“Prairie View”, Southern Accents

Prairie View


As a child, artist Elemore Morgan, Jr., passed a lot of time in the colorful precincts of Cajun Louisiana. Though he lived on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, his mother’s roots were in the small town of Abbeville. During car trips to visit his family there, he’d fix his gaze on the landscape as if it were an engrossing drama. When the old black Buick would finally cruise into southwest Louisiana with its yellow-green rice fields and soft, flat stretches of prairie, Morgan’s heart would quicken at the sight of the landscape.

Now 70, Morgan lives and works near Maurice, Louisiana, a tiny rural dot on the map not far from Lafayette, the undeclared capital of Cajun country. He is a painter of considerable national renown. Using high-key, Fauvist colors and quick, gestural brushwork, he paints the same elemental landscapes that thrilled him as a child, and he has been doing so for nearly 40 years. The artist is a tireless investigator of the beauty in unsung places-terraced rice fields, drainage ditches, faded industrial buildings, prairies, clumps of oak trees, even the nondescript strip of land behind a Kroger chain store-and consequently has bestowed on them fresh dignity and importance. And he paints the same places over and over. Change for the sake of change doesn’t interest him.

“If you tell me something is ‘in,’ I will thank you for warning me and be sure to avoid it,” Morgan says. “What interests me is what is timeless-what’s going to endure because it’s substantially correct.”

Despite his emphasis on intimate, local phenomena, success has found him out. Morgan has had dozens of exhibitions in the South and elsewhere, and his work hangs in numerous private collections as well as the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, and the University Art Museum in Lafayette. Partly because he’s such a pleasant person to talk to-such a charming, humble, genial, interesting soul-the artist is a favorite of journalists and has inspired a lot of ink. But none of the fanfare has tempted Morgan away from home for long, and it has never eroded his deep-seated need to create art.

“I used to tell students all the time that the only people who belong in this business are the people who can’t stay out of it,” says Morgan, who, for 32 years, was a professor in the art department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It sounds kind of grim, but I don’t think it is. What makes artist different than other folks isn’t exactly talent-I’ve had students with talent running off their fingers, but they didn’t have the need. For artists, making art is an obsession. It’s a sickness and a cure, all wrapped in one.”

Morgan’s studio sits at the end of an isolated dirt road. It is a handsome, bare-bones structure of heavy-gauge corrugated metal, perched on piers, with faded red wooden doors salvaged form an old general store. In front of the studio is a simple porch that sits like the prow of a ship overlooking a tousled prairie and a limitless, mercurial sky. A few trees, a pond, and some tiny far-off buildings are also visible, but it’s primarily a view of two kinds of open space, earth and heaven, stitched together by the seam of the horizon-exactly the kind of exalted, light-inflected space that Morgan loves to paint.

“This is a true coastal prairie,” he says of the land before his eyes. “It extends into Texas and is differentiated from the alluvial lands further east. It’s primarily grassland. There”s a clay pan about 3 feet below the surface, so it holds water nicely, and that’s why it”s easy to grow rice out here.”

Morgan likes to paint outside. He starts out at his studio, where he packs up his vehicle with easels, containers of water, rags, paint-spattered zinc buckets, brushes, tubes of paints, and unfinished paintings. Then he drives to whichever landscape is luring him at the moment and sets up the easels. He mostly paints on Masonite panels that he cuts into unconventional shapes, some of them curved or oblong with soft, tapered edges. “One of the reasons I make these shapes is to respond to the curvature of the earth,” says Morgan. “I find myself wanting to accentuate that. Also, squares and rectangles seem abrupt to me.”

He steps into an old khaki aviator’s suit speckled with paint, mended and re-mended by his wife, and he zips up. Then, with a palette reminiscent of French 19th-century painting and a sense of place as strong as Paul Cézanne, he translates the architecture, land, light, trees, and atmospheric effects into shapes and colors that heighten, transform, and personalize reality while remaining true to it. He paints rapidly, delicately.

The farmers in the area are used to Morgan’s ways. They always allow him access to their fields. To them he’s like some rare owl that has inexplicably taken up residence on their land-an exotic sight that’s become ordinary. Morgan paints outside in every season, at every time of day, but says the late afternoons of summer are the most stirring.

Morgan didn’t always know exactly where he belonged, geographically and aesthetically speaking. His journey in art began when he was an undergraduate at LSU, where he studied with such well-known artists as Caroline Durieux, Ralston Crawford, and David LeDoux. After serving for two years in the Korean War, he used the GI Bill to go to the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University in England. At first Morgan thought he wanted to paint like certain 14th and 15th-century Flemish painters, including Jan van Eyck-tight, meticulous, lustrous, and jewel-like still lifes. He tied one such painting of fruit. “I had worked on that thing for a month and a half and finished up with a piece that was cold and alien to me,” he says. “So I went out and bought more fruit, and I redid it with great speed and ease. It was like a revelation to me. I think it was a much better painting, with a lot of air around the objects. I still love to show these two paintings side by side, to demonstrate that often we don’t really know what we want to do, what”s in our best interest.”

Between terms at Oxford, Morgan spent months hitchhiking around Europe and the Middle East, notebooks and sketchbooks in hand. “I was stumbling around, making bad paintings, but I began to be able to work on site,” he says, “If you had an hour and that”s all, you had to get something down. It forced the issue.”

Then Morgan returned to Louisiana. No longer a student, he was filled with the sobering felling that he would have to prove himself all over again. He was poor, but with the support and encouragement of family, he staked his future on art. His father, Elemore Morgan, Sr., a well-known documentary photographer of Louisiana’s vanishing folk life, had set a good example for him.

The art bet has paid off. For years, Morgan has been living the life he was meant to live. He and his wife, Mary, a former student who is also an artist, have three daughters: Lucia, 29; Olivia, 27; and Emily, 14. After teaching for more than three decades, he insists he learned at least as much from his students as they did from him. He paints and draws daily, joyously. And his paintings sell well at Arthur Roger Gallery, one of New Orleans’ preeminent galleries for contemporary art. Morgan knows what making art does for him: It helps him to see the world better and muse on his human experiences. But what does his art do for the people who buy it?

He answers with characteristic modesty. “One of my teachers wrote on a board once: ”We find that the artist makes something we didn’t know we needed,” he says. “Most people don’t know they need art. But if they give it a chance, and if it’s a good piece of work, it will have an effect on them.”