‘Of the Earth’ and womanhood
UND Costume Designer Camilla Morrison tells ‘Stories of Women in North Dakota’ in latest project
On a backdrop dominated by mature trees, the costume stands out and blends in at the same time. The long gray-green strands of the gown flow down and stretch in all directions on the ground. One sleeve is heavy with flowing pieces. The other is sheer, with a whirling pattern of bright red thread, which extends all the way to the cheek and temple of the woman wearing the costume.
The unconventional dress – a piece of art, really – is called “Love and Expectations,” representing the nuanced meaning of motherhood. “This piece looks like a tree,” said Camilla Morrison, Theatre Arts costume designer and teaching assistant professor at UND. “It is an unbalanced tree with one really heavy side with roots, and then another side is lighter with red thread sewn throughout to represent the blood and the biology that goes into having children. But also, it shows that there are many ways to have children in your family.”
Morrison designed “Love and Expectations” as a part of a five-costume project titled “Of the Earth: Stories of Women in North Dakota.” The project was made possible through a fellowship Morrison received from the North Dakota Council on the Arts in 2020. In a time when artists saw their projects canceled due to COVID-19, the Council pressed forward with awarding fellowships – an institutional resolve Morrison is grateful for.
“Of the Earth” showcases the stories and experiences of generations of North Dakota women. Each of the five costumes focuses on a particular aspect of womanhood, from femininity to motherhood to aging to societal expectations.
“This project is a series of avant-garde costumes that I created based on interviews with women who are from North Dakota,” said Morrison.
When awarded the fellowship in the spring of 2020, Morrison hoped to conduct the interviews in person. However, due to COVID-19, she shifted to online interviews. Although conversations over Zoom made it harder to foster personal connections with the women she spoke with, the format enabled her to connect with more women than she anticipated. She even talked to North Dakotans who no longer live in the state.
Morrison asked everyone the same set of questions. The responses all differed.
“Everybody gave me very different answers based on their age and their experience and what region of North Dakota they lived in,” she said. “I knew when I moved here that this is a really community-focused environment, and there are a lot of really powerful women, who are incredible leaders for their community. Learning more about people’s individual values and their own growth was really amazing.”
From interviews to poems to costumes
Morrison translated the interviews into short poems that zoomed in on specific themes. In this project, the poems served the role of play scripts, which, in theatre, help costume designers make clothing choices.
“In theatre, we usually have a script, and we can read the script and analyze the script and do research,” Morrison said. “But for this, my script was poetry, a combination of how people answered the questions and their general feelings towards the ideas and things that we talked about.”
From the poems, the costumes emerged.
For the physical creation of the costumes, Morrison also leaned onto unique techniques. For “This Must Be,” a piece that explores women’s attitudes toward aging, she utilized a silk painting technique that relies on a resist to draw designs onto stretched fabric. Challenging to use, resists are pasty substances that prevent dyes from reaching the silk.
“It kind of acts like the lines of a coloring book where the color stays inside each section,” Morrison said.
Using the resist, Morrison painted 5 yards of silk – a process that took 20 hours. “It was a time-consuming process, but it was a really important process to me because I don’t usually get to do it in theatre,” she said.
Another complex technique Morrison used was the application of heat-moldable plastic – known as worbla – to create body armor for the piece titled “Grounding Seeds.” Worbla is a relatively new type of thermoplastic.
“I haven’t had the chance to make a lot of things out of worbla,” Morrison said. “I wanted to push myself to learn different techniques and try new things in this process.”
On the road
Morrison has already shown the costumes in the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck, where her creations were a part of the Center’s Sensation Sundays programing. Audiences in Fargo and Grand Forks have also had the opportunity to see “Of the Earth” pieces in late June.
“Some people respond very strongly to one of the pieces,” Morrison said. “There are some pieces, especially knowing more of the story behind them, that multiple people feel connected to. And, it’s been really interesting to hear all kinds of people, not just women, share their connection to and interpretation of each of the pieces.”
The next stop for Morrison’s project is East Grand Forks’ Heritage Days festival on Aug. 14 – 15. In the fall, “Of the Earth” will be in Minot.