Saugerties resident Meredith Morabito seems always to have been destined to become a professional artist, but she got there via a circuitous route. “Throughout my life, I’ve been exploding with creativity,” says the White Plains native. “At first it was photography. In high school, I was always in the darkroom.”
But she didn’t go to art school. An 11-year sojourn in Philadelphia led to her first career, working for a succession of not-for-profit organizations, before returning to Westchester, where she reconnected with an old friend from high school – and ended up marrying him. In search of a more rural lifestyle, with room to spread out and keep rescue animals, the young couple “stumbled into Woodstock around 2013,” Morabito recounts. They bought a house, fixed it up, bought another, eventually landed on a large property in Saugerties that they call Mostly Magic Farm.
Her first upstate gig, with crafts fairs organizer ArtRider, brought her into closer contact with the arts community. By 2015 she had taken a job as residency director for the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, gotten her first artwork into the Kleinert’s annual 5 x 7 show and was learning how to make functional ceramics. “At the Woodstock School of Art, I met Tricia Cline, and we really hit it off. I abandoned functional ceramics and started doing figurative work with Tricia.”
The leap to representing the human figure in clay really stretched her, Morabito says. Never having studied anatomy, she had to suppress her conditioning not to gaze openly at a nude model; indeed, she had to retrain her entire way of seeing. “It’s so challenging to me; it’s not natural or easy. Every time a new model walks in the room, I want to cry.”
But she loved the slow, meditative process of sculpting clay and the organic feel of the material. To her unglazed nude figures she brought a wildly creative sense of the absurd, putting animal faces on humans and vice versa, or having a tiny bouquet of dried flowers grow out of where the head should be. A woman goes fishing astride a hippopotamus. A man takes his stegosaurus out for a walk on a leash. A dancer in a tutu and basketball sneakers takes a smoke break. Another smoker, male this time, wearing a crocheted gown while standing next to a trash can, appears to be singing.
There’s an unsettling Uncanny Valley effect about much of Morabito’s work, and she’s happy to own it: “That is where I live: off-kilter, 100 percent. I love the humor in it. I did a solo show at ASK [Arts Society of Kingston], and I looked around and everyone was laughing. Definitely the absurdity – I love that element; I try to include that.”
Admirers can find her sculptures for sale on her website, www.meredithmorabito.com, and on Artsy. She reports a much better turnout than she dared hope on this year’s Saugerties Artists’ Studio Tour: “I had really low expectations, since the [COVID] variant is an issue. I told myself, ‘No one’s gonna come.’ But so many people came! A couple hundred,” she says. “We had tons of conversations…It was a really happy, positive day.”
She even sold a few pieces. But the hottest draw this year amongst Morabito’s body of work is the chipmunk photos. For the past four years, she has been getting to know the chipmunk population that dwells in the woods on her property. And for the past two years, one chipmunk in particular – the boldest of the lot – has become the focus of her photography work. “We call her Cali Bubbleyum,” says the artist. “She’s the queen; she knows her spot.”
That spot is a platform made from an old cable spool, accessible via a chipmunk hole and a little ladder, where Morabito lays out elaborate stage sets and waits for Cali to show up and pose appropriately. It usually doesn’t take long, thanks to the animal’s natural curiosity. Using an iPhone, she snaps away furiously as Cali investigates anything new. These scenes are never, ever Photoshopped, Morabito insists. Sometimes the artist will cheat a little by smearing a bit of peanut butter on a rodent-scale mug or cup, and the chipmunk obliges by appearing to drink out of it. “I’ll place it where I know she’s going to go,” Morabito says.
She makes many of the props by hand from clay, wood, fabric scraps and other found materials. Friends bring her odd bits of dollhouse furniture and, she says, “I go out hunting, sometimes hitting five yard sales on a Saturday.” Each diorama has to be completely assembled before she lays them out, because Cali is not shy about getting right into the middle of things as soon as she notices Morabito at work. “It’s getting more and more elaborate. Every time I build a new scene, she’s like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’…Some days I put out two or three scenes at a time.”
This recent chipmunk obsession is in large part a product of the isolation caused by COVID, including the loss of the sculptor community that Morabito used to enjoy twice weekly at WSA. “The pandemic definitely put me into overdrive,” she says. “I was feeling down, so I went online, helping other people feel better.”
At her Etsy shop, www.etsy.com/shop/mostlymagicmarket, you can buy notecards that feature some of the chipmunk’s exploits. There are calendars as well; contact Morabito via her website to order them. With a little luck, local Christmas crafts fairs will be back in a few months, and she’s thinking about selling her wares at street markets again soon.
Longer-term, she’d like to see a gallery exhibition with the photos blown up to gigantic scale; and a prototype for a children’s book that she assembled from her Cali photos, That Wagon in the Window, is currently in search of a publisher. Meanwhile, she’s working on “a little bowling alley shot” and a “bird sanctuary scene,” in hopes of getting a few more shots before chipmunks snuggle down for their winter torpor.
Morabito has posted a video on Instagram (www.instagram.com/reel/CKJuHYRD71l/?utm_medium=copy_link) showing herself creating a set depicting a birthday party from an episode of The Office, in which Cali plays the role of Dwight. You can also watch her assembling sets, and Cali exploring them, on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=uF9dPtnBW74.