Judy’s Art Life in Shades of Grey

Judy Morris in her home studio


One of Australia’s eminent neuro scientists, Associate Professor Judy Morris, has taken off her  white lab coat to draw intricate art of the natural world and the human body.

She, who once used special dyes to see brightly fluorescent light in human nerve cells now prefers to use shades of grey – charcoal and pencils to create works to rival photographs .

After a stellar 24-year career as a Flinders University research fellow in Anatomy and Histology,  she has metamorphosed into an award-winning  full-time artist in just four years.

Judy, who was the National Health & Medical Research Council Principal Research Fellow when she retired four years ago,  has surprised herself at her  success.

Her workplace is now her home at 26 Hawker Avenue, Belair which has been enlarged to create a stylish upstairs studio. It will be open to the public this weekend on Saturday and Sunday afternoons as part of the SALA celebrations.

Lingering health issues in her mid-50s caused her to retire from science and turn to art.

“I felt I wanted to enjoy other things in my life that I had never had time to pursue,’’ she says.

She took  a course in art history at Adelaide University planning to become a curator. Instead, she was inspired to try her own talents after viewing an exhibition by Hans Arkeveld, a West Australian artist.

“I have been drawing full time for four years now.  I like to try and find different perspectives on ordinary thing, but it does involve showing more detail than people are used to finding in artwork.’’

Her keen powers of observation and attention to detail, once pivotal for scientific research, seemed ideal basics to becoming an artist.

She began her artistic journey in 2009 and other than undertaking  two short courses in drawing – one with the renowned nature artist Gilbert Dashorst at the Botanic Gardens – Judy is largely self-taught.

”I was inspired to get the pencils out again by seeing other people’s work and I was thinking “Oh, I can draw that’’,  she recalls.

Judy Morris has been a finalist twice in the prestigious Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize and her first solo exhibition held at the Flinders Medical Centre featured 32 drawings on anatomy using her personal trainer and herself as models.

“I cannot believe I have achieved all of this because I didn’t set out to achieve anything……. Things simply evolved,’’ says Judy.

She first turned her eye to the natural world, animal and plant forms, which she captured through a range of media, exploring the boundaries between drawing and photography .

Her graphite and coloured pencil drawings highlight the intricate beauty of natural objects she has found in her garden, or bushland or the foreshore.

She is also a master at capturing the human form with pencil and charcoal drawings ranging from portraits to renderings of body structures. She first drew her parents and one of her favourite models, is, however, her personal trainer and his body form is seen in artworks on the wall of her attractive work space.

“I am attracted to form, a beautiful shape and how the light hits it,’’ she says. “Light and shade is very important to me, but there is something in my brain that wants to see more.’’

Now each day she works in charcoal and pencil drawings in her new studio. She points to one of her body studies hanging behind her. “There are hundreds of hours of work in this work.’’

In 2007, Professor Morris was awarded the inaugural Nina Kondelos Prize by the Australian Neuroscience Society for outstanding contribution to basic or clinical neuroscience research by a female neuroscientist.

Previously her career was entwined with her husband, Professor Ian Gibbons, as Co-Chief Investigators of the “Autonomic Neurotransmission Laboratory” within the Department of Anatomy & Histology and also the Centre for Neuroscience, a major research area within Flinders University. He is still professor of anatomy in the School of Medicine at Flinders University.

Although”  satisfying work’’ Judy says the constant search for grant moneys to continue operating  the laboratory’s research and administration costs was very stressful.

In the early 80s, she discovered a whole new class of chemicals called Peptides and for the first time they were being seen in nervous cells all over the body, in the brain and every part of the nervous system.  “We were using special dyes and you could see brightly fluorescent light in the nerve cells and every day we would go and see the nerve cell and we could see something no-one else had ever seen. It was very exciting.’’

“My research was amongst the first in the world to show that nerves carrying signals between the spinal cord and the major organs of the body (heart, blood vessels, gut, reproductive organs, skin) use multiple chemical messengers to keep the organs working, “ she says.

“With my colleagues I developed ways of using fluorescent dyes to show up to five or six chemical messengers contained within a single nerve cell. ‘’

She doesn’t see anything remarkable about switching from science to art and recalled that her father was always drawing. But in high school she needed to decide between art and science.

“Everything we do in our lives is informed by science but most people don’t think about it that way. Science is seen as a cold, hard impassionate thing completely separate from their everyday life.’’



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