Spotlight: Morpho Gallery, A Tale of a Gallery and a Garden

This is a part of our series “Random Gallery Spotlight”.

Debbie Labbedz

Originally a chef and longtime art collector, David Leigh left his full-time culinary career to pursue more creative outlets. The result is a part commercial, part studio, and part garden space that epitomizes Morpho’s eclectic ideology. In June 2004, Leigh opened Morpho Gallery in a storefront space tucked away in Chicago’s Bowmanville neighborhood. Never heard of Bowmanville? Once just a quiet residential pocket, it now boasts a close-knit community of seven art businesses pioneered by Leigh, Morpho Gallery’s owner/director.

Leigh also dabbles in antique dealing and gourmet catering, owning and operating Blue Star Antique Pavilion in Saugatuck, Michigan and Lakeshore Catering in Chicago. When asked how he balances all three flourishing ventures, Leigh jokingly replies, “I just got an iPhone, so that helps.” Dedicated to exhibiting emerging artists and encouraging a collaborative environment, Morpho is now entering their seventh year.

Upon entering the gallery, Morpho’s multifarious spirit immediately pops. Every inch of the space is brimming with art and classic rock blasts in the background. Leigh does not have a specific exhibition philosophy and shows various media—etchings, small sculptures, framed architectural drawings, paintings, mobiles, and jewelry. The artwork even bubbles onto the sidewalk in front of the gallery. Leigh turned a small, barren urban space into a community art garden which was been a defining feature of Morpho Gallery since its conception. The garden functions as a raw green space filled with oddities such as stuffed animals and frame scraps anonymously placed by passersby—an ever-evolving testament to Leigh’s aesthetic.

Leigh has always been inspired by both antique and contemporary processes of printmaking; he was set in motion by Anchor Graphics, a not-for-profit fine art press, that is now an integral program in the Art + Design Department at Columbia College, Chicago. Leigh’s particular fascination with etching and lithography permeates through his private art collection and the artists he exhibits at Morpho Gallery. Leigh’s collection includes Henri Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs, J.J. Granville illustrations, Le Rire magazine covers, and even botanical prints.

Exhibited artists at Morpho include Steven Hazard, David Alan Sisk, and Elizabeth Ockwell, all artists that share Morpho’s philosophy of form. Hazard’s painstakingly detailed etchings exemplify fantastical allegories of imagination and industry. A top-selling artist at Morpho, David Sisk’s paintings juxtapose amorphous forms with vibrant pigments. Elizabeth Ockwell, who also teaches figure drawing and anatomy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, primarily creates intricate watercolor and etched images of the built environment. She often gravitates to the ornate cathedrals and town squares of Paris, Venice, and Rome.

Morpho Gallery hosts at least one exhibition or event per month, however, they consistently remain open to new ideas and artists, “There are specific artists that I target, but it’s not really competitive. We’re not about just getting art on the walls–we’re more of a social networking space as well. We try to give everyone a chance,” says Leigh.

In addition to exhibiting mid-career artists, Morpho Gallery also provides a rich program of special events, and is host to the annual “Emerging Artist’s Month” which takes place in Chicago each winter, widely consisting of local juried group shows. Leigh has hosted an eclectic range of events at Morpho, including wine tastings, glass blowing demonstrations, fashion shows, and bluegrass performances. Heavily influenced by Leigh’s career as a chef, Morpho has been hosting periodic wine tasting and appetizer events at the gallery for approximately four years.

Currently, Leigh seeks to further develop the musical side of the gallery. September is host to its music “salon” performances, and has included Taiwanese pianist San-Nan Rosana Chen and Frank Babbitt, a member of the Lyric Opera orchestra, “The music program is really something we’re looking forward to. That’s the whole premise of Morpho–we just evolve as we go. It’s kind of a free-flowing program,” says Leigh.

As we talk more about the space, Morpho’s collaborative credo keeps climbing; by offering artists use of the gallery as a “cooperative space” artists have been able to use the gallery as a temporary studio. And they are always open to media- previously, an independent film company used the gallery for an entire day to film a scene. In a burgeoning neighborhood wedged between Lincoln Square and Andersonville—primarily the junction of Damen and Foster Ave- it’s nice to have a space so welcoming.

Morpho is as lush as the garden itself. Art covers walls like moss, music drips from every crevice, unruly greenery is welcomed in eclectic conversation—Morpho Gallery’s “anything goes” disposition ensures it will be tantalizing Bowmanville residents and beyond for years to come.

Morpho Gallery is located at 5216 N. Damen Avenue, just one block north of Foster Avenue.

Gallery Hours: Thursday, Friday 1-6pm and Saturday 12-6pm. For more information, please visit http://www.morphogallery.com/