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A Place for Us: The Art of Morag Myerscough

By Charles Purdy

British artist and designer Morag Myerscough has become known for reimagining public spaces, using bold shapes and intensely bright colors on a larger-than-life scale. She describes her work as “place-making”—working with architects and artists in a wide range of disciplines (from graphic design to poetry) to transform how we see our environment.

Myerscough’s creations have brightened up scores of locations. Her large installation projects have been commissioned around the world—by a Swedish hospital, for a tech company’s San Francisco headquarters, and in Mexico City’s central square, just to name a few. Some of her works are temporary, and some represent permanent changes to a landscape.

Myerscough’s Movement Café (2012) was a temporary café and performance space commissioned by the Cathedral Group in the Greenwich area of London, as part of a plan to develop the area. The design was inspired by the poet Lemn Sissay, and Myerscough developed it with her frequent collaborator Luke Morgan; the construction employed recycled shipping containers and brightly painted wood walls.

“I like working on projects that don’t necessarily have an end,” Myerscough says. “Often, when we begin, we don’t know what the end product is, as such, but we know that we want to bring people together. My whole approach to work is about…making people think about how they live and then hopefully bringing them together in some way.”

To that end, Myerscough works not only with her clients and other artists but also with the people who will live in or use her spaces—in some respects, she says, her work is often about creating a feeling of belonging: “It’s about people feeling that it’s there for them,” she says, “and it’s for them to look after and add to as well. So it can evolve, which is an exciting process…. And you can push them; it’s not about accepting a lowest common denominator. It’s about getting people to understand and come together around the best approach.”

Mirar—Ways of Seeing (2015; also pictured in article header) was a monumental camera obscura that Myerscough and Luke Morgan designed as part of a festival in Mexico City. Located in the city’s central square, the colorful structure allowed people to view the square in new ways. “It was a conceptual piece,” says Myerscough, “intended to make people think about how they see a familiar space.”    

ENGAGING WITH THE WORLD

Myerscough is a lively presence on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter. (Follow her—she’s sure to brighten up your feeds!) One interesting recent project took shape—over the course of two years—on her Twitter feed: Between 2012 and 2014, Myerscough tweeted out random colors almost daily, colors that corresponded to emotions she was feeling. After months of mystery, she announced that these emotion-based colors would be combined in a patterned mural destined for a long corridor in Linköping University Hospital in Linköping, Sweden.

“I thought it rather represented how you feel when you go to hospital—your emotions can be good one minute, bad the next,” she says. “I just felt this was really right for this building. I presented it to them, and they totally got it and really wanted me to do it. Originally, I did it as stripes, but I didn’t feel that was quite right.”

Myerscough recently designed a mural for a hospital in Sweden, basing color choices on moods she felt over the course of many months. “When you walk along the corridor, you can either understand it—because there’ll be something explaining it—or not,” she says. “And you don’t need to understand it. It can just be something that makes you think about something differently or even feel a bit better.” 

She counts another hospital project among her favorites and says it’s a good representation of how she frequently works: In 2012, she collaborated with the poet Lemn Sissay on a project meant for the Children’s Hospital at Bart’s Health at the Royal London Hospital. First, Sissay led poetry workshops with young patients of the hospital, helping them craft poems. Then Myerscough led a series of design workshops with the children. Finally, she transformed their poems and designs into wall coverings and furniture for the five hospital dining areas.

A FAMILY OF ARTISTS

In 2015, Myerscough worked on an architectural project, the Burntwood School, that won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize. She feels that architects are coming to better understand the need for collaboration with artists like her in their work. “Over time, we’ve managed to push people more and more,” she says. “Among architects, I’m becoming pretty well known, particularly within the UK.”

Myerscough is also a sought-after speaker these days. And when she gives a talk, she often talks about her family—who fostered her artistic spirit. “My great-grandfather on my father’s side was a clown in a circus. He married a German high diver, and then my grandfather—my father’s father—was brought up in the circus and became a band musician; he played on the Queen Mary for years and years,” she says.

There is often a childlike exuberance in Myerscough’s work (which can frequently been found in children’s environments, such as schools). This dining area, a collaboration between Myerscough, the poet Lemn Sissay, and young hospital patients, is part of a children’s hospital in London; one of many such projects conducted through the organization Vital Arts. “When you work in children’s hospitals, children are often there for long periods of time,” says Myerscough. “So you have to be aware that they’re going to see it quite a lot.” (Photos by Luke Hayes.)

Her father became a musician as well—one of London’s primary session musicians in the 1960s and 1970s—and her mother was a textile artist. Myerscough describes her childhood home as a completely bohemian and very artistic environment: “When my dad wasn’t practicing, he was making model boats. I’m not entirely sure why! And my mum was drawing; we were making all the time.”

As young people often do, Myerscough initially wanted to forge her own path when she was young. She considered breaking from her family’s artistic lineage and going into an academic field—specifically, geology. However, in the end, she decided to go to art school.

“My parents didn’t make my decision—I totally made my decision, which I think is a good thing,” she says.

She studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins, a London art school, and then earned an MA at the Royal College of Art. At first she worked in graphic design and on wayfinding projects; one of her first large-scale projects involved turning an old train station in Deptford (an area of London) into a café, in 2008.

Collaborating with Luke Morgan, Myerscough transformed this commuter train car into a one-of-a-kind café in the London neighborhood of Deptford—one of her early place-making projects.

IMPROVING ENVIRONMENTS

Myerscough recently facilitated an exciting new public-art project: creating artwork for the railway bridges on Seven Sisters Road in the London neighborhood of Finsbury Park. It’s called Together, and it started with community workshops.

“It’s not just random drawings,” says Myerscough. “I did pattern workshops with the community, and then I took all those patterns and redrew them and made them into another pattern. Then I did a big exhibition with all their work and showed how that work was developed into the piece, so they can really see that they were part of its making and feel that it belongs to them, because they live there and they need to care for it—to feel that it’s theirs and that it’s improved their environment.” 

Myerscogh has come to this way of working—incorporating communities—over time. She remembers, “I did one project in a school in the area of London I come from, Holloway, maybe about seven years ago now, where a group of young people sort of employed me—they were my client. They had been somewhere where everything had brightly colored walls, so they thought they wanted everything brightly colored. I got them to come to my studio and work with me—so it was a two-way thing…. And then they wrote this amazing poem that I incorporated into the design. After that, in every school, in everything I did, there would be one piece that I would try with the people so that they were part of it.”

From left to right: a world map at Dagenham Park School, made of individually painted blocks of wood; Ooh La La, a seating installation in a public square Lisbon, Portugal; and Platform—words by Holloway school students and design by Myerscough.

These images were taken from Myerscough’s Instagram feed in September 2016. As we were preparing this article, she and Luke Morgan were preparing a new installation in the Annenviertel area of Graz, Austria (the installation opens on September 23). The work addresses human migration and the diversity of the area.

Another way Myerscough’s work has changed? “I think it’s more personal now,” she says. “And I think I have more of a voice. It’s taken quite a long time to build, to have a voice—although I’ve been around a while and people think I have a voice, but, you know, it’s how you feel yourself.”

She continues, “Since 2005 or 2006, the stuff I’ve been doing outside has almost taken over other types of work I was doing, really. These days, I primarily paint and build installations. I like doing work that is put in unexpected places and changes people’s perceptions.”