Deb Morgan



26th April 2016

Introduction by Laura La Rosa
Cover image image by Snappatronik

Tucked away in an unassuming side street of Marrickville lies the beautiful industrial-esque dwelling that houses local arts organisation Create or Die; an organised space fostering creative sustainability for practicing artists. Here, there is no sense of one person solely ‘running the show’, as photographers, curators, and artists busily pass you by, greeting you warmly.

I wandered into the building with my camera in hand to find founder Deb Morgan in the midst of interviewing an artist for their 100 pictures/100 stories project. While Deb seemed just as interested in and supportive of my own ventures, I was lucky enough to nab some time with her to talk about Create or Die and the importance of nurturing one’s own creative narrative. Immediately struck by her warmth, I couldn’t help but feel foolish for assuming that someone who dedicates much of their career to the budding success of fellow artists would be anything but…

Tell us a little bit about your background, and what drove you to start an arts organisation and space for artists.

Wow, that’s a big one! I have a really diverse background as I’ve been working since I was 15. But here’s the sped-up, cut down version… From ever since I can remember, I wanted to be an artist – what that meant I wasn’t entirely sure. At one stage I thought I was going to be a cartoonist, then an illustrator, a fashion designer, a photographer, a filmmaker, a writer, but I ended up as a producer.

Maybe it was because I couldn’t make my mind up over which discipline to focus on, or maybe it was because I was told from multiple influencers in my early life that I’d never “make money as an artist” – probably a bit of both – but the point is that the option of being an artist at some stage seemed impossible. So I started out in event producing which over the years expanded into creative/art directing and then I moved into the film world. But there was always a little scratching at the back of my throat, like a cough that won’t go away, telling me to Create or Die.

Create or Die was formed back in 2008. I remember the day clearly. I was living in a little tinned-roof house in Melbourne with a bunch of other creative friends. I also had a bunch of my friends back in Sydney and Canberra who were also following creative careers. But even though we were all in ‘creative industries’, something really stuck out to me and niggled at my soul; the majority of us were now either only creating for other people/clients, or creating for other people is what took up the majority of our time. We weren’t making time or prioritising our own art, we weren’t feeding our inner artist, so whilst there is merit and satisfaction that comes from client work, the balance for most of us was way out.

Create or Die started as a website and online platform for other ‘recovering artists’ like myself to showcase our own work, collaborate, explore and grow as artists in an environment where art has no restrictions. Over the last 8 years, Create or Die has been organically growing and today it is a fully fledged Art Organisation. We strive to promote unfettered freedom of expression and have an amazing community of multi-platform artists who all spur each other on to our next project; the next painting, exhibition, feature film script, novel, photo shoot or music project.

What is the aligning factor that brings all the people and artists together at Create or Die? In other words, what makes you welcome someone new into the space?

I had coffee with a young filmmaker recently and she asked me the same question, “how do you choose who comes into the ‘group’?” Probably sounds corny as hell, but it’s not really about us choosing, it’s about the person choosing us. A great example is Brad Robson just walked in off the street one day and said “Hey, I wanna paint on your wall… and can we be friends?”. I didn’t know Brad at the time, I’d heard about him from a curator friend of mine, but I just said “yes”. That’s kind of the main thing – saying yes. Because you never know who that person is going to become in your life or what sort of opportunities and adventures it will lead to. I do believe in connections and energies and I think in the end, it really comes down to that.

People come and go and that’s all about the flow. You can’t force something; you just have to create the right environment for open communities that share the same ethos, which is to respect, honour and champion each other’s own personal journeys and creativity. We all want authentic, unfettered artistic lives.

What have you learnt about surrounding yourself with the ‘right’ kind of people in your professional and personal life?

That’s huge. And I’ve made a lot of mistakes – well no, nothing is ever a mistake. I have learnt a lot. I think you have to be the right sort of person and then that’s what you will attract. This past 12 months for me has been massive in the area of personal growth and that has naturally led to something I am now so grateful and blessed by, that is being surrounded by the right kind of people. I believe in synchronicity more than ever now. I have some of the most amazing people on this planet in my life and am lucky enough to call them friends, collaborators and creative soul mates.

You run a business and a creative empire, how do you facilitate and manage your own creative pursuits alongside business growth?

Haha! A creative empire? I don’t know about an empire, but I’ll try and answer that (with great difficulty!) I come back to the first question about why and how Create or Die started. It’s about finding balance. And not being trapped by your own preconceived notions about success or how to do things, or anything really! You have to be open to growth and change, and you need to find your own flow. This is one of the biggest and most common conversations I have with artists and creative: What’s the best practice? How do I balance paying bills and making art? How do I maintain my authenticity and not sell out, but still survive? Ahhh!

“This is one of the biggest and most common conversations I have with artists and creative: What’s the best practice? How do I balance paying bills and making art? How do I maintain my authenticity and not sell out, but still survive?”

Over these past 8 years these are the conversations that I have had over and over and over again, in pubs, cafes, on breaks between filming or exhibiting, and the answer is always just listen to your heart (go Roxette!) Again, corny as hell, but it’s the thing that works. You need to figure out your ‘why’, and that is different from everyone else’s so only you can answer that question. When you are at the end of your life, what do you want to be remembered for? Working back late in a job that you hate, or not picking up the pen and paper? For me personally, that has been a huge question and a massively personal journey – what do I want to be remembered for, or more importantly, what impact did I have on the world and those around me?

You might say “oh that’s idealistic, I have bills and responsibilities and mouths to feed” …Yep you do, but you have to find that balance or you will kill yourself and everyone around you with your misery and heartbreak of not doing what you want. Totally digressed. But how I manage to facilitate my own personal creative pursuits is by prioritising them.

I write a lot, it’s a medium that I’ve always loved and there’s little setup or things that can hinder me from writing. I try to take on principles of The Artist Way (morning pages, artist dates etc.), refreshing and renewing the creative spirit regularly. If you don’t do this, your well dries up and there’s nothing left to give. If I’m not looking after my inner artist, then everyone around me suffers.

What does a typical week look like for you?

I can’t say that I ever really have a ‘typical’ week, working with so many different mediums and artists means that what I’m working on is constantly changing. I do, however, try and fight for my rituals and keeping some important things regular and structured.

So a typical day might look something like this:

Coffee. Always coffee.

I walk my dog in the local park; she’s a border collie and keeps me sane and active. Then I’ll do my morning pages or practice meditation once I’ve tired her out. Create or Die is an Arts Organisation but we also have a physical space, so there are a lot of practical things that need to be taken care of in the space. Today I spent an hour painting our new artist studios. I have a lot of meetings with artists and collaborators, so those meetings can often dictate my week, although I will sometimes completely clear my schedule just so I can catch up on script writing or art making.

Here’s something like what a week could look like for me:

Monday: I am working with Ken Chung from Erskine Villa on a number of creative and dining experiences. Create or Die also manages the installation of artist’s work on the walls in his café/restaurant. Monday nights we do yoga at our space.

Tuesday: I work with artist and creative practitioner Jessie Ray. She comes from an events background as well, and is founder ofArt Party so we work on new ideas and get planning for creative events and programs.

Wednesday: Admin day. I put aside time purely for admin stuff.

Thursdays: Creative Day. Script or creative writing, coming up with ideas for films, painting, coming up with ideas for production design for films I’m working on.

Friday: Morning Yoga and ‘Create or Die Breakfast Club’. We have about 12 artists, writers, illustrators, filmmakers and photographers who get together every Friday morning to share breakfast and their projects with one another. Sometimes we are all working on a project together and that will dictate the conversations as we are planning for an exhibition or project. Other times it’s just a time to share that sacred time together and share what we are all going through – triumphs and challenges. Friday Night we often have an exhibition opening.

Saturday: We will be launching our ‘Creative Sustainability’ series in May, which brings in creative practitioners to talk about things like meditation and mindfulness, how to feed your inner artist, art business (challenges, best practice etc.). It’s not just for artists though, this stuff is really valuable for anyone – humans are creative by our very nature and it’s all about finding your own ‘why’ and your own balance.

Sunday: I like to try and set aside at least one day for getting out of the urban landscape. That could mean going to the bush or the beach. Recently I’ve loved driving down south and spending the day there as there’s lots of dog-friendly beaches so River can run wild.

The pivotal moment(s) when you realised you’d created something unique and purposeful…

One moment was earlier this year. I’d taken a much-needed break and gone on holidays. Before I left however, I felt quite burnt out. I was feeling ready to give it all up and go live on a farm without a telephone. When I got back, we had the exhibition “Midnight Alchemy” which was a really amazing and pivotal moment for me. When I looked out at all these artists who are involved in Create or Die, it suddenly dawned on me that the organisation was running without me. Sounds weird maybe… but that was always my dream.

Create or Die is a vehicle and a tool, a platform that allows artists to fulfil their dreams. That could mean holding their first exhibition, collaborating with artists from other disciplines, drawing inspiration somehow, or gaining support from fellow artists, especially when you want to throw in the towel.

Was there a crucial time in your career where you felt immense frustration and/or restriction? And how did that foster growth or change?

Yes definitely and it’s happened multiple times. Frustrations come in multiple formats: financial, time, perhaps even conflict with partners. It’s all about what you do with those moments that fosters growth and change. And change in you specifically, means change in your organisation, business, art, relationships – it’s all an extension of you.

Recently I’ve had a lot of those moments and all of them have actually made me step up to the plate and I’ve been actually welcoming them when they come along. Diamonds are produced under high temperature and pressure.

What have you learnt about overcoming self-doubt and/or indecisiveness?

You’ve just got to do it! It doesn’t need to be perfect, just give it a go. The more times you give it a go, the better and more professional you’ll become. With self-doubt, I think you need to back yourself, experience does go a long way, but so does knowing this tiny little secret, and that is that no-one really knows what they are doing!

Do you have a mentor(s)? Of the formal or informal kind?

My mentors at the moment are really my fellow artists. I did the Artist Way some time ago, and that group still have a WhatsApp forum where we share success, frustrations and confusions about our creative life. The Create or Die Breakfast club, which now has around 20 members, all meet together every Friday, as well as one on one – they are my biggest mentors and support.

The term ‘jack-of-all-trades’ is thrown around a lot to describe people like yourself, what have you learnt so far in terms of harnessing an array of skills and passions?

Two things; it can give you a huge advantage and also be hugely confusing personally. The positive effect of garnering a broad array of skills and experience is that all of it comes in handy. It makes you fluid and adaptable and gives you the ability to think on your feet – something that is becoming increasingly important. On the flip side, until you realise where all the pieces of the puzzle fit, it can be hugely confusing and a difficult process to learn how to focus. But once you do, you’ll feel grateful, even blessed for it.

What do you envisage your life looking like when you are say, 50 years old?

To be honest, I never really thought I’d live that long… until recently. I hope I still get to do what I do now. I hope that I’ve achieved some personal goals with my art and I hope I’m coming up with more then. I would really like to have published at least one book and written some screenplays that have been made into films or plays. I feel like my life now, the community around me, and the journey I am on with my inner artist is exactly the path I want to be on and exactly where I am meant to be. Although it sometimes feels like it’s taken a really long time to get here, it’s actually exciting because I feel like it’s only the beginning.

What’s coming up at Create or Die?

  • Creative Sustainability Program is launching in May. It’s all about sustaining your creativity and it takes a holistic approach (body, mind, spirit, community, art etc.)
  • Artist Development Program. This is taking 10 of the artists involved in our organisation through a program to create new works, culminating in a group project.
  • The Residency Project. We are announcing our first round.
  • We are working with Erskine Villa to put on a series of creative events that include musicians, art and community. This takes place every Thursday night, and once a month we run a special event.

Your own pending/upcoming personal projects (films etc.)?

I’m currently working on a script that I’m co-writing with Storm Ashwood. It’s a sci-fi (I totally geek out for that kind of stuff), but it has a lot of philosophy and meaning in it as well. Actually most Sci-Fi’s do really, because they are a glimpse into a possible future and often touch on the complexities of humanity. This story is no different in that way, but the concept and scientific theories that we’ve been creating to create this ‘world’ are something really new and exciting. I’ve also been working on a bunch of smaller written pieces that are hopefully going to be the first pieces in a series I’ll be releasing some time in the next couple of months.

Laura La Rosa