Evolution of an Art Lady

I’ve been mulling over various random ideas about women and art for a long time, trying to connect the dots. I’ve hesitated for a long time writing about it because it’s very personal. Strange. I’ve always been quite the girly-girl my whole life, except in art, where I’ve often stared wistfully at the boys’ tree house.

I stumbled across The Art of Dora Carrington by Jane Hill at a used book store last year. I was familiar, of course, with the Bloomsbury group, Lytton Strachey, and Dora Carrington (she went by the name Carrington for most of her life) in a general sort of way, but I’d never read as much about them as I had about, say, the Pre-Raphaelites. I bought the book and then let it lie around for quite a while, as I am wont to do, before finally picking it up one day. By that time I’d already watched the movie Carrington, starring Emma Thompson, when it came out in video. Or most of it. It appears I may have fallen asleep on the sofa before it was over.Carrington

Although I rather like Carrington’s portrait of Lytton Strachey on the cover of the book, I’ve never really been passionately drawn to her painting. The Bloomsbury style’s slightly chalky opacity, naivety, and broken brushwork doesn’t immediately appeal in a visceral way. (Of course that means very little. My attractions to various painters are quite irrational!) As I read the book, though, she and her painting began to grow on me, especially as I learned about her shyness and dislike of self-promotion. She painted anything and everything. Her charmingly painted furniture, for instance, has been oddly influential. Even now, almost a hundred years later, you can see similarly decorated and repurposed furniture, almost identical in style, in many shops. She even painted signs for pubs! I felt a kinship with this eclectic side of her, because I’ve done so many different things over the years, often to the point of being extremely scattered.

But I also began to feel exasperated at the woman. First she fell madly in love with a gay man. Nooooo, Carrington, No! I confess, I have very little patience with women who do that, in spite of almost having done it myself once long ago, and catching myself just in time. And then, oh hell, in the last chapter she shot herself — before she was forty! What? I was truly shocked and appalled. How could I have forgotten that part? (See above.)

Finally, there was this zinger Carrington quote I couldn’t get out of my head, which was the last straw: “I should so hate to become one of those stout old ladies painting watercolors.” This is not exact, because after I read that line I threw the book into a corner in a fit of pique and then returned it to the used book store for credit. So I never quite finished it and now I don’t have the book to look up the quote and I didn’t even get very much for it because the cover was bent.

Like Carrington, I always dreaded becoming what I call an Art Lady, a slightly pretentious middle-aged or older woman with minor local reputation as an artist about town. She dresses a bit eccentrically in flowing purple, with lots of hand-crafted jewelry, appears in small gallery shows, goes to gallery openings, takes classes and teaches. I didn’t want to be an Art Lady any more than Carrington did.

Carrington mercifully escaped the shame of becoming a stout old lady painting watercolors. I, however, failed utterly to expire at the appointed time, so here I am, quite stout (Kristy Alley says I should call her friend Jenny Craig, and I think I shall), painting in oils and egg tempera and acrylics. Despite all my protestations official Art Ladydom has overtaken me. Well, it’s not so bad, Carrington!

I can hear some of you saying that there might actually be certain advantages to being an older woman painter. As long as our health cooperates, we get better technically. We have more confidence, or we certainly ought to by now. There is a certain relief in being older and freeing ourselves from our earlier insecurities. And there are certain problems I won’t have to face anymore, like the gaming publisher who wants to see my portfolio, and then in the elevator lets slip about his “open marriage.” Nope, I won’t miss that.

But that brings to mind a secret fear. Sometimes this little voice chips away in my head, and I find myself wondering if now that I am no longer young, I may simply be ignored, just another “Art Lady,” relegated to the stuffy Art Lady sub-basement for aging Carringtons. There’s a bunch of them down there now sculpting dream journals out of coffee grounds and acrylic medium, and they’re calling my name! Well, I won’t go. I’ll just hang around up here, jangling my handcrafted jewelry.

When I went to college I was clueless. I imagined that someone in the art department of a state university could teach me how to paint real-looking people, as if anyone there knew at the time. An attitude of corrosive hostility toward realism, and most especially towards narrative painting, pervaded the department. I should add that a) there were some nice people there, sometimes even “Professor Rothko;” and b) I work at this very same university to this day (in another department, thankfully!); and c) things might be changing over there.

At the time, there was considerable subtle pressure to stop painting realistically (all A’s went to non-figurative work), and if I did insist on trying, I was instructed to make it look as flat as possible. Well, I can be quite the little people-pleaser in other areas, but I had no choice here: I knew exactly what I wanted and nothing else would do. But all the other women students in the art department went either abstract, semi-realistic but non-figurative, or conceptual, and they made better grades than me, except in drawing, where a lone wolf traditionalist professor encouraged me.

I’ve discussed with other women painters the question of whether female art students in departments dominated by abstract and conceptual teachers are pressured to give up ambitions to draw and paint realistically and, because they are feminine and compliant, more often yield to that pressure. After many years of observation, I believe they do. In my case, I experienced a sense of exclusion, an intangible penalty for continuing on my own path. You know what it felt like? It felt like being the bad girl. And it took its toll: for five years after graduation I did not paint. I met another woman years later who had the very same experience at that school and she had the same reaction. She stopped painting and I don’t know if she ever started again.

I still haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of why women artists are pushed into polite, pastel abstraction so often. About twenty years ago, I almost caved, and painted a semi-abstract painting for a local show. It was gray and pink. Everyone loved it! “Why don’t you paint more like this?” they cried in unison. I walked around the show three times before I could find my own painting. It was wallpaper. Invisible.

The following is a confession of sorts.

Not long ago, I met a painter, a very young woman. I had seen her stupendous studio work online, stacked with huge canvases, but when I finally connected her in person with her work, and realized who she was, I was openly stunned, slack-jawed with amazement. “You painted all that?” She was very gracious, but later, I was embarrassed by my reaction and carefully examined my possibly prehistoric attitudes. I couldn’t help wondering if I would have reacted so had she been a young man. Was I really thinking, How could such a very young woman who looks like a model be so talented and accomplished?

As I sat pondering later, I realized that, although my studio is nowhere near as spectacular as hers (in spite of having forty extra years to work on it) and I do not look like a model, people had said similar things to me a few times. On open studio nights someone would walk up to my paintings, look at me with a puzzled expression on their face, then at the wall of paintings again and say, “Did you do that??? It’s flattering, for a minute, but sometimes they kept going: “Did you draw that?” Or even: “Did you trace that?” NO! No, I did not!

But who exactly do people think does that? Well, that’s why I started wearing paint-stained jeans, topped with a Christian Dior jacket bought at Unclaimed Freight in Scottsboro, Alabama, to open studio night! The outfit works wonders, even if Tom Wolfe ridiculed paint-smeared jeans in “The Painted Word.” I may get a beret, too. Sadly, I cannot grow a beard. Yet.

By the way, have any male representational painters out there experienced “Did You do That”? If you have, please comment! I could be completely off base about it being a gender thing.

I used to get nice handwritten notes from fantasy magazines saying, “We like your work, but it’s very romantic. We will keep your portfolio on hand. Thank you.” After I got a few of those, I lined up some prints of my paintings and made up a man’s name (Scott T. Morgan sounds very professional and completely heterosexual which is important to get the Male Gaze thing right), wrote it on a piece of paper like a pretend business card, and put it next to my own work.

Did it look different to me? Yes, it did! It looked, somehow, less “feminine.” Less “romantic.” Strangely, a man’s paintings of ruffles and pretty women looked . . . better! They actually looked better, even when I knew perfectly well I had painted them myself! Damn, I cried, stamping my tiny feet. This Scott T. Morgan fellow could draw better than me! What was wrong with my brain? With my eyes? More importantly, what was wrong with that art director’s eyes?

After my Male Gaze experiment (meaning Male Gaze as both imputed creator and potential observer), I considered sending out a portfolio with this talented upstart Scott T. Morgan’s name on it. That idea foundered when I realized the art director might actually call me on the phone. “Hullo. Scott T. here.” I didn’t think I could carry it off.

So I started avoiding painting my beloved satin, ruffles, and flowers at all cost in an attempt to “man up” artistically. At one point this involved painting my next-door neighbor with flies coming out of his mouth. I also bought a doll at the Goodwill, burned holes it, and photographed it under a tree in my yard as photo reference. I got my husband to pose tied up in his fencing shirt like a straitjacket and then painted him with blood dripping out of his mouth. I ended up painting some pictures I could not even look at, much less hang up in my house or studio, although they did get me into a juried show sponsored by Heavy Metal Magazine.

Happily for my family and the neighbors, I finally decided that avoiding everything cute and feminine was counterproductive, and stopped making them pose for me as hideous vampires and zombies. Women should be able to paint feminine confections if they want. Oh heck, I may paint another kitten with wings! And fairies. Fairies with gauzy wings.

Well, those are my random thoughts. If I were eighteen again, I’m quite sure I would be heading to some atelier to study. But I had never heard of such a thing, and neither had my parents. So here I am, a “stout old lady” painting as best I can. I’m thrilled to see that girls are now climbing into the boys’ painting tree house in droves, paintbrushes thrust rakishly into their belts, and even building their own tree houses, too. Good for them! Meanwhile, I’m just trying not to trip over my purple caftan and fall into the workshop down there in the Art Lady sub-basement. The music is loud and they are drinking wine whilst gluing bits of cat hair and glitter onto used greeting cards. I intend to persevere as I always have. And call Jenny Craig on Monday! Sixty is the new Forty!

Carrington, you would have made a great Art Lady, too.



Donato Giancola at the Huntsville Museum of Art

Walking into a big science fiction convention in 1978 was just about the only place on earth where you could find living artists, otherwise known as professional science fiction and fantasy illustrators, who made big narrative paintings, paintings as fantastic as Bosch, full of people (and aliens!) who looked real. Seeing these paintings up close was a transformative experience for me. It took my breath away! Sometimes from across the room they seemed as slick as glass, but as I approached them, they dissolved into a multitude of translucent brushstrokes. They were (and are) beautiful and amazing to look at.

I would have loved to take classes from one of these painters but I never got a chance or even heard that any of them taught (most of them, I learned, worked 10 – 12 hours a day nonstop), not that I could have afforded it at the time. But luckily many of these amazing illustrators were willing to share knowledge, so I picked up tidbits of skill here and there. Then I went back to school, got a degree in art, and taught myself as much as I could. I ended up going to a lot of science fiction conventions and showing my art myself, and who knows, I might do it again. I never made tons of money, and working twelve hours a day was out when my kids were small, but when I could I stayed up all night painting. (I remember making a pot of coffee one night and painting pictures of hands over and over until I got it right). I did some novel covers, some card art and sold my prints at conventions. I met my wonderful husband, and made a wide circle of friends. I still feel a very deep affinity for the world of science fiction and fantasy painting.

Donato Giancola has been one of the superstars in the field for while. Here is the cover he did for the SF Book Club edition of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings :


So when I heard in late 2013 that he was having a one-man show at the Huntsville Museum of Art, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Huntsville’s only a couple of hours from home and my sister and her family live there, so we made it a side trip during a holiday visit. I couldn’t remember seeing a museum like this showcasing the work of one illustrator since the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga had had a Norman Rockwell show in the their downstairs gallery thirty years before.

Over the last decade, Donato has pioneered the ever-so-delicate crossover between “fine art” and “illustration,” breaking down that largely imaginary wall, a wall that never really existed until a hundred years ago. He’s been a finalist or prizewinner several times in the Art Renewal Center’s  painting competition, along with a number of other illustrators in the field. The Huntsville show demonstrated that these once-immutable walls are dissolving fast, and fastest for painters in the fantasy illustration field, where the skillset bar has long been set very high. I’m glad that these doors are finally opening, because they deserve it, and it’s about time.

Donato’s show was really big, several rooms full, and superb. “Joan of Arc” was the first thing I remember seeing at the entrance of the show:


I was especially entranced by a series of Merman paintings – this one is “The Golden Rose.” They might be illustrations for a novel. I’m not sure. Does it even matter?


You can’t quite see the subtle, iridescent skin tones in this photograph of the painting, but take my word for it, they are there. The mermen’s flesh is cold, but pearly, as if reflecting moonlight. The painting is really big, too, bigger than you can tell from this reproduction.

I wanted to know — How did he get that pale coloring of the flesh? What color is that hightlight? That shadow? One thing I have always liked about fantasy illustration is its use of dramatic warm-and-cool lighting contrasts and bright glazes of color. But when looking at Donato’s paintings close up it’s obvious that although there is plenty of bright color (in the jewel-like older paintings especially) he also uses a lot of earth colors and muted tones in his more recent work. He skillfully manages values to achieve a look of crystalline brilliance. His work reminds me of something I read once describing Jan Van Eyck’s painting as possessing “that startling clarity that exists only in dreams.” That reminds me so much of Donato’s work, and of some other science fiction painters I have seen.

I admit, when I see Donato’s work I want to possess it! I don’t mean steal it off the wall; I mean I want to do something like that. I’ve often felt that way when I walked into an art show at a big science fiction con – the best illustrators have such a mastery of color and value and narrative. They are doing more than just painting a picture of a bowl of fruit, a drapery, a human figure. They are constructing a world out of their imagination and making it exist as a film of paint, full of light.

Speaking of crystalline brilliance, I turned a corner and there on the wall was this wonderful painting, “Construct of Time”!  constructoftimeIt won every prize in the book when he first showed it. It was in the early 90’s and Donato was just getting started as an illustrator in the field. I distinctly remember seeing it for the first time, but can no longer remember where! It might have been in one of the Spectrum books, but it’s possible I saw it in person at a WorldCon or some other science fiction convention. I spent forever looking at it wondering how did he do that?  Because at the time it seemed absolutely beyond belief.

I wonder if now our eyes have become desensitized to such beautiful work because of computer graphics, but I hope not. Computer paintshop graphics can never quite achieve this dazzling level of craft, this union of handicraft and the human spirit, although I have great respect for many illustrators who have switched over to painting programs. The big gaming companies need rapid turnover and it’s just not possible to finish an oil painting that quickly. But with computer graphics there’s no spectacular original painting to look at after the work is published. And without that, the fine art crossover can’t happen.

I also spent a lot of time looking at this Ironman, trying to understand how he achieved the rich reds set off by the blue-green verdigris metal: ironman

Oh, and when I first saw his astronaut paintings up close, I noticed that he employs some extremely subtle color gradations over the white astronaut’s suit. You can’t really see them in the photograph here, except for a few hints here and there. It is just too delicate an effect. This one is called “Lifeseeker.” lifeseekerI might be wrong, but I think he did a number of these astronaut-themed paintings especially for the Huntsville show (Huntsville being home to the famed Rocket Center). As the “white” suit curves away into shadow (and I put white in quotes because, of course, nothing is really white), instead of simply turning into gray, the light goes through a delicate spectrum of pinks, mauve and green into blue.  I spent a very long time looking and trying to figure out exactly how he had done that. When I saw that effect in Donato’s work I remembered something Richard Thomas Scott had told me about the way Odd Nerdrum uses a more expressionistic language of color in his flesh shadows. Nerdrum takes the flesh color back through the spectrum into the shadow, going through red, purple and green, and I hadn’t understood it at the time. Once again, the effect is very difficult to see in a reproduction.  But when I saw Donato’s astronaut I understood a little better.

My husband and I spent a long time wandering through the show and I went back to my favorites several times. I stood in front of each painting for a very long time looking at the brushstrokes and the colors. In my imagination, I asked Donato questions about how he did this or that. I wish I could remember more, but as is usual at shows like this, my brain finally went into Beauty Overload. Finally we checked out the other shows in the museum and started to leave.

But then as we were walking out of the front door — Oh Joy! I saw a flyer for a painting workshop in January to be taught by Donato Giancola! This was too much to hope for. So I popped out my cell phone, called my sister to see if I could stay with her, and plunked down my deposit right then and there.

Right after New Year, I got my painting kit together and set off for Huntsville. Donato, an energetic, cheerful, friendly guy, came up to the door of the classroom space and let me in himself. The workshop lasted three days and we started out with a talk and slide show. Donato emphasized the role of imagination and storytelling in the creation of narrative paintings. He spoke of the painter as magician. He wanted us to take our paintings that extra step beyond simply putting images on canvas. In addition to thinking of storytelling, Donato told us to think in terms of composition, or “an interesting picture.” I knew this workshop would be really good for me.

He started with a demonstration in which he showed us how he starts an underpainting. He paints very thin and loose. I realized as he worked how much of this loose underpainting is still visible in the finished works if you look closely. His paintings are never tight.

He also talked about his technique for preparing the board for painting. I had heard a lot about this and was eager to learn more. Donato works out his composition and makes a detailed drawing, which he then takes to a print shop and enlarges on acid-free paper to whatever size he wishes. He then glues it down on board with matte acrylic medium and paints over it after he seals it with matte medium. This technique appeals to me for several reasons. I like the idea of starting with a fully-developed drawing because it allows more compositional control. Also, the acrylic underpainting he employs ends the need for thin washes of oil paint with solvents, and I’m trying to get away from solvents as much as possible. Finally, Donato pointed out that his technique allows him to keep his original detailed drawing (and sell it later!) It’s all good.

He makes no bones about using photographic reference for his paintings, and brought a big pile of enlarged, highly detailed reference photos he’d taken of models in his own studio. We also had a lovely model pose for us for sketching and were allowed to photograph the model ourselves in various poses with props.

Of course, we all know that paintings done entirely from photos can be flat, distorted, and ugly if the painter does not have a firm grounding in life drawing. I draw preliminary sketches from life, and go to life-drawing class when I can, but still often rely on my own photos for painting. When I am around my atelier friends, I feel a little embarrassed about it. But I admit, sometimes a gallery wall of sleepy nudes can put me in mind of an endless series of five-finger studies instead of a concerto — not that the exercises aren’t necessary and skill-building. But come on, make those naked people do something! Dress them up! Make them fly! Or if they’re going to lie there like they’re dead, for Pete’s sake turn them into mermen!

The class had a good number of middle-aged and older painters (we are legion), but there were also a good number of young painters, one of whom was a student at the Angel Academy in Florence. The young girl sitting next to me was in high school. I painted like a demon for two and a half days on a painting that sort of evolved from one of Donato’s photos. Of course, Donato came around several times a session and gave us helpful critiques of our work. I wish I had thought to bring my own reference photos, of which I have hundreds, and my little notebook of ideas. (Hint: add that to the supply list!) We did have a chance during the workshop to access and print out some of photo files from iPhones and laptops.

I never did get a good handle on any imaginative narrative; for some reason it just wouldn’t gel in my mind. Usually my imagination is going full blast, but I was working so hard on the painting process itself I couldn’t think of anything else. During a lunch break one day, I went outside, picked up some oak leaves and painted them white and started playing around with them, and this suggested the beginnings of a narrative. I had in mind Grimm’s fairy tale of “The Snow Queen.” But what I ended up with was sort of flatly realistic and devoid of magic. I’m pretty sure I worried too much over the exact likeness, a leftover from drawing portraits from life out in the hot sun in front of the Tennessee Aquarium. Plus add my scientific illustrator pickiness and I can get bogged down. So anyway, it needs work.

One of the highlights of the whole weekend was when Donato gave us a private tour of the show. I got to ask him all the questions I’d wanted to ask before! To get that dead cold skin tone on the mermen he puts the photo reference in Photoshop and fiddles with the color levels. To get that amazing red on Iron Man he underpainted in red and orange and then glazed Alizarin Crimson. And he used a mirrored ball to figure out the reflections on the amazing Mirrored Robot painting. I can now look at the mirrored robot and feel my way through it. You can’t see me, but I am jumping up and down like a little schoolgirl!

The workshop was worth every penny, and was lots of fun too. Here’s a photo of the whole class at the end of the workshop: DGiancola1We were all working so hard that I barely had time to talk to anyone until the last day, when we all went out to eat together. I met several interesting people from the Huntsville area and got to talk to Donato for quite a while too which was a treat. I was amazed to learn that he had started out majoring in engineering in college! And one of the women in the class had also been an engineer at the Rocket Center before she switched to art after a layoff.

Huntsville being such a big science town, I wasn’t at all surprised that their museum got this show. We talked a bit about why realistic painters would be so interested in science, because we all were. Donato mentioned that realistic painters tend to be analytical types. I would add a little bit nerdy in a good way, and they are usually people who read a lot about everything. I’m reminded of this quote from the English painter, John Constable: “Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not a landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?”

Lest my readers think I am on my way to becoming one of those people who do nothing but take classes, that’s all the classes I’ll be taking for now, unless Jan Van Eyck appears in town for a weekend workshop, like the dream I had one time. (He wore a tunic fastened up the front and was a tall and rangy man, not like I’d imagined him at all. He was conducting very businesslike portfolio reviews. I was not prepared.)

Some of my friends have said, “Julie, what is this business with pretending you don’t know how to paint? You’re whining is getting ridiculous!” Well, it’s like this: I can draw pretty well, hey, sometimes I can draw and talk at the same time, and I know all about water media like acrylics and watercolor. I can gesso my own wood panels and make egg tempera from scratch.

Oils are different somehow. The Old Masters painted in oils, they invented oils, and oil painting retains an aura of the mysterious, as if the technique were some arcane alchemy which can only be learned from a master. They aren’t instant, in fact they go against all of our modern obsession with speed. Painting in oils is smelly, messy, and wasteful, a bit like life itself. But in spite of their slowness, oil painting incorporates danger and excitement: you can poison yourself and burn down your studio! What more can I say?




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.