Photographer Feature: Tom M Johnson

We are pleased to share this Pittsburg Story by Photographer Tom M Johnson. Thank you Tom!

Pittsburgh Stories_Alexi Morrissey

One the perks of being a portrait photographer is I get to meet a spectrum of personalities.  On somewhat of an extreme of this spectrum sits Alexi Morrissey. I met Alexi while setting up a shoot and he was delivering Millies Homemade Ice Cream to their parlor in Shadyside; one of the many odd jobs Alexi has done over the years to support his life and art.  Alexi is a large man with an equally large voice with intense light blue eyes to match, and to coin a phrase, he has a personality larger than life, or as he says “there is a performative aspect to his personality.” When I feel it appropriate I’ll toss out an irreverent comment to a complete stranger.  Most don’t get it and regard me suspiciously, not Alexi.  He took my serve and swatted it right back. So hard in fact, it was game, set, and match on just one volley.  In Pittsburgh it’s easy, sometimes too easy, to run into people you know.  It turns out that, as do I, Alexi likes to visit Commonplace Coffee on the north side, and from there, a friendship developed.

Graduate school in sculpture at Carnegie Mellon University is what brought Alexi to Pittsburgh 24 years ago.  However, in the metaphorical sense, Alexi believes he was born here. He arrived with no identity and for that matter in the early nineties neither did Pittsburgh.  He told me that “the smoked city, the steel city, the mill town was gone.” Pittsburgh was essentially dormant.  And according to Alexi, and I intend to agree, that Pittsburgh remains a city without a contemporary identity.  It’s in flux.  And because Pittsburgh was and remains in flux, Alexi finds the city a perfect place to thrive.  He says, “Pittsburgh made me who I am by virtue of not knowing what it is.”  

I admire Alexi for embracing the life of a bohemian artist, a life that’s cool when you’re 23, but not so cool when you’re 47 with two kids. Currently Alexi is working on a project titled “Have You Seen Me?”   It is a collection of porcelain vases shaped in milk bottle form that transport the iconic 1980s era “kid on the milk carton” missing person campaign back in time to specific African societies during the Atlantic Slave Trade.  The alternate reality memorializes real people kidnapped and captured into slavery.  As well, Alexi, a guitar player, leads a band, Old Money, Jesus: that plays Gothpel (not Gospel) music.  He proudly admits that he does not have an expertise in any one art form, nor does he have a specific craft or a specialty.  What’s paramount to Alexi is to use whatever medium to express “the idea,” and with the idea use whatever material and support of colleagues to manifest the idea.  When he was an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Institute of Sculpture his teacher and mentor told his students, “There is the jack of all the trades and master of none, but we are, and how Alexi Morrissey prefers to define himself, “The Master of Jack!”

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