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Take Me to the River

For a few days at a time, renowned landscape artist Elemore Morgan Jr. packs up his acrylics and Masonite boards and follows his muse to New Orleans. Jason Berry goes along for a day of painting.

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Summer after summer, in peak hours of the heat, Elemore Morgan Jr. cuts a solitary figure in a field near his home in Vermilion Parish, just south of Lafayette. Lathered in sunscreen, a cap tattooed with sweat, his body a delicate curve against the easel, Morgan paints the sky and cloud formations that rule his cosmos.

The barometric pressure in south Louisiana can create a passionate intensity in the sky. The dawns wash pink and then the fierce heat advances, turning the sky a midday blue, and afternoons feature a sumptuous ballet of clouds. Summer in these latitudes means rain. Heavy thunderclouds roll in with military power, darkening the view, drenching the earth until the sky is rinsed a cobalt blue, waiting for the painter to come out again and plant himself at the easel, working through "the magic hours," as the Gulf Coast artist Walter Anderson called the last stretch of daylight.

"The clouds," explains 72-year-old Morgan, a dutiful husband and father of three daughters, "are like women. They are very sensuous, very voluptuous. The air, atmosphere and water particles come together and give them a very powerful, sculptural presence. I also refer to them as pregnant clouds.

"Where I live we're close to the Gulf," says Morgan. "In the summer you have a regular pattern with the heat building up and you can see it happening. In the morning to the south it looks clear. By 10, a wall of clouds will move in on the warm moist air. By midday there's a huge buildup. Late morning and midday is the best time to start work. In late afternoon the clouds lose their fullness. The summer clouds are so powerful, those cumulous clouds, big and bulbous. Some days you have them all around on a 360-degree basis. The clouds are rioting!"

"I'll tell you something else about clouds," continues Morgan. "We have an exercise called contour drawing where you follow an edge -- it's one of the essentials of drawing, absolutely basic to everything you do. If you try that with clouds, you can be looking at a mysterious thunderhead and try to track the edges, and I swear the shape of that thing changes on you before your very eyes. You can turn your head and look at the easel, and it's different!"

The cloud shapes and vibrant skies of southwest Louisiana are signature works of an artist at the peak of his career. Well before his retirement in 1998 from the art faculty at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Morgan had achieved a solid standing among critics, collectors and curators. His works hang in many private collections and museums. A large landscape in three panels occupies most of one wall in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

Morgan's work showed a new turn last winter in an exhibition at the Arthur Roger Gallery, in a group show with the Lafayette painter Francis Pavy and the photographer Debbie Fleming Caffery, who spent many years in Franklin and now lives in Santa Fe. Among Morgan's new paintings were various scenes of New Orleans -- bridges, warehouses, wharves. The seductive clouds of the country had gone hovering over elegiac brick buildings in forgotten industrial neighborhoods and back streets on the Mississippi docks. Bienville City, a sweeping 24-foot wide triptych, is a view of the Mississippi at the foot of Canal Street, looking downriver with a view of its bend. Crescent City, a two-panel, 10-foot-wide work, shows another expansive sweep of the Mississippi. The World Trade Center and Hilton hotel rivet the eye like a center tent pole, and behind them runs the mammoth steel-truss bridge, the Crescent City Connection. Morgan worked on this painting through 2002 and finished in early 2003 in some 15 sessions, positioned in an upstairs banquet room at the Windsor Court Hotel.

"I received an award from the Delgado Art Association of the New Orleans Museum of Art, and they put my wife and daughter and me up in the hotel," he explains. "I loved what I saw from the window. The hotel management was very kind to let me come back. I used the service elevator. ... I did the work in fits and starts."

He chuckles. "That's how I live my life."

New Orleans has become one of the largest per-capita art markets in the nation. For a city of 450,000 people, the network of galleries and booming population of artists reflects not only an affordable standard of living, particularly old buildings with large studio space at reasonable rent, but also art dealers with the contacts to sell their works.

And in much the way that Cajun and zydeco musicians found New Orleans clubs and audiences to be a platform for moving their careers beyond Louisiana, so artists in southwest Louisiana, Baton Rouge and north Louisiana have found the city to be a launch in getting their works to a wider audience. In that sense, the Ogden Museum may serve as a catalyst in developing the city as a place not only to live but also to sell one's work.

Morgan has had a complicated affair with New Orleans. "I'm an outsider who goes to the city to take my work to market," he chuckles. But the city also has been beckoning him to come and paint. And so, Morgan steals into town a day or two at a time -- sometimes weeks or even months apart -- his van packed with acrylics, brushes, rags, buckets, trays and the pictures, on Masonite panels of various sizes in varying stages of development, wrapped in blankets in the back.

"I love the clouds when they float over New Orleans in July," says Morgan. "People want to get out of New Orleans in July, but I love those huge thunderheads above the levee."

Morgan, an only child, spent much of his youth on the family farm just outside Baton Rouge. His father, Elemore Morgan Sr., was a well-known Louisiana photographer who discovered the medium while working as a construction supervisor with the noted Baton Rouge architect A. Hays Town. Several of the elder Morgan's photographs hang in a room of the Ogden Museum just around the corner from his son's huge painting. (Elemore Jr.'s own photographs illustrate Cajun and Creole Music Makers, a 1984 oral history book by Barry Jean Ancelet, reissued in 1999 by University Press of Mississippi.)

Morgan classifies as a landscape artist, yet his style does not fit neat categories. His lush greens, earth tones and striking depths of skies call to mind the beauty of the French countryside rendered by the Impressionists and the Fauves, the 19th and early 20th century artists whose shimmering images influenced Morgan when he was just starting out. Morgan welcomes the comparisons, while pointing out that post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne's early works were "clumsy." He said it took him 40 years discover that painting wasn't sculpture. His early paintings are thick, clumsy, but full of power. He couldn't manage it till later in life when he became a refined painter."

Southern landscape realism, especially paintings that convey a pastoral 19th century romanticism, has long been a staple of the regional art market. The Ogden Museum has an impressive collection of landscape paintings. This genre has also begat a multitude of imitations. Schlock variations of the plantation romance -- timeworn sheds, moss-limbed oaks, the white pillars, ancient black folk -- are a cliche in many Southern homes, a sign of the impulse in many Southerners to register identity with land long gone from the family. In contrast, Morgan shows the palpable spaces of Louisiana landscape. "Morgan's paintings represent the elemental world of nature that existed long before humans evolved, a natural world that will continue long after all human presence, and the signs of humankind's meddling, have been erased," wrote Karl Volkmar in the May edition of the New Orleans Art Review.

Morgan's rural works are of a land shaped by the dreams and needs of the Cajun and Creole people who lived and continue to live there. His landscapes, however, are curiously devoid of actual human presence. "Where have all the people gone?" is a fair question. They are not working in the fields or the docks. They are not tending the cemetery grounds, or resting under the huge oak tree. It's as if the people have gone away to rest during the intense light and heat of the midday summer sun, only to come out again when evening nears.

Arthur Roger Gallery represents Morgan, whose medium-sized pictures -- those that are approximately four feet wide -- sell from $8,000 to $12,000. The larger works, which cover a full wall, command $20,000 or more.

"We sell everything Elemore does, and we have no inventory with the exception of the few things that are quite large," says gallery owner Arthur Roger. "I hate to say it, but Elemore's not a prolific artist. I find the only thing that really results in a larger body of work is when there is an exhibition plan." Absent such a deadline, Roger says, "Elemore is much more about the experience of making the paintings than selling them."

Twenty years ago when Morgan approached him for gallery representation, Roger thought that selling his beautiful landscapes would be a piece of cake. But clients were standoffish at first. Roger showed one of his best customers a Morgan picture the dealer thought was superb. The man immediately declined. Roger hung the painting in another part of the gallery. A month later, the same collector came in and said, "Now I love that one." Roger was dumbfounded. "That's the same one you didn't like before," he told the man. Oh, no, the client insisted. Roger didn't argue. The painting sold.

"I had this happen several times," Roger says.

In the early years, Roger's clients were also resistant to the shapes of Morgan's unframed panels. They expected a picture to be a rectangle, not a triangle or the more unconventional shapes on which he painted. "Now," says Roger, "everyone wants a shape."

The people who began buying Morgan's work were collectors of contemporary art, not those interested in historical landscapes. The landscape lovers -- Roger calls them "people for whom art ended in 1950" -- began to connect with Morgan's work as word spread of his popularity among the contemporary aficionados. "The collector base grew from there," Roger says. "We started selling to museums and collectors in other cities and states.

"Elemore always had this very emotional response to pricing his work," continues Roger. "Some artists will calculate a painting by the square inch and figure out what it costs. Elmore never thought of a painting in regard to scale as far as its value. I would get paintings at eight feet, priced at $2,400 -- this was years ago -- and then there would be a much smaller piece, two feet square, and it would be $2,000. I'd say, 'Elemore, this one is $2,000 and that one is $2,400?' He'd say, 'That little painting is one of my best pieces.' It's a valid way of pricing, but not the way the art world generally looks at value, how collectors look at things. But if you know Elemore, you just respect it."

In the early years of his association with the gallery, Morgan priced his works at the high end of what the market would bear. During the 1980s, when the state economy was in a free fall because of plunging oil prices, Morgan's medium-sized works at $2,000 to $5,000 were considered high for the local market. Today's price tags for such works in the high-four-to-low-five-figure range are "quite reasonable, even low considering Elemore's stature," says Roger.

They are also hard to get. For at the very time the market has come around to Morgan, his popularity and sales potential on a roll, Roger waits for new pictures to sell.

Several years ago on a winter visit to Morgan's home and studio near the town of Maurice, Roger saw a landscape not yet earmarked for sale. He announced that he knew a collector waiting to buy such a piece.

"Well, I started it in August, and then in September the clouds changed," replied Morgan. "I need to wait till next summer to finish the painting." Roger had his own gut feeling as art dealer: You don't remember what the clouds look like? Not to worry! Finish the painting. I can sell it!

"But deep down," sighs Roger, "I knew there was something much more important going on. You don't challenge the artist in how he goes about his work."

On a milky fall afternoon, Morgan steers his van into the Bywater neighborhood, weaving along rutted streets near the river docks, "spotting targets" -- places where he can set up and paint.

He stops on upper Burgundy Street to take photographs of the church of Blessed Francis Seelos (formerly Historic Vincent DePaul Church), which was built in 1866. "Look at that brickwork," he marvels.

With a letter of permission from the Dock Board, he guides his van up the ramp at a dock in the Ninth Ward. On the empty wharf he gazes at the downtown skyscrapers clustered in the distance. "This is hard to beat," he murmurs. "Whatever lies ahead."

He stands with a 4-foot-wide Masonite board resting on his waistline, left hand holding the top, his right hand moving the graphite pencil in sure, swift strokes, casting the shape of the river and the buildings of the city beyond. A tugboat plows along the river, which seems possessed of a constant hum. Hunched over his surface, Morgan works nearly an hour, registering what might be called a first draft.

At 4 p.m. he settles in at the wheel. The van threads through the French Quarter to Tchoupitoulas Street, up another ramp to an expansive area next to the Dock Board Offices just under the Crescent City Connection. Across the river in Algiers lies a pink warehouse emblazoned Perry Street Wharf. Morgan methodically unpacks his assorted materials, including color-spattered tin trays, a foldout table and 27 tubes of paint. Then, peeling away the old blanket, he retrieves an 8-foot-wide, 4-foot-high Masonite panel, a work-in-progress depicting the bridge, the river, a pink warehouse and a long ship docked in the right corner of the panel.

The van is stacked with other works in progress, shrouded in beat-up blankets. He sets the picture on the easel and gets to work. It's been more than six months since he last worked on this painting.

"It's all about drawing, in the broadest sense -- articulating the forms," he says, darkening the line of the river across the picture. "Every move of the brush is a drawing move."

So here he is, like a lawyer picking up a case that has been continued, getting the file active again. The river beneath his brush is turquoise but as he moves in quick, precise strokes, the color darkens to a blue-yellow, catching the light as the sun trails across the sky.

A foghorn booms. A volley of wind comes off the river with such force that Morgan has to cup the panel in his left hand to keep it from shaking, and with his right hand moving between the palette and the surface, he darkens the red hue of the geometric shape of the great bridge -- the same bridge he painted in much easier circumstances five years ago from his perch at the Windsor Court.

Morgan then darkens the blue of the water with horizontal strips of rust that simulate sunlight in scudding flecks as the wind ripples across the river. "It's like rewriting a short story or a poem," he says. "A painting will go through all kinds of changes before I get it right, building toward the final color effects."

It is also hard work. The river is not a peaceful place to paint. The wind whips at Morgan mercilessly, the thrum of cars on the bridge rattle the senses, and some gigantic machine on the far side of the bridge, beyond eyesight, puts out a "chunk-achunka-chunka" sound that makes it hard to hear what the other person says when you're only 10 feet away. Morgan is sweating as he paints, yet the intensity of his focus carries a certain serenity amidst the heat, wind and noise.

Over 90 minutes he layers more strips of light to convey evening sunlight; he is still wrestling with the clouds as light begins to fade.

"New Orleans is like Venice in that the moist atmosphere causes a whole way of painting," says Morgan. He takes down the easel and arranges the painting against the fence along the river. "Titian, Veronese, all those guys had to be affected by the soft, diffuse light. Their colors shimmer and radiate. Where I live on the prairie, that moist air triggers a similar response in what I see in the sky."

He mops his brow.

"Painting in certain circumstances, the formalities, what it means to have a style -- those essentials are eternal elements," he says. "I believe they are enduring principles. One should ask the question not what is art, but why is art? Why do people spend their lives making poetry, plays, novels? I believe in God and that there's a certain order to things. I believe God gave us art like He gave us wine. Art is a lifelong obsession, something you can let go of, and it allows us to reflect on our situation. Artists are basically outsiders, observers. I think we've been franchised to capture moments and experiences that all human beings have."

The painting leans against a fence on the dock. As the sun sets, the colors come alive, like a spirit of daytime speaking to the night. Is the painting done?

"No," says Morgan, staring at his work. "I'll have to come back again. I'm not sure when."

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"You can be looking at a mysterious thunderhead - and try to track the edges, and I swear the shape of - that thing changes on you before your very eyes," - says Elemore Morgan Jr. - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • "You can be looking at a mysterious thunderhead and try to track the edges, and I swear the shape of that thing changes on you before your very eyes," says Elemore Morgan Jr.
Elemore Morgan Jr. rarely includes human forms in - his landscapes. Most works depict a land shaped by - the dreams and needs of the people who live there. - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • Elemore Morgan Jr. rarely includes human forms in his landscapes. Most works depict a land shaped by the dreams and needs of the people who live there.
Wharves -- such as in Celeste Street Wharf - -- are among Morgan's favorite subjects in New - Orleans. - ELEMORE MORGAN JR
  • Elemore Morgan Jr
  • Wharves -- such as in Celeste Street Wharf -- are among Morgan's favorite subjects in New Orleans.

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