the eye. He goes on to describe himself as a realist and how he likes to use his skills as a painter to “speak to the primordial part of our consciousness that words do not. Imagery is one of the elementary, most basic ways of communication.” Mort reaches back up and the blue piece of tape disappears into the painting with the same spontaneity as it appeared.

Mort is a renowned artist whose work often features apples, conch shells, ribbons and lace juxtaposed with images of the universe amidst natural settings seen on Earth. His works are featured in 24 museum collections ranging from the Vatican Observatory in Rome, Italy, to the Boston City Fine Arts Collection in Massachusetts. Using watercolors, oils, and graphite for his paintings, Mort’s art conveys the beauty of nature and the wonders of the universe.

As an ‘amateur astronomer,’ Mort has been a dedicated observer of the sky since he was 13, when a friend invited him to peer through a telescope. His accolades in astronomy have since grown to include serving as an executive board member of the Lowell Observatory and on the Board of Visitors of the McDonald Observatory University of Texas at Austin. In 1983, he was recruited by NASA for its “American Artist and the Space Shuttle” program. NASA commissioned him to produce a body of 10 works. Carl Sagan’s 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot” featured Mort’s “Stewardship” and “Fabric of Space” paintings, which compel the viewer to ponder Earth’s place in the cosmos.

A picture of Greg Mort in his studio next to one of his telescopes. Image Credit: Wanda Archy.

Greg Mort in his studio next to one of his telescopes. Image Credit: Wanda Archy.

Mort is fascinated by science and nature and enjoys a vivid interest in history. He likes to “put a twist” in his paintings to inspire new perspectives.

“I often inject a sense of humor and surprise into my paintings, for example placing Saturn’s rings in orbit around an apple,” he said, referring to his painting “Apple Rings.”

Mort attributes the use of apples in many of his paintings to one of his heroes, Isaac Newton, whose revelations about motion and gravity are said to have been inspired by a falling apple. The subtle complexity with which Mort views the world is often demonstrated by the use of metaphor in his paintings. In “The Planet Maker,” a newly created planet is set on the doorstep of the gods.

Mathematical symbolism also appears in Mort’s work, such as in the form of spirals that are ever present in nature. Mort describes how he uses the Fibonacci ratio (1:1.618) when creating spirals in his paintings. With the ratio, Mort is able to form a series of ever-decreasing squares and golden-ratio rectangles that create the classic spiral.

Connections and symmetries across scales also are underlying themes. His painting “Oceans” has a foam boundary that Mort refers to as “quantum fluff,” bubbles between the heavenly sky and a coastline strewn with seashells that are hiding the Earth and the moon — their sizes and separation are drawn to scale. “One of the things that makes humans special is that we can recognize these harmonies. The more we examine nature, the more harmony we see,” Mort said, leaning down to play with his dogs Orbit and Laika.

In discussing the power of imagery to create awareness, Mort said that the “brief moment in time an image represents is contrasted by its tremendous impact and enduring legacy.” He cites the emotional effect that was experienced by people worldwide upon viewing the photo “Earthrise” taken by Apollo 8 astronauts showing the fragile blue Earth rising over the desolate lunar landscape. “The photo is only a fraction of a second, and yet it represents one of the most important historical moments in human history,“ Mort said.

A painting called “Stewardship.” Image Credit: Greg Mort

A painting called “Stewardship.” Image Credit: Greg Mort

A series of Mort’s paintings, called “The Stewardship Collection,” depict the fragility of Earth and communicate a humanitarian sense of responsibility for its care. In Stewardship I, the Earth is portrayed as an apple with a blank price tag attached to the stem, leaving the viewer to wonder about the value of Earth.

Subsequent paintings in the series also convey the sense of humanity’s responsibility for taking care of our home planet. The series is inspiration for The Art of Stewardship Project, a private not-for-profit foundation established by the Mort Family “to encourage other artists to use their talents to heighten environmental awareness.” The project organizes and facilitates forums and exhibitions to generate interaction and dialogue and offers resources and opportunities to artists encouraging them to develop their role as stewards of Earth. Mort believes that art can be part of the informative culture promoting sustainability and preserving Earth. “The notion of stewardship should be second nature,” he said.

Mort believes that a global cooperative effort to create environmental awareness is necessary to achieve sustainability. He hopes that his work inspires a mindfulness of how the Earth is susceptible to human activities that harm the environment, including pollution, climate change, and ecosystem degradation.

A painting called “Stewardship.” Image Credit: Greg Mort

“River of Night.” Image Credit: Greg Mort.

When asked about challenges the world faces from environmental change, Mort described his passion for painting at his studio in Maryland and being able to view the night sky, unobstructed by city light and pollution.

“Preservation of the night sky from light pollution is one of the many challenges that the world will have to overcome, Mort said. His inspiration for “River of Night,” which depicts the Milky Way as a ribbon of stars, was to show and share the beauty of the universe without light pollution. “We need to preserve the night as well as the air, as well as the water. There is a connectedness with all things. Think of children who have grown up never seeing the Milky Way and would not even understand what it is or what it looks like. Our culture developed under a starry dome, for millions of years. The stars were not blotted out by light pollution, and so the heavens were part of our culture.”

Mort also cites infrastructure as a challenge. “We have created a system that is harmful, and it is time to recognize that each of us has a responsibility to be part of a solution…

“So we need to change and create a new design for our destiny. Even though it was technology that got us into this situation, it will be technology that will save us.”

Encouragingly, Mort sees the way forward, “I think it can be done. The first step is to become aware.”

Acknowledgement: Paul Racette and Wanda Archy would like to thank Greg Mort and his wife Nadine for hosting them in their home in Ashton, Maryland, and for spending a morning to visit in June 2012.