Morgan Harper Nichols: Blessed Are The Mirrors
Morgan Harper Nichols
Morgan Harper Nichols is an artist and poet whose work is inspired by real life interactions and stories. In 2017, Morgan started a project where she invites people to submit their stories to her website. From there, she creates art as a response to their stories and sends it to them before sharing the work publicly. The fruit of this project is shared daily around social media, in publications, and various creative collaborations and installations. Her book of poetry and art is called All Along You Were Blooming. Morgan is originally from Atlanta, Georgia, and she and her husband Patrick currently reside with their son Jacob, in Phoenix, Arizona, where you can also find her studio and shop, Garden24.
You can find Morgan on her gorgeous website, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Morgan also has a beautiful app that brings daily encouragement to your phone as well as a podcast that is so peaceful and needed right now (btw check out her amazing store. Everything is perfect.)
I’m in love with my shirt by Morgan. Unfortunately, it just sold out – but Morgan has another beautiful one one her website here.
Morgan has written several stunning books including her most recent book All Along You were Blooming: Thoughts for Boundless Living, Storyteller: 100 Poem Letters, and her next book called How Far You Have Come: Musings on Beauty and Courage that is available for preorder but will be released March of 2021.
Along with her beautiful illustrations and poetry, Morgan is a very talented musician. She recently released an EP with her sister, Grammy nominated musician Jamie Grace, entitled Show Love: Songs for Our Children.
In her book The Mystical Now: Art and the Sacred, Wendy Beckett describes that “All art that really draws us to look at it deeply is spiritual, art accepts all the sadness, and transforms it implicitly affirming that beauty is essentially the presence of God.”
Morgan described that if the lights went out she would keep singing All the Wild Horses by Ray LaMontagne. You can listen to All the Wild Horses here.
Also, very seriously, the Twilight soundtrack is a masterpiece. Put this Youtube playlist on loop if you ever need the perfect background music.
Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always having the juicing spree of our lives. I used to have my own delusion of living my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife and mom. Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was four years ago. And I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick. Lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart and God will provide. Keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.
K.B.: We have these thick cultural scripts for what is deemed inspirational, and it usually goes like this. You can do it. Never give up. Everything you need is inside of you. Today, during my online workout, toward the end, I was getting tired and the instructor yelled, Are you going to give up and accept your mediocrity? Yeah? Yeah. That’s our culture. It goes to war against our fatigue. It goes to war against our fragility, our complicated realities. There is only trying or failing. Winning or losing. But what do you really need to hear when life is coming apart? How do you find gentleness and courage and a dose of reality? Today, my guest is someone whose words of encouragement gently lift our chins toward hope, a true voice in the wilderness. Morgan Harper Nichols is an artist and poet whose work is inspired by real life interactions and stories. She’s collaborated with a wide range of name brands, including Coach, Adboe, Arie, and her work is available in stores like Barnes& Noble, Target, and the shirt I’m wearing right now from Anthropologie. She recently released a gorgeous book of poetry and art called All Along You Were Blooming, and she offers daily reminders through poetry and art to her over one and a half million followers on Instagram and beyond. And I am a huge fan. Morgan, hello. I am so grateful we’re doing this.
Morgan Harper Nichols: Hello, I am so grateful too. I am such a fan. So I’m honored to be here.
K.B.: I accept the terms. Thank you. Day made. The type of art and poetry you create is so unique to this cultural moment for people who may not be familiar, what do you make?
M.H.N.: So I make poetry and visual art and oftentimes those two just run together for me. I’ve been that way my whole life, I just see, I see art and I am immediately thinking of words. Then I read words and I see visual.
K.B.: So from what I understand, correct me if I’m wrong, people send in their stories. And and it sparks something in you. And and then you create something beautiful out of it? Is that how like the process, tell me a little bit about the process?
M.H.N.: I love the way you said that. I’m like, oh, is that what it is?
K.B.: You do! You make beauty out of truth. Well, I’m pretty sure that’s what you do.
M.H.N.: Well, thank you. Thank you. That’s that’s my hope. Originally it started I had written a poem that was huge change happening in my life and it was career related. But it was also just some some like church relationships that I had where I was just feeling really let down by some people in my life. And I just really kind of I want to try to hold a lot in. But, you know, you can only do that so long. And it just everything I was feeling just came out onto a page one night and I ended up sharing it. And that piece that I shared, it was another it was another thing where I was like, I don’t know if anyone connects with this, but as it turns out, people did.
K.B.: Yeah. Can you, do you mind reading it? Do you have it memorized?
M.H.N.: I’m looking at the actual journal page that it was written on now. When you start to feel like things should have been better this year, remember the mountains and valleys that got you here. They are not accidents and those moments weren’t in vain. You are not the same. You have grown. And you are growing. You are breathing. You are living. You are wrapped in endless, boundless grace. And things will get better. There is more to you than yesterday.
K.B.: Oh, I just, I got a lot of goose bumps, ah friend.
M.H.N.: It’s so wild because as I read that, you know, it’s like I wasn’t explicitly saying, you know what what the pain was. I wasn’t I didn’t, I didn’t have, it didn’t come out that way. But even now, you know, when I go back and read it, I mean, I still feel that in my body, I’m just like, oh, I knew, I still know the heaviness of that night. All of those feelings.
K.B.: Yeah. I don’t know, It sounded to me like you were speaking out of a lot of sadness and alienation from the spiritual communities that are supposed to hold us. Am I reading that right?
M.H.N.: Yes. Yes. Up until that point, I think I kind of been in a place where I could kind of separate just who I was even in, ‘ll just get really specific. I could kind of separate who I was in my and my blackness, like being a black woman in the sovereign and being who I was as a Christian in certain settings. And it was challenging, too, because I had, I had also been a musician as well. And I had been traveling and playing music in a lot of churches and, and it really breaks my heart to even say that. Just like how how it’s such a young age, I had to learn how to separate those and say, oh, in some church circles, you can’t talk about this part of yourself because it makes people uncomfortable. So I think by the time 2016 came on, just because of, you know, the gift that is the Internet, just just seeing things that people that I knew that I would just say, oh, they’re not they’re not racist or they’re not this or that. And just seeing them say certain things. It was just it was betrayal. It was such, t’s like, oh, I thought you were different.
M.H.N.: I didn’t think you would say something like that. Like, do you know how hurtful that is? For me, it wasn’t even so much of like, OK, let’s just divide this down the middle, like us versus them. It wasn’t that. It was just like literally that that thing that I think a lot of human beings experience of, just like the people who I thought they were. I thought you were someone else. I thought it was different.
K.B.: And I thought we were us.
K.B.: I’m sorry. When you said 2016, I didn’t. I didn’t totally clock the political timeline, of course.
M.H.N.: I wrote a poem November 15th, 2016.
K.B.: Yes. Yes. I mean, for people who didn’t maybe grow up in in a more conservative denomination. I think maybe across all religious traditions though, people felt the import of what the election of Trump would mean, but it pulled apart maybe like some fragile assumptions that we had inside some of our spiritual communities of like what we were all doing. And before, I think there was the there’s a lot of talk of like racial reconciliation and kind of an implicit color blindness and that like that, the most important thing about us was that we all shared the same heart. And it got down to, no, no, no, we just we share the same beliefs, and so we’re the same. And I think after the election, that language suddenly seemed very thin and brittle for many people. And it it’s it’s it’s split apart what was probably already cracked. I study, you know, evangelicals and pentecostals, and also I it’s a tradition that I, I, I really love. And I had a lot of friends who lost who there was just like, oh, they they lost their people after that.
M.H.N.: Yeah, that was, that resonates completely. Yeah. Like you said, it cracked.
K.B.: Well, to make your your grief, a vehicle is a powerful thing. And it sounds like you, it sounds like when you open the door to yours publicly that, like all these other stories came flooding in that were both affirming and probably like a lot to bear.
M.H.N.: Yeah, for sure.
K.B.: You are absolutely a mirror. It’s such an intense feeling of being known that people get when they look at your work.
M.H.N.: That’s, you know, that to me, even just hearing that. That’s so, that’s just so affirming because I am still a person who struggles a lot with feeling like I’m the only one. That’s just where my mind goes right away. It’s just like, oh, no, people won’t get this. Like, you can’t share that part of yourself. No one’s gonna get that. So even just hearing that one, when someone when someone says that to me, it’s like I feel reflected in that. That’s when I realize I’m like, OK, this is beyond me. This is, I could not have figured this out. I could not of figure out how to reflect this person. So, you know, in that way, it’s it is a spiritual practice for me. Absolutely. Because I, it’s it’s a reminder of like. Oh yeah, it’s it’s not up to me to figure out exactly what’s the perfect positive thing this person needs to hear. It’s like, I don’t know. So I’ll just try to reflect what you said so you can at least have that and honor where you are right now. So.
K.B.: I know I didn’t realize how much the work of creatives and in making beauty sounds a lot like what people hoped for when they go into these really meaningful professions, like I’m just thinking of all the ones where people really deal with people like teaching and social work and I’m just thinking of like the blood work nurse I had a couple months ago who, like, really saw my actual story while reading my chart like that the hope is that when we have when we carry more and more stories, we’re not just carrying it, but like it digs out something in us that makes, I don’t know that their story kind of makes us more human somehow.
M.H.N.: Absolutely. And one of my one of my favorite quotes, she’s she’s a British nun, an art historian Wendy Beckett.
K.B.: I love her.
M.H.N.: You do?
K.B.: Totally. Yes, I do. You had me at British nun but then you told me who it was.
M.H.N.: She said, art accepts all sadness and transforms it implicitly affirming that beauty is essentially the presence of God. And I just I have to hold onto that every day to remind myself of this sort of pursuit that I have for for putting beautiful things on paper with colors. I mean, I’m obsessed with colors. I literally will spend way too much time on color palettes. And and, you know, I’m like, all of that still is is me, I believe me pursuing God, pursuing, like wanting, wanting to know that my sadness is held somewhere, wanting to know that my grief belongs somewhere in a bigger picture and a greater landscape.
M.H.N.: My parents are are a huge part of, I think for even my awareness of like how art can be used. Both my parents were in ministry my whole life. And I saw them just go and just find try to find so many creative ways to connect with people and how my mom and granddad choose, way more extroverted than me, so I struggled to understand it sometimes in very southern in a lot of ways. She’ll probably get mad at me saying that. I’m like no Mom, you are you’re a true southern lady in a lot of ways, just like I’m going to cook for you, hospitality, come in like make space for you, stay as long as you need to knock on the door whenever you need to. And yet it was so much of what I saw my parents do and still do. It’s just like holding space for people. And it wasn’t so much about like, OK, let’s get this fixed before you walk out the door. It’s just how can we hold space? I really do feel like what I’m doing now is kind of my way of doing that, of just like.
K.B.: Hospitality. I like that, it is. Because it’s invitational. I feel like we are both in the business of trying to put self-help out of business. So I feel really good about that. In Jesus name, because there is this really delicate place to find where, like the world is in pain. They need awareness, they need kindness, they need encouragement but they do not need like another dose of Rachel Hollis. And for this and many reasons, I absolutely love what you are giving to the world. And I am really grateful.
M.H.N.: Well, I. That means so much. I. I’m just sitting here nodding my head. I’m like wait, she can’t see me.
K.B.: It’s a notoriously visual medium.
M.H.N.: I don’t know how to say this without sounding like just super ragey. But it’s true. So I invite people, they can send me an Instagram DM or an email to say a lot of a lot of what I receive, it’s it’s people who have been through more than what I’ve been through in just a sense of different types of trauma that they’ve had to live with. When I read those messages, like I think about the people, I’m like, the people in their life who maybe made them feel like they’re not safe to share that pain or they’re not safe to walk through these questions, I think about that person and I was like, you know, I think the best thing I can do right now is be the opposite of that person. And I’m just a stranger on the Internet. But, you know, the best thing for me that my art and poetry can be is whoever that was that told or or what it was that made you feel like you weren’t safe to feel that or express that or ask that question, that there is another whole world out there where you’re free to ask, you’re free to feel the full weight of your grief if you need to.
K.B.: It is a weird and wonderful thing that like an Instagram platform can be a place where in the comments section, some of the most intense kinds of sharing, and in my opinion, like ministry can happen, because they bring it like they bring their they bring an unfilteredness that I have just, I’ve gotten like, once you kind of get into that place of honesty, it’s almost like you get hooked on it. How do I participate in that humanity?
K.B.: I think part of what I see in your work is a desire to create a gentle permission, to have a bigger expression of emotion without having to pivot back to, like, certainty. I know you and I grew up with a lot of spiritual gatekeepers around certainty, like you’re nothing if you’re not certain. And I feel a certain about the love of God. I feel certain about the power of community and the need for truth and beauty and justice. But like, I have a lot less of a desire to bludgeon other people over the head with it.
M.H.N.: Us talking about this, it just brought up a childhood memory that I feel like I haven’t been able to make sense of, and I’m like. I think I finally get it. So when I was little, it was like a thing to, like, have a favorite Bible verse.
M.H.N.: My favorite Bible verse was, it’s so funny, but I mean, but it’s kind of funny to me this was my favorite bible verse. It was the Romans 3:23. It’s, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And I remember people saying to me, Oh, but what about the next verse? Like, you know, where the redemption. And then I was like, no, I just, we’re all just kind of messed up I think.
K.B.: Oh, I like that.
M.H.N.: I feel like, even at six years old, I was just like, I’m just going to sit with that for a little bit.
K.B.: This will take me a few decades and I’m into it.
M.H.N.: Yeah, the certainty thing is, is real. And I think that’s why I even started to kind of shy away from it. I’ve never really shared this before, but I’m like, this is just where I’m at. And even with a lot of my work, there are some older poems of mine out there on the Internet where they were kind of more like based on actual Bible verses. And at some point, I never really made the shift to decide, like, I’m not doing that anymore. Working until, I shared that poem that I shared earlier that someone pointed out to me. They said, you know, oh, well, why didn’t you say wrapped in God’s, endless, boundless grace? And I remember that moment. And I was like, I didn’t even realize that. I didn’t say God in that poem. That wasn’t even something I thought about. And for me now, I’m kind of in a place where I’m like, you know, it’s it’s a heartbreaking reality. But it’s true that, you know, when people hear, God, they equate like certainty. OK, well, OK. Well, now everything’s gonna be figured out because I because I trust God or I love God or God did this for me, God did that. And it’s like I don’t know if it’s that simple. So I try to use words that that invite people and even myself to just like, OK, let’s just go beyond the word God as we’ve heard it, you know, in our lives, like if you’ve grown up in America, like God bless America. Like, let’s go beyond how we’re used to hearing that word in, and let’s look at what’s happening on the inside. And and let’s learn to sort of really look at that uncertainty that that is there, that mystery that is still there, that that, oK. I don’t know. I’m not going to have all the answers just because I say I love God or I or I trust God, or if I say God’s grace versus saying grace.
K.B.: You’re reminding me of my friend, my friend Dan. He goes around, he studies Pentecostal churches. And when he’s interviewing, he tries to get at people’s deepest, like, deepest beliefs. But he doesn’t say, like, write me a belief statement. He says, look, if the lights went out right now, what song would you be singing?
M.H.N.: Wow. This is such, it’s All The Wild Horses by Ray LaMontagne. I. I don’t know what he tapped into in that song, but it’s one of those songs that just. It has enough of a resolve for me to feel steady listening to it, but he just repeats the same lyric over and over, and it’s all the wild horses, tether with tears in their eyes. May no man’s touch, ever tame you, may no man ever defray your soul and as for the clouds, just let them roll away. Roll away, roll away, roll away. And I go back to that song all the time.
K.B.: That’s good. Mine is obviously the Twilight soundtrack. So I’m glad, I’m just joking. I did go through a weird Twilight phase. Really late in my life.
M.H.N.: I love it.
K.B.: I was just joking, but yeah, I did actually get really into the Twilight movies for awhile. I was like the only person alone in a theater watching New Moon.
M.H.N.: So I had, my son’s 14 months in, my niece is also 14 months. My sister and I had babies at the same time. We did not realize till months later and only Twilight people would get this who watch the movies. We named our children Jacob and Bella. We were like, how did that happen? We are like they could never find out. They can never see those movies.
K.B.: I remember putting a giant copy of it was like whatever New Moon or whatever, down on the counter at Barnes and Noble. And the cashier just looked at me with such disdain and really loudly I was like, I have a tween as a very voracious reader. My tween, this isn’t mine. We’re we’re really big into, like, spiritual practices at the everything happens project. Like stuff that grounds us and like roots us in truth, as we start to deal with the day. Has this been the spiritual practice that like the creation of these pieces, like what helps anchor you?
M.H.N.: This is, honestly has been a huge spiritual practice of mine in a time, because I think a lot of it is because, it started in a time where I was starting to really feel like I was in a spiritual desert and.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah.
M.H.N.: I never felt like I could quite be the, the high energy southern Christian gal that that like I felt like I had to be, and because I went from being a preacher’s kid to going to a Christian college, to going into a Christian industry, and I just felt like I couldn’t really find a version of myself. And it was always sort of like, OK, I still I still feel really connected to to Christ. I still feel so connected but at the same time, Christ people I don’t know if they really love me for me or if they really will like me for me. I don’t, you know there’s not a lot of like art groups and book clubs, you know, for small groups and stuff like it’s it’s let’s sit around talk. You know, and that’s great. But it’s just like there’s some of us who process by writing and drawing and putting things, going beyond those words and just really carving away. So for me, making art has been like I feel like this is the place where God meets me for me, who I am. And that’s is that’s not to say that I don’t do things that challenge me, but I’ve just found so much grace. I there have been so many times where I’ll just I’ll be working on something and I’ll just start weeping and I’m just and I’ll just start crying and I’m just like, thank you.
K.B.: My friend and producer, Jessica, we talk about it like like if there’s like a cord running through the universe and you of just flick it and then it’s like merh…. Like it rings all the way through? Whenever we get to a moment like that, we’re like oh flicking the cord. I did it today. Dangit.
M.H.N.: I love it. I love it.
K.B.: Because it’s always a combination beteween like Yes. And ouch.
M.H.N.: That is a beautiful analogy. I love it.
K.B.: You’re so good at just blessing the crap out of people and to close, I wondered if you’d mind reading one of your pieces as listeners go back out into the world?
M.H.N.: Shadows fall like midnight on your shoulders. But those shadows won’t have no grip on you, for they are doomed to be drowned out by light. And you might feel their heaviness weighing down on your needs, making it harder to walk, to breathe, but you will be all right, for you are still learning what it means to be strong. You are still a capable, thriving being. At a slower shadow lined pace.
K.B.: That’s such a good blessing. Feel a little bit tired, and a little bit careworn. Morgan, you are such a gift. And if you don’t mind, I will keep you. You are so great.
M.H.N.: Hey, it’s super mutual.
K.B.: After talking to Morgan, I realized how lovely it is to be a mirror. Maybe at work or at home in complimenting a friend or smiling at someone through a car window who is trying their best. We don’t always know what we are, who we are until we see someone reflected back to us. We are so many things. Yes, we are messy and irritable and not amazing in traffic, but we are also absolutely radiant with beauty and wonder and intelligence. And we are probably not going to notice until we see it in someone else’s eyes. So blessed are the mirrors. Thank you for holding up our reflection. Thank you for seeing the potential, the colors, the texture. Thank you for knowing that this whatever this is, whatever this might be, is still becoming. We are still being made. Thank God.
K.B.: This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the Lilly Endowment. Huge thank you to my team Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman and J.J. Dickinson. Don’t miss an episode. Be sure to subscribe to Everything Happens whereever you listen to podcasts and I’d love to hear from you. Find me online at KatecBowler or at KateBowler.com. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.