An Indelible Sense of Place: The Paintings of Dr. Rufus S. Morgan

My father, Rufus Morgan, was a physician for years in a small country town, but after his retirement he began painting, painting all the time, eight hours a day, whenever he wasn’t fishing or driving around taking photos for more paintings. He was neither professionally trained (except for a few lessons from a lady in Florence, Italy, during WWII) nor a well-bred amateur plein air painter, but he had an eye for landscape, loved the outdoors and it showed.

He took photos but didn’t slavishly copy them. After he died I found boxes and boxes of his photos, some of them taped into panoramas, all of them covered with paint spatters. He loved the mountains of East Tennessee and his best paintings showed different views of the Sequatchie Valley where he had practiced medicine back in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. His paintings were of very particular mountains and bluffs that might not exist on Google Earth but were nevertheless very real. They were the very earth and air, water, sun, and clouds I remember from my childhood. This painting, of Beaty Cove in Bledsoe County, is one of my favorite paintings of his. My dad had a cabin there, right down that dirt road, where he spend many happy hours. I still own this one and will always keep it. BeatyCoveCrop

Here are a couple more from my little collection. I wish I knew the name of the farm in the Valley where the sunflowers bloomed. He did. The waterfall is from Beaty Cove again:

SunflowersCrop CreekCrop

Many Sunday painters are stiff and picky but my father’s paintings were free and loose and ran through several stylistic phases: blue, green and purple before he had his cataracts taken out; bare dead trees against the horizon after his many cancer treatments; bright random washes of color after I taught him how to glaze transparently. His painting was real, genuine, without affectation. He didn’t care what anyone thought of them, or about fashion or style. In life, Daddy and I sometimes crossed horns, but we developed a routine: on Sunday afternoons when I visited, I would walk upstairs to his studio, and he would show me what was new, and he would ask me what I thought, and I would tell him. Sometimes my mom and I criticized his paintings pretty hard, for instance when a cow he painted looked more like a dog. But he kept getting better.

When he died in 2013 a month short of his 93rd birthday, he left me with almost 500 oil paintings, about 25 pounds of oil paints, some of it older than me, two stools from his studio so completely covered in paint spatters that they had become 3-D abstract paintings themselves, and several hundred large pig bristle brushes in various stages of decay.  stoolCropI also found a gallon of boiled linseed oil from Ace Hardware. My dad was pretty cheap. He used the linseed oil for his paintings and as far as I can see they are none the worse, but don’t worry, art conservators, I’ll save it for furniture refinishing.

The old paint was mostly still soft, although the lead tubes were so flaky I could barely tell the names of the colors, but the caps were still in working order, unlike today’s which crack in no time. Out of curiosity I squeezed some 60-year-old burnt sienna paint onto my palette. Somewhere I’d read that all the best original supplies of real sienna clay, warm and transparent, have been dug up and turned into paint and that what we use now is mostly synthetic iron oxide which lacks the beauty of the original pigment, so I wanted to see if there was any difference. The old paint looked pretty on the palette, but dried out and developed a pronounced skin and lumpiness within an hour! I realized it was already almost completely oxidized like stand oil, which is heated slowly without oxygen until it thickens, so, reluctantly, I threw it all away. Too bad I don’t want to paint abstract expressionist fakes, because I’ve heard that’s how serious forgers do it – they use paint of the period so no new ingredients show up in spectography!

But even during my father’s lifetime, the five hundred paintings were beginning to be a problem. For a while my husband and I put them into controlled storage but that was running into money, and anyway, what’s the point of that? All the sisters, grandkids, cousins and friends had the pictures they wanted. In 2007, he had a very successful one-man show at Perfect Light Gallery in Pikeville, TN, a lovely small gallery owned by his dear friends Melba and John Hargis, complete with a key to the city from the mayor and articles in all the area newspapers.

A woman called my parents because she recognized him, after over fifty years, from his self-portrait in the Chattanooga Free Press. This is the painting she saw in the paper: DaddyCropShe told my mother that she and her husband were driving up in the mountains in 1952 and collided with a milk truck on one of the narrow switchback roads. She had been nine months pregnant, was thrown from the car (this was long before seatbelts), and she woke up on a stretcher with my father picking glass out of her eyes. Oh, and she had her baby and everything turned out ok – it was a boy!

After his show at Perfect Light Kat Westcott, set up a website for him and we sold occasional work from there, mostly to old friends in Bledsoe County and the occasional distant relative. Kat came out to the house to photograph the paintings for the website and Daddy helped us identify the locations of the paintings we picked out. At the Perfect Light show many folks from Bledsoe County and environs came out and bought paintings of scenes they remembered: the old general store at Cold Springs, the pond and cabin at Beatty Cove, or the old home place at Nine Mile. We tried to encourage him to look at each painting and tell us where in Bledsoe County it was. He enjoyed watching us take out the paintings but he quickly tired and said he couldn’t remember what this or that was anymore, so I ended up making up names for some of them. After we set up the website I tried to show it to him but he didn’t really care about the internet. He still had all his mental beans, and then some, but I don’t think he really ever understood that the tiny reproductions of his paintings on my iPad screen meant that people from around the world could look at his paintings.

After my father went into assisted living, we had to prepare his house for sale. The paintings were piled up in the attached garage, gathering cobwebs and dust and generally running the risk of worse damage. Brenda Purcell, the real estate agent, made a call to Mike Taylor, of Mountain Education Foundation, and within 24 hours, they came up with an answer: how about a big sale to benefit Signal Mountain public schools? The very next day Mike appeared at the house with a truck, everything was loaded up and put it into storage at the school, and in the meantime a committee was formed and various women from Signal Mountain gathered with me to plan the sale. They seemed to know what they were doing a lot more than I did — I was mainly there to express solidarity and talk to people at the sale. Several of them were daughters of physicians who had practiced with my dad, and it was a pleasure to meet them.

Finally, after several months of work and planning, my dad’s paintings went up for sale one weekend in March of last year, at the MACC on Signal Mountain. I bought a new dress, put on makeup, and went on noon TV at the local station where my husband has worked for 35 years. I ended up standing behind my dad’s self portrait during the interview but everyone said I did ok.  MACC7

The question I remember most was when the interviewer asked if we Morgan folk weren’t all just amazed that my dad could paint so well!  I almost Laughed Out Loud on tv, because the truth was: Are you kidding me?  Because everyone in our family can draw! Really well! Everyone! You should see what my grandmother painted when she was an old lady! I forgot now what I actually said, but I didn’t say that on TV. Probably should have, though.

I pretty much plastered a smile on my face at the beginning of the weekend (see above) and kept it on until Sunday afternoon when the sale was over. Smiling all the time can be very tiring! But it was a memorable weekend. There was a kid’s art show and a band concert: MACC8 MACC10 MACC9

I talked to fifth cousins twice removed and old friends from Pikeville. In the end we sold over $12,000 worth of paintings to help the school build a new arts classroom! I think my dad would have been very proud. Here are some more photos of the sale weekend. I’m showing them extra-large so you can actually see details of the paintings.


We might try to have another sale in a year or so, perhaps in Bledsoe County. Perhaps we should involve Bledsoe County Schools too, and give them part of the proceeds. There is also the possibility of contacting a dealer, as a friend did with her father-in-law’s landscape paintings, who would buy the remaining work (there are still a lot!) at wholesale and then we could contribute that to the school. But the friend’s father-in-law was a reasonably well-known atelier-trained painter. I even emailed “Strange Inheritance,” a reality tv show about, well, strange inheritances, but they didn’t answer me. Sigh. I don’t know what we’ll do with the 200 or so we have left.

Just now I saw one of his half-finished paintings in the corner of another room and sadness washed over me along with a sense of finality, a real knowing that I will never, ever be able to walk into my father’s studio and talk about painting with him again. There seem to be more and more of those moments for me now. But at least we have his paintings, and I believe that paintings like my dad’s, the work of gifted amateurs, have real value. It’s not mainly monetary or even artistic, but something intangible that lives on in the skin of oil paint, marks of the individual human spirit who created it. In my father’s case, it is an indelible sense of place, the Sequatchie Valley he loved so much.