Public Art Spotlight: Catherine T. Morris

2022 Newell Flather Award for Leadership in Public Art

Catherine T. Morris | photo by Jeffrey Filiault

I had the privilege of sitting down and getting to listen to insight from this year's four Newell Flather Leadership in Public Art Awardees. Catherine T. Morris, director of arts & culture at The Boston Foundation and founder and artistic director of BAMS Fest, shared her deep roots to Boston and the fruits that can grow from our cultural legacies. I hope you enjoy a closer listen to my conversation with Catherine.

info · Awardee Portrait: Catherine T. Morris


Kamaria Carrington (KC): I'm just really excited to be here. I'm excited to be sitting with you, Catherine T. Morris, who is a mother, a visionary, a creative strategist and then some. I still feel like we could just say, and, and, and, I mean like the ellipses are there, okay? And you happen to be one of this year's awardees for the Newell Flather Award for your leadership in Public Art in Boston. What do you want us to know about you as a person? Not resume stuff, but you as a person. And what has shaped your understanding of what Public Art is or what it can be? And what or who's shaped your leadership style? So that's a ton of questions, go where you want, go off.

Catherine T. Morris (CTM): I'd probably say I center humility in everything that I do. You just never know what shoes people are walking in and it's hard sometimes because you also have to live your own life. But I know what it's like to be picked on. I know it's like to be bullied and you still have to show people loving kindness, whether they want it or not. And having a certain kind of patience for people, again, not perfect. In being a visionary, sometimes you can see things that people can't see and you know when the moment's right to enter into that person's life. And I've grown to hone in on that as I've gotten older.

Growing up in a two parent household, my father was always an entrepreneur. He barely worked for anyone else. He loved working for himself. While my mother was more in the sense of like, well, someone's got to get some insurance and some health benefit. So that's how they tag teamed. But what I loved is my father inherited his father's painting and wallpapering business. Every kid in the family had to learn how to paint a house, paint a room, paint some spindles, which I hate.

But what's super dope is I loved watching my dad, how he prepped, how he talked to customers, how he would take us on a tour of the neighborhood that we were going into. So I've seen everything from the projects to mansion. And that's really centered me on how to talk to people, how to be of service as much as possible, how to pull out the best of people's dreams. And somehow put that in a room with a color palette choice, or how the sun sets in a hallway. Like there's just all these different things that my dad, just unbeknownst to him, I paid attention to. And then my mom wrote the contract. So I'd watch her, how she would finesse and build the business cards and go out and get customers and build with the local newspapers.

BAMS Fest logo in the sky. A large crowd of people sit in lawn chairs.
BAMS Fest 2022 is June 11, 2022, at Playstead Field in Franklin Park.

They got business mainly by referral. So I knew word of mouth was crucial to any kind of entrepreneurship. And I loved how the customers enjoyed my father's work, my mom's work and that kind of work ethic just stuck with me throughout my life. I'm very, very particular detailed. Like, I can tell in something is off balance on a flyer or a poster. And my mother also made home edition mix tapes, right? She had the reel to reel, the laser disc, CD players, and she would mix her tail off. And I'm like, that is dope. Because she would tell a story with songs. The fundamentals of no matter how tired you are, you got to push through. And by the time I got to be in eighth grade, I was on that journey, literally.

I had a good relationship with my middle school principal who granted me the opportunity essentially to lead a hip hop elective class and grade my peers. Did the show, just there's this tall, thick black kid in the middle of Lincoln, MA. And I'm teaching 8 to 15 white kids, some Asian-American, few Black hip hop because at the time it was like the Missy Elliot, it was Tim's, it was the Busta Rhymes. It was just all this abundance of great music. And here I am like, yeah, I'm going to teach you all a little something. And all the kids passed, moved on to high school. And that was like, I converted a rock music radio station into our urban one. That was the first time I got to learn how to write sponsorship letters.

And that's the first time I got money to actually purchase DJ equipment. And mind you, the radio station was no bigger than a closet, but it was like 90 Black kids trying to fit in this little closet on a Thursday afternoon. And I was a member at the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester. And it was there. We had a new team director his name is Deric Patterson. He came in, did these talent shows and I'm like, I want to do what you do. You need to teach me how to do that. And so the following summer, I produced my first talent show and I ran it like a full audition. You had to have a certain GPA, you had to come to rehearsal. Like I made the flyers up, I negotiated with the club director on space and just over 250 people showed up for this four-hour talent show.

Okay. It was the longest thing ever. This is a lot of work.

KC: Yeah. It's a lot of work.

CTM: I want to do this one forever. I want to do this work though. So considering my upbringing where it was like, you do you, that talent show was it. I'm just like, I want create platforms for creative people, dope people I know. And then just being a Metco student for about 11 years, put me on the roadmap or put me on this journey of how to deal with adversity, how to deal with bigotry, how to deal with bias, how to maneuver through adversity, how to overcome naysayers and still create platforms for those who are voiceless. And without that Metco experience, I don't think BAMS Fest or me arriving to where I am now would've existed. So there were many people who shaped who I am, but my outlet, my contribution, my creativity is creating for others.

Today, because these folks around me, these other adults, believe in what I can do and they were willing to show me and then go do it your way. So by the time high school came around, I started doing talent shows every quarter for three years, 1200 kids trying to fit in a 100-seater black box theater. Those talent shows were very powerful. I led a social justice movement called Universal Rhythm. And it existed to give Metco kids the opportunity to use arts, to convey or give examples back to their white peers of how they were being treated. It was very intense, but it was a release. And that's all I wanted to see my Metco friends have, was a release. After that I'm like, so college? Okay. Where we going? My first and only year, and I'm sorry, I didn't stay, I went to historical Black college first because I needed my identity back. I went to Winston-Salem State University, home of the Rams. And in that year and a half, I had never felt so Black.

With the BAMS logo over a crowd in a field. Folks are smiling and dancing and chatting.
photo by Jen Vesp, courtesy of BAMS Fest

And in knowing that if all these folks out here can do physical therapy, nursing, entrepreneurship, science, NASCAR, then sky's the limit for me. But I got to see what HBCU life experiences were that I had never gotten being from Massachusetts. So seeing coordination, seeing homecoming, seeing the football games, the comedy shows, meeting Louis Farrakhan, meeting Maya Angelou. I would've never had that opportunity being up north. And so that year and a half completely changed my life. And then I transferred to Temple. Yeah. Still want to be like five hours away from home, but close enough. And I would say that was probably the second raising of me. The second huge pivot of, it's cute you did these talent shows, but now we got to level up. I started off in mass communications because I did radio in high school.

And then I had changed my major to tourism and hospitality management, but never worked in hotels ever. But the reason why is because they had an event management track, they were one of five schools in the country offering Event Management as a career. And I was like, what? So very fortunate to be under the leadership of a gentleman named Dr. Joe Goldblatt, who's considered basically the godfather of events. I mean 12, 15 books. And he taught me everything about how do you do parades, baby showers, concerts, festivals. And I'm like, this is going to be in my life. I'm just going to be in the arts in some form or fashion. But I knew community was always going to be a part of that.

To graduate from Temple at the time, you only had to do one internship and I did seven because I wanted to know everything. If I'm going to be in this industry, I want to know everything. Who's the one to teach me? And although seven, there was one that really changed my life and I was working for the mayor's office and they had an office called Welcome America, which was basically the name of the festival. And at the time it was a festival where the mayor shut down the city to do a full week of free outdoor, large-scale programming. There were two of them that really shaped the vision of festivals or large-scale events for the way to go. One was woman who's no longer here, her name is Valerie Lagauskas. She was the former Macy's Day Parade Director.

Ivory Allison, who is still alive, who I think runs the American Heart Association. She did the production side. And when I tell you I still have respect for that lady about assembling so many different celebrities, so many different pieces and still make it look flawless. And so the year that I interned, I was put on the production and programming team and we had Patti Labelle, John legend and Hall and Oates as the firework finale concert on the waterfront. And when I tell you, I have an appreciation for how to assemble a large skill concert from that internship, I said, I'm going back home. And I am tired of being from a city that doesn't have bragging rights beyond sports and education.

KC: Absolutely. Yeah. And I guess that was going to be my next question. What's your relationship to Boston? And if you could share a moment of community connection you experienced in these art makings that you do. Yeah.

CTM: Born and raised. So born in Jamaica Plain, raised in Roxbury, all my family is here. That's both a blessing and a curse. (Giggles) I'd say that it probably started for me at the Arboretum. I think that that has been a safe space for me since being a kid and seeing the activities for kids, making art, bubble sculptures, it's just all kinds of crazy stuff. But my parents just kept bringing me back to Arboretum constantly. And so nature, outdoors and art making just seemed like a natural thing. Then, as I started to grow up, being a part of like the Shelburne Community Center or the Cooper Center or the Roxbury YMCA or having a job as a counselor in training, wearing the red shirts on Blue Hill Avenue, for those that will know what that means. Going to Chez Vous roller skating rink.

So applying all those different things and again, going to Bella Luna, going to The Verb when it was a venue around and seeing the spoken word community really come together, I'm like, okay, so how do I magnify this? Even live events and hospitality and tourism intersect with the art. So it's still an extension. It's not something that's completely forming.

KC: Yeah. I mean, and it sounds like all the folks who were a part of shaping you and your family did everything really artfully too. It seems like that was there. And I'm like, this totally makes sense that there's a BAMS Fest here now, of course. And I just wonder if between leaving undergrad and coming to Boston and wanting to start BAMS Fest, were you ever unsure if it was going to happen or were you-

Catherine wears a yellow shirt and a floral skirt. She poses next to another woman with red pants and a fanny pack.
courtesy of BAMS Fest

CTM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the idea was conceived in 2014. It had a different name which I will not reveal, but it had a different name. And I remember talking to just my immediate family. They're like, you are crazy. Boston would never. And I'm like, why not? So, I'm like, this is going to be a long uphill battle. The things I know Boston to be true and known for is you got to get validated by some people. And the first people you got to be validated by is the elders, you have to be validated by the elders. And I understood this food chain. So, I started going on a four-year listening tour. Asking about what was Boston like in the 70s and the 80s, the 60s? Where were the spaces at? What was it like? Who came to town? What happened? Where are you going now?

CTM: And I came to this very interesting conclusion. The Boston that elders were experiencing is a Boston we will never see again. But its future is bright so long as the right infrastructure is in place. And that systems change happens. So that meant as much as I did not want to, I'd have to understand civics.

KC: You're going to take us to school now.

CTM: Every festival I've been a part of their formula was no politics allowed. And I'm like, I subscribe to the same formula because you don't allow audiences to enjoy what the environment is. The experience is supposed to be when we start bringing in politics. So I said, okay, well let me understand how city and state government works. Who are the players? Who are the stakeholders? Who are the intermediaries? What do I need to do to get on their radar, that's within human reason? Not sacrifice my soul for it because I've seen that too. And how do I over time persuade the people that this thing is necessary, that it's common and that it's going to be big. It's going to be the Black Boston Essence festival that you could ever imagine.

CTM: Over time I had to do smaller events. I was doing 8 to 12 events a year for four years straight, exhausting but beautiful. I was bringing in anywhere from Chicago artists, Rhode Island artists, folks from Texas, DC, on top of local artists because we're a transplant city. So, it's not enough to be local anymore. You actually have to start bringing in other talented artists that typically would pass or overlook the Boston market, which was happening. And that had a huge effect on the stigma that Black and brown people didn't live here. And that we just didn't have a robust arts and culture scene. I'm like, well, the math is simple, but it's going to take a lot of convincing people that Boston is a viable market externally.

And then internally that Boston is changing and here's little old me trying to figure that out somehow. And so, I just started small. I started in different venues that either folks didn't know, walked past, or in neighborhoods that had historically excluded Black people, cut to the chase. And what that did, it started with family and friends, they would tell their friends and then their friends told their friends, I'm like, I don't have to do much advertising, great, because that's Boston. Then started doing panel discussions and workshops. Some of the artists that we started with, we started with four artists, literally four artists and today were at almost close to 500 Black and brown artists.

KC: Wow.

CTM: And that was by referral.

KC: Wow.

CTM: But we do exist. But I knew this because the Boston I grew up in I'm like, it's here, they're just underground. They're not surfacing. Like, that level of scaling was a hard persuasion that I'm going to do this thing that's got 10,000 people. We're going to have X amount of national artists. But this is really about local artists. I had already worked up an audience of 6,000 people.

But in 2018 in June we had 2200 people show up in the rain all eight hours...

KC: Wow.

CTM: ...supporting local artists. I brought some artists from Philly because Philly just had such an influence on me. We had visual artists, we had vendors, we had food trucks. It was the first taste of like, it's here now. All right. And then second year, 2019, gorgeous day, 6500 people show up.

On a sunny day and in a crowd of dancing folks, a woman, with her braids in a bun and a floral print dress, smiles and dances.
courtesy of BAMS Fest

KC: Wow.

CTM: And the space that we occupy is Playstead Fields. And Playstead Fields is very special to me. It is the epicenter of cultural events since forever. While it was designed by a white man named Frederick Olmsted, Franklin Park is 527 acres of green space. So, you designed this park with the premise of mind that the space is for everyone. And to use it as such, that connects you to nature. Then comes along a woman named Elma Lewis came here from Barbados, I'm going to try to remember my history correctly, settled here was deemed essentially the unofficial mayor of Boston because she did it her way. Went to Emerson College, got her degree, got a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. I mean, amazing. Started the National Center for Afro-American Artists, which is housed in Roxbury, started the Elma Lewis Dance School through the Franklin Park Coalition, started the Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park Series, which is Playstead Field. And to see what this woman had built. I mean, bringing in the biggest names in jazz, the biggest names you could think of at that time coming to Franklin Park, all right.

The torch has been handed over. I got to keep this thing lit. I mean, lit for this current and next generation and that the idea of access to Black kids, Black families, Black elders, to see artists that they do and do not know, to enjoy nature again, to be in fellowship and reunion with each other, to share time and space with other people, their neighbors, whether they identify as Black or not. And to do that all under the umbrella of the arts. Yeah, I'm going to creative festival for that.

KC: Yeah. Yeah. We're so thankful.

CTM: And I would say that with this festival, which people tend to not understand is, it's more than a festival. To the outside, it's great. We're talking about restructuring the Black arts and culture ecosystem within the arts and culture ecosystem. It's not just putting the artists on stage. That's one opportunity. But it's also identifying Black businesses that can work back of house, that can grow their clientele and said that we did this mega festival in the community that can draw tens of thousands of people. And we did that. It means giving visual artists, regardless of whatever platform they're using, the opportunity to showcase who they are and do that in front of a live audience.

To amplify local Black businesses that don't get as much as a chance to be invited to mega festivals, outside of the ones that exist across other cities and states, get to do that here. And just from the pure fact of healing, reuniting with mother nature, which we have forgotten, we get to do that in a space that has been blessed by a Black woman nonetheless. So, I pay my homage through this festival, to her and my hope as she did for me, although I've never met her, is that she made it a little easier for me to do this. And so, I'm making it a little bit easier for the next generation that wants to do more, if not different kind of BAMS festivals.

So, if that means challenging the system, the permitting process, the licensing process, how these festivals can be supported by city and state government, then I will do that. It's exhausting. It's challenging. There's a lot of sacrifice. I barely, if any, take a dime from this. I do this out of the kindness of my heart because I love my city. But there's only so much to that, right?

KC: Right.

CTM: At some point I walk away and leave it to the next generation. Because that's the whole point of starting a nonprofit. You see the idea, but the community owns it at that moment and whatever nutrients they're giving the sun, the dirt, the turning over of soil, the talking to the music, if they don't feed it, it will die. So this is the gift I give back to the city that raised me.

KC: What a generous offering. Yeah. And you spoke a little bit of Elma Lewis as a leader and some mentors you had when you were younger. Is there anyone still mentoring you, surrounding you right now? And also, who or what supports you as you do this work?

CTM: Ooh, well there's one person who I've not met yet, but I live vicariously through her social media and it's my hope to meet her one day. Her name is Tina Farris. She is one of the few Black women who is a tour and concert promoter. And I mean like Chris Rock, the Roots, Common. I can go down the list. That's just a short list of folks that she has supported. She also does her own festivals. She's one of the few Black women in the country that do this full time with her own production that I'm like, you are my idol. So, I hope to meet her one day. But I watch different documentaries, I see the path that she's on with her business and I aspire one day to meet her, just to sit in her garden in LA and just ask a ton of questions or not, and sip wine, whatever the case is. There's a woman by the name of Valerie Stephens, who is one of the elders that said yes to me, one of those four artists in the beginning said yes to me.

Because she's like, you sound crazy, but I like crazy people. So, I'm going to sign up, has been such a beautiful bumblebee in my ear of making sure that there's representation of senior artists so that they're not forgotten. So, it's always a reminder about, it's great to support emerging artists and artists who are just finding their voice. But those who've been in this game, honey, they also deserve their flowers. I mean, Ivory Allison is still doing the thing in Philly. So, I still am inspired by her. My mom, Lord have mercy, gets people in shape like, if you're going to be part of my baby's vision, you need to listen to the first fan. And definitely, Issa Rae, I just feel like, her show, Insecure, there's a particular episode where people called me like, that is your life on the screen.

And I'm like, probably is, but I just love her ability to be unapologetic and just do it her way as a Black millennial woman. And maybe unbeknownst to him too, but Rob Gibbs, like straight up, it is very hard in the world of street art to be given a fair chance. And to watch him in the short amount of time, mature, grow, be a father, a philanthropist, and still give back to kids, I salute that. That just doesn't happen often. And he still relatively young, he's still got so much more to offer.

I think the last person that continues to shape me is Robert Lewis Jr. who I believe is the new President and CEO over at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, which is great. But he's been one of my mentors since I started participating in social justice youth camps. He's just always been a voice in my ear about, you can do this, you got this. Just always there when I need him to be. So, I love how he lives his life, family person, but just unwavering commitment to young people; they need to be given an opportunity, they should not be a victim of their circumstances. And I'm like, that's why I feel about community as a whole, especially Black and brown community. We're not charity.

Catherine wears a floral shirt and navy jacket. She has chunky jewelry and smiles wide.
photo by Jeffrey Filiault

KC: Yeah.

CTM: We have basic needs that need to be met, they're not being met. So, guess what? When people of color's backs are against the wall, they get really creative. So those are folks that just continue to inspire me, shape me. And there's more, but I feel like those are the ones I'm just constantly like, what are you doing? So, I can figure out how to continue to shape my path here.

KC: That's so beautiful to hear from each of you, how much y’all were seen and listened to and supported when you were younger. Folks said, “yes!” to you when you wanted do a thing, people are like, yeah, do a thing.

CTM: Do a thing. Yeah.

KC: Do a thing. And I think it's just wonderful. The generosity given to you that you stepped into and offer back, I think that's a wonderful cycle and I'm so glad I get to receive that generosity as well in this conversation. And also in general, just making visible and auditorially and to scale the culture here, there's so much culture here.

CTM: There is.

KC: There's so much culture happening all the time. So, I really appreciate that. And that's meaningful to me. And my last question is why is Public Art important to you?

CTM: So, I mean, most people may be familiar with Nina Simone's quote that it's an artist duty to reflect the times. And I add on to that to say, while it is an artist duty to reflect the times, it's the community's responsibility to ensure that artists have what they need to do that. It's not enough to just say we need the arts. It's all of the foundational things that make arts sustainable, just, fair, accessible. I can go down the list, right? Public Art, art making, art creation, art sustenance, art joy is a lifeblood, without it we don't breathe. And so, I fight for that right to have it and then to create opportunities for others to have [it]. Because unlike any other sector, any other entity in the world, arts and culture, and this is just being very selfish here for the one moment, is that arts and culture is so subjective.

It doesn't require much except to just show up and participate. And that's what makes it inherently beautiful is yeah, you can go and perfect the certain tools and techniques but if you want to do finger paint, go do it. If you want to use apples and metal, go do it. If you want to use raisins and Popsicle sticks and glue, go do it. You're tapping into your inner creativity that has been there since birth, but has been suppressed by the time you got to eighth grade, maybe in sixth grade. If it comes into your life at 70 or 60 or whatever, you get to experience and define it for yourself. I'm walking in my full creative autonomy and using festival platforms to help shape systems change and to provide greater access.

Listen to or read interviews with each of our 2022 awardees about their own journeys in leadership and public art making: Christa BrownRob “Problak” Gibbs, and Marquis Victor.

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