BRATTLEBORO -- In a room full of larger-than-life personalities like Jack Nicholson, Burt Reynolds, Kenny Rogers, Dr. Ruth and Barack Obama, it’s hard to stand out.
But two other figures, off to the side and in the background, do stand out. One is a clown with big red lips, orange hair and a crazy white collar; the other a woman in a red dress with intense dark eyes.
The scene is a room in the Whetstone Studio for the Arts, and the "celebrities" in it are the oversized papier maché heads that were a signature creation of the late local artist Stacy Morse, who died Jan. 1 at age 59.
What’s eye-catching about the paintings of the clown and the woman in red is how good they are. What’s even more amazing is when she painted them.
"These two paintings she did when she was 10," said Stacy’s brother, Eric Morse, pointing to the clown and the woman, both of whom look like the work of a mature, trained artist, not a 10-year-old girl. "She was incredibly creative, ever since she was a little kid. She had a gift."
Whether it was painting landscapes or portraits, creating theater costumes and sets, making "big heads" of celebrities or a larger-than-life sculpture of Jim Latchis, Stacy Morse’s artistic gifts were apparent.
A longtime resident of Brattleboro and Guilford, who gave much to the local arts and theater scenes and volunteered her time for other worthy causes like Men Who
"She was such a fabulous artist, so totally gifted, and no matter what medium she dealt with, she turned it into beautiful work," said Sam Pilo, in a Reformer interview in January.
When Stacy Morse died, her paintings and artwork fell into the care of her brother Eric, who stored many of them and hung a few in his Guilford office. But that’s not where they should be.
"It’s art. It has to be seen. You can’t just keep it in a room and hide it away," said Eric Morse.
Enter David Parker, owner of the Whetstone Studios building on Williams Street, who offered Morse the use of an empty studio to exhibit Stacy’s work.
As part of Whetstone Studio’s three-day celebration of restoration and re-opening this Friday through Sunday, Stacy Morse’s work will be on view in Studio VII.
None of the work is for sale, but the point is that people see it. What they will see, if they didn’t know Stacy’s work already, is art of great range and skill. His sister, Eric said, was the kind of artist other artists appreciated.
Stacy’s talent was apparent early on. Even before she made those brilliant paintings as a 10-year-old, she was able to help Eric transform a diorama he was making for Cub Scouts into something wonderful; or turn an old piece of driftwood she found on a family trip into something breathtaking, with just a few subtle changes. Anything was fair game for her creativity.
"When she was little, my mom would get mad at her for making stuff on her plate with her food," recalled Eric.
She won recognition for her artwork in high school and briefly attended Pratt Institute of Art. She then went on to work as a gaffer off-Broadway. In 1972, when she was 20, she moved to Guilford. She quickly became immersed in the theater scene, creating costumes, props and sets for many local productions. She created the island for the Monteverdi Players 1977 production of "The Tempest," which was the subject of the documentary "The Stuff of Dreams."
In the mid-1980s, she moved to Brooklyn to work on projects that included trompe l’oeil murals for the City of New York and floats for the Macy’s Day Parade. She moved back to Brattleboro in the early 1990s but kept a hand in show business. She worked as a member of IATSE, the union of stagehands, motion picture technicians and crafters. She worked as a standby scenic painter for major films, including "Mermaids" and "Funny Farm" and created giant dinosaurs for MGM Grand Theme Park in Orlando.
She also became known for her "Big Heads," those larger-than-life celebrity heads that could be worn by actors. Many of them will be on display in the Whetstone, including the ones mentioned above, as well as Elvis Presley, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Fred Astaire, George Burns and others. Even those reveal her artistic brilliance.
"They’re not caricatures, they’re portraits," said Eric Morse. "I see the Big Heads as an extension of her portraits. ... She was able to portray her observations."
One of the portraits on exhibit is of her beloved dog, Babette, with whom she could often be seen walking around town.
"She loved Brattleboro. ... Her involvement in the community was quite deep," said Morse.
Her portrait of Hannah Cosman hangs in the Hannah Cosman Room of the Municipal Center.
Morse welcomes visitors to come by and see his sister’s work during the Whetstone Gala this Friday through Sunday. It should remain there for some time afterward as well.