Michael with an impermanent vessel and one of his large mosaics in the background.

Underwater Artist

An artist who participated in the recent Golden Plains Arts Trail has more than a passing connection to Queenscliff. Michael Morgan was born in Geelong but spent a great deal of his youth on and under the water around Queenscliff and this early influence features prominently in much of his work.

Although he has always been interested in art, Michael had little time for school and left at sixteen to work in his father’s business, Morgan Electrics and Gas. For the next ten years he still found time for nautical adventures around Queenscliff with three mates, Craig Elstone, Andrew Hewat and Mark Evans. They purchased an old boat from a mooring in The Creek and discovered a hidden treasure.

“We saw this boat for sale and bought it from an old fisherman. We thought it would be great but at that stage we didn’t know it was an old Couta boat. The previous owners had put that much stuff on it. They put vinyl on the deck and screwed timber to it and added a cabin. It had a carving of a dragon on its side and we thought it had been a pretty cool boat in its day,” reminisced Michael. “We decided to slip it and discovered the original deck when we removed the cabin. Underneath was a beautiful ninety year old Couta boat. We learned to steam timbers, countersinking, plug making and a lot about boats and we used it to go diving all day.”

Perhaps it was the discovery of the treasure of the Couta boat that sparked his interest in recycling but that interest continues and is utilised in stunning examples of one aspect of his work in his beautiful mosaics although he wasn’t at all pleased with his earliest attempt. It involved the decorating of an impressive garden seat set into a wall. The glue he used proved less than satisfactory and as pieces began falling off he left it uncompleted. “I was a bit frustrated with it so I walked away in disgust,” he said.

Even in its unfinished state the seat is still unique and it provided a learning experience. Problems with glue are a thing of the past and now magnificent mosaics adorn the approach to the studio and two of its large walls. “I wanted to mosaic the walkway and my wife Carolyn insisted on a peacock as part of it, so that was when I started experimenting with colours.”

Michael worked on the beautifully coloured Tree of Life mosaic on the largest wall of his studio over a two year period and he drew inspiration from other cultures. “It all goes back to the interconnectedness of nature and it features in lots of cultures. The Celts, Japanese and others, have Trees of Life in their cultures.”

A smaller entirely white mosaic that he refers to as Energy took four months to complete. The materials used in the mosaics have all been recycled. Carolyn fell ill with cancer five years ago and his son Ben took over the business to allow Michael to spend more time with her.

He had been considering a project for some time and the initial stages involved finding an expert to make a cast of his head for the production of 53 life-sized heads. Fifty of the heads were placed in locations in Corio Bay and Port Phillip Bay. Some were placed at Point Lillias, Welsh’s Jetty and Point Henry Back Lead and others were placed in Swan Bay and at The Wedge.

“It was about the aura that ties you to the environment and I wanted to use myself as a vehicle for that. It was about Raku clay and the Zen Buddhism simplicity with Raku, the superficiality of what people see, only ever looking at the veneer of things not the deeper things, exploring that idea and using nature to interact, it seemed pretty natural to put the heads in the ocean. It involves history, civilisation, spirituality, nature and diving, together with photography and videos,” explained Michael.

With a team of helpers, the placements began on the first anniversary of Carolyn’s death and retrieval began on the second anniversary. Nine were lost. In one location eight out of the ten heads were missing. The ones that were retrieved provided several surprises.

“Some were covered in starfish, sea urchins, sea tulips and coloured sponges. As soon as they were disturbed a lot of the marine life just fell off. In one there was a Blue Ringed Octopus and the things were just crawling with life. Even just bringing them to the surface, they changed. Transporting them in the boat they changed and they are still changing. It’s all about the inevitability of things changing.”

Last year the heads were on display at the Deakin Waterfront Campus in an exhibition dedicated to Carolyn’s memory and titled Impermanent Vessels – Rebirth. It included digital images of the placement and collection. Visitors viewed the exhibition to the haunting sounds of the Islamic call to prayer in the background.

On a visit to Kashmir a few years earlier Michael found being awakened each day to the call to prayer, very powerful. “It wasn’t political, just spiritual.”

Many of Michael’s creations utilize the recycling of materials and like his extensive mosaics, there is another of his creations that not only highlights his recycling skills but also his love of the sea. Almost hidden away in a corner of the property is a ‘Secret Garden’. To enter the garden, visitors pass beneath an old, upturned Couta boat. On entering the space there is an immediate sense of peace and serenity. The garden is insulated from external distractions by a three metre high wall of vertical red gum sleepers that once formed part of the structure of the old Queenscliff pier.

Michael has researched Celtic and other cultures and on the concrete floor of his studio is an impressive acid stained reproduction of ‘The Green Man’ a pagan deity. He was worshipped as the Father of Nature and represented the interconnectedness mankind had with nature, so if you saw the Green Man you were well connected but if you saw The Green Lady you were at death’s door.’

Michael explained one of the pleasures he derives from his work. “It’s nice when people enjoy my work but the biggest pleasure is when they go away inspired. I find that an incredible compliment. They might come back a year later and tell me what they have done.”

To view video footage of Michael’s Impermanent Vessels visit www.impermanentvessels.com