MFA graduate merges art with social concerns

Ann Morton did not foresee the depth of change coming in her life when she resumed her art education at ASU in 2003.

A successful graphic designer for more than 20 years, she felt the need to change her focus. “I had a desire to change my creative practice away from a more commercially-oriented one to one that would allow me to develop my own voice as an artist,” she says.

She completed her unfinished bachelor’s degree in fine arts, and entered the master’s program with a concentration in fibers at ASU’s School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“At the beginning of my graduate career, I gave into a fascination with seeing lost items such as clothing, toys, pillows – any fabric or fiber-based object – that would lie along roads, highways or just in the environment,” she says. “The more I collected, the more these items became precious. These found objects represent a population of lost people whose real story I would never know.”

Eventually the found objects would become a project she called the Collective Cover. Objects were photographed in place as they were discovered, then re-photographed as a “mug shot” with an assigned number. Daily headlines, pop culture and events were recorded to mark the “birth” of each new item, which then was shrouded and preserved in a white canvas cover with a QR code, which can be scanned with a smartphone to link to the website.

Still, she says, “I felt haunted by the feeling that there was something missing at the heart of the work I was doing.”

A course taught by Gregory Sale, a professor in the School of Art, inspired her to venture into the realm of public art interventions, a practice in which artists perform or engage the public in an attempt to change or influence existing conditions.

"13 Fridays" was the result, in which Morton and 21 other volunteer knitters spent 13 Fridays at Human Service Campus (HSC), the main facility for the homeless in downtown Phoenix. They knitted 142 warm hats for those who needed them in the winter cold.

Morton became inspired by the work of Tillie McKoy, a formerly homeless woman that helped found WOW (Women of Wealth) to empower and educate homeless women, and the volunteers began teaching crochet, sewing and knitting to the homeless. She also began paying Ed, Ina, Marvin and several other homeless people to produce work that would contribute to her master’s thesis project at ASU.

“I've seen the joy when one of these individuals learns a new skill and even better, has been able to use it for a modest income and to be a part of something larger than themselves in the community,” Morton says.

Morton merged her collection of abandoned objects with work produced by the homeless into “UNENTITLED,” her MFA Thesis Exhibition presented at the Harry Wood Gallery on the Tempe campus.

At the center of the exhibit was the “Caution Field,” a crocheted rug of black and yellow caution tape made by the hands of the homeless, over which hung the “False Safety Net,” containing all the unprocessed objects acquired through the Collective Cover Project.

“Pairing these two pieces, I intended to portray the feeling of being homeless – cordoned off from society, but in plain sight,” Morton says.

While pursuing her master’s degree, Morton and her husband have raised their youngest daughter, now a junior in high school. They also have two older daughters and four grandkids. Although she has done some design consulting and worked as a teaching assistant while acquiring her degree, she has had to abandon any ideas of retirement.

“At my age, this has been a huge financial risk," Morton says. "But the depth of the experience leads me to have faith that these years can translate into opportunities for making a living.”

As she graduates with a master’s degree in fine arts (MFA) this May, Morton plans to teach and to continue her work with the homeless.

“The use of these fiber traditions tends to evoke a softness, often memories of childhood. In using these techniques, and the powerful connotations they employ, I enjoy turning them upside down to attract interest to a variety of social concerns. I want to pass on these techniques to the homeless, many of whom have not often experienced a feeling of accomplishment.”

One of her ideas is a nonprofit micro-enterprise for homeless-made products. “The intent is to provide a modest source of income to people who might otherwise be unemployable,” she says.

Morton frequently exhibits her work and has won several awards, including first place in a juried exhibition at National Surface Design Association 2011 Conference. The Graduate College awarded her a 2012 Completion Fellowship.

See more of her work at