Where no plant will grow, Michelle Morse paints flowers

In addition to working as an illustrator, Michelle Morse, a graduate of Syracuse University, is a mural artist for several South Florida corporations, including the Broward County School Board and Broward Health, Inc. Michelle also has taken several mission trips to create murals and teach art to orphans in Honduras. She believes that murals can inspire, motivate, calm, and unify people.

MJF: How did you become a mural artist?

MM: My mother says I never scribbled. When I was perhaps a year old, she was drawing stick figures to  entertain me and I cried for the pencil. She gave it to me, and to her surprise, I drew a stick man very much like hers.  Later, my grandfather’s second wife, a high school art teacher, mentored me, and I won my first art contest in kindergarten. It was a poster contest to advertise a Johnson & Johnson-sponsored father and child fishing derby.

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When my husband and I moved to South Florida, I did murals in the children’s rooms and in the breakfast area of our new home. My neighbors soon asked for their own murals. In 1976, my career as a muralist was  officially launched after I did a mural in the office complex of our children’s  pediatrician. In 1980, I was hired to paint murals in a school for the first time.

MJF: About how many murals have you done so far?

MM: Thousands! I work very fast. It is not unusual for me to complete a mural a day. The average school cafeteria takes me about two weeks, working with up to four assistants who execute my designs. Right now, I am working on close to 40 murals at Hallandale High School. I did Driftwood Middle School’s media center murals over last weekend. I currently have more projects pending at Driftwood, Northeast High, Ramblewood Middle, and Sanders Park Elementary.

MJF: What are the biggest murals you have painted?

MM: I did a 25×75-foot panorama of the Everglades at Sawgrass Springs Middle, and a 15×100-foot mural at Silver Trail Middle. I painted a huge mural on the side of a corrugated metal barn in the Arizona desert during a heat wave (and got sun poisoning). At Griffin Elementary, the entire interior of the cafeteria, nearly floor-to-ceiling, looks like the ivied stone walls of a castle courtyard, with colorful shields, banners, medieval and fairy-tale characters, and painted “stained glass” windows.

MJF: Do you have a personal favorite Fort Lauderdale mural?

MM: I really like the hurricane murals at Northeast High School. I also love the cafeteria mural of 5 Florida habitats at Nova Eisenhower Elementary School, especially the Coral Reef habitat. At Driftwood Middle, I had a chance to paint river rapids, a rare subject in Florida, where I’ve painted hundreds of beaches. I am pleased with a colorful Noah’s Ark mural I did in the education building of a church. But my favorite of all time is probably the mural on my own kitchen wall, which I created without time or budget constraints.

Ever wondered who’s creating most of the gorgeous murals in our Broward schools? Meet mural artist Michelle Morse. Where no plant will grow, she paints flowers. In windowless rooms, she paints skies, treetops, and sunshine. She can teach a city child what a farm looks like, and a southern child what snow looks like.

MJF: How much does a mural cost?

MM: Anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars (for a small decorative painting over a piece of furniture) to hundreds of thousands, although I’ve never had a mural job that ran over five figures.

MJF: Do you get full creative discretion?

MM: Because of the nature and the budgets of my clients, I rarely get full creative discretion. Usually, but not always, schools want art that illustrates either an academic or athletic program or some aspect of school spirit, character, and motivation. Often I am asked to do lettering and/or logos on walls. The principal usually has an objective for the mural to fulfill, but it is my job to design an interesting and original way to state that objective visually.

MJF: Do you have a favorite subject/thing you like to paint the most?

MM: I like painting life forms such as plants, human figures, and animals best. I have recently developed a new silhouette technique for illustrating student activities and I really enjoy painting detailed silhouettes of people. I am told I’m able to get their personalities across in spite of the lack of interior detail. Any subject that does not require measuring and precision is pleasurable to me; I just don’t think in straight lines! However, I have trained myself to be good at painting graphics anyway.

MJF: What kind of paint do you use on murals?

MM: For my murals, I usually use some form of acrylic paint. It can be artists’ acrylics, craft paint, or acrylic/latex house paint, depending on the project. There are also many decorative glazes, primers, and other products available and I use whatever I need to achieve the desired visual effects. We normally protect our finished murals with a clear sealer containing an ultraviolet inhibitor. While I usually paint directly on walls, I have done murals on canvas, wood, metal, and other materials. I have also created murals using broken-tile mosaic, stained glass (real and imitation), collage, fabric crafts, and hand-painted ceramic tiles.

Michelle Morse believes that murals bring color and beauty into drab urban areas. They inspire, motivate, calm, and unify people. When she sees a blank city wall that is crying for a mural, Michelle can hardly restrain herself from marching up to the property owner and suggesting one; only the artist’s full schedule prevents her from doing so.

One of Michelle's murals

One of Michelle’s murals

Michelle Morse’s work, large and impressive on our Broward schools’ walls, certainly improves her corner of the world and impacts people’s lives, at least for the few moments when they are passing by and noticing her work.

MJF: What is the hardest part about doing a mural?

MM: Mural painting is very hard physical labor. I spend hours carrying heavy paint cans, placing and climbing tall ladders, walking long school corridors, and reaching up over my head to apply paint. The hardest part of the job for me is the physical toll it takes each day. For example, I recently needed 3 months of physical therapy for a painful ankle injury caused by standing improperly on ladders. House painters call it “ladder legs.” On the other hand, I am also exceptionally strong for a woman of my age because of the amazing amount of exercise I get. I don’t let anything stop me. I paint in leg braces or with the flu; I just keep going and get the job done.

It is also difficult to bid jobs accurately. This can be particularly hard because the job may change as the mural progresses. The client becomes excited and inspired when he sees the art taking shape, and he wants me to add all kinds of things that were not in the original budget, but he rarely wants to add proportionate costs. Sometimes, we look at a wall at the time of the estimate and don’t realize how much repair it will need. Many of my jobs wind up underbid and as a result (fortunately for my clients and unfortunately for me), I am known for giving more in my murals than I am paid to paint. Artists are right-brain-oriented and not usually good with numbers, and I really dislike the “money” part of the job.

Another difficult thing about being a muralist is that murals are very time-consuming. I have a very limited domestic and social life.

8 X 15 feet mural at Dolphin Bay Elementary School. Dolphins are nearly life-sized.

8 X 15 feet mural at Dolphin Bay Elementary School. Dolphins are nearly life-sized.


MJF: But it’s all worth it…

MM: A media specialist recently told me she is happier to arrive at work in a colorfully painted media center than she was before its murals were painted. Countless students at Hallandale High have thanked me for making their school more pleasant to attend. And a middle school teacher told me that my murals in her school cafeteria had actually improved the students’ lunchtime behavior! Comments like these tell me that I am really making a difference.

Michelle Morse believes that murals bring color and beauty into drab urban areas. Where no plant will grow, she can paint flowers. In windowless rooms, she can paint skies, treetops, and sunshine. She can teach a city child what a farm looks like, and a southern child what snow looks like. Michelle can inspire, motivate, calm, and unify people. “I consider myself extremely blessed to be able to earn a living doing something that I love,” she says. “I would continue to do even if I didn’t need the income. I am excited to go to work every day.”

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