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.

Odd Nerdrum at TRAC – One Year After

At some point during our Skype classes, Richard Thomas Scott mentioned a conference in California that dealt with representational painting — Odd Nerdrum would be a guest and he would be there too, and I might enjoy it. Really, I had no intention of flying to California, but on a whim I looked it up online and realized it would be the opportunity of a lifetime. And it was. Attending last year’s TRAC, The Representational Art Conference, in Ventura, California was an exhilarating experience.

Midway through the conference I tweeted, “Having so much fun I may pass out.” In fact, the whole event, being around so many brilliant and talented people, was so intoxicating I swear I got dizzy — it was like swimming in some heady philosophical/painting champagne soup! And the fun continued after I got home. I discovered the Representational Art Facebook group, and the Cecilia Beaux Forum, and the Post Contemporary group. Every day there are posts about painters, either dead or alive, I have never seen before. I’ve also read a number of excellent blog posts about TRAC, which have led to the discovery of more art blogs — just about every day I bookmark another one to read.

As soon as I walked into the hotel I knew I was in over my head. I have worked as an illustrator for over twenty years but am only in the process of learning to paint in oils, and here I was with many of the most well-known and successful painters in the world of portraits, representational painting and atelier teaching. For those outside this world their names might mean little, but for me it was overwhelming. When my husband and I checked in at the hotel desk, right next to us was Odd Nerdrum, hard to miss with his long tousled golden-white hair and clean white painter’s smock. In the hotel lobby I said hi to a young man sketching, and discovered he was a former Nerdrum student. Looking around I recognized Virgil Elliott and Juliette Aristides  (she was also a major guest speaker at TRAC), teachers at their own ateliers who had written books about painting — books I’d eagerly gobbled up. For a person trying to learn to paint out in the boonies, these books are lifelines, and I freely admit to being a bit star struck.

The first evening there was a meet-and-greet on the patio, and there was Nerdrum standing pretty much alone, staring off in a distracted manner with a glass of wine, so I summoned my courage and approached him. I said hello and told him that I had flown across the country just to see him. “I am deeply honored,” he intoned, bowing slightly in a courtly way. Then I tried to tell him that I had read “On Kitsch” and why it had meant so much to me, having most decidedly not been the apple of my abstract-expressionist painting teacher’s eye in college. He nodded sagely but said nothing. I tried to talk about his ideas about timelessness, but ran aground again.

At that point I panicked and attempted to excuse myself but that didn’t work either. “We came here to talk, so talk,” he said, not in an unfriendly way. *Crickets.* Mercifully for both of us, we were then joined by a striking young woman who wasn’t wearing a nametag, but Odd greeted her warmly and I soon figured out she was a former student. (It turned out to be the amazing Teresa Oaxaca. She was extremely gracious when I saw her later with her nametag and realized who she was!) But when I turned to her and asked, “You are an artist?” I found I had made a serious error! Odd sternly corrected me: “Painter,” he said very firmly. He is quite serious about his detestation of the word “artist,” and I had committed a faux pas, but I took the Master’s correction in good humor.

Me and Odd

Photograph by Brittany McGinley, with permission from Michael Pearce and TRAC.

A few weeks ago, Michael Pearce, the moderator of the Representational Art Group on Facebook and one of TRAC’s organizers, posted some photos of the conference, and there I was standing next to Nerdrum and Teresa Oaxaca, surely at that very moment! I think Teresa’s trying not to laugh, possibly at the international Clash of Accents going on between us — Odd’s son, Bork, thought I sounded like Forrest Gump, which I cannot completely deny.

Here’s another photo showing me as a giddy fangirl, with Roger Scruton, another featured guest, nearby.


Photo by Brittany McGinley, with permission from Michael Pearce and TRAC.

I will confess my fantasy: it was to have a deep conversation with Odd about his reported early interest in Anthroposophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, but of course that didn’t happen. Years ago, I read many of Steiner’s dense and horribly translated books, filled with mystical notions of spiritual lineage and influence. Nerdrum has often written and spoken of artistic influences from the past which guide him as a painter, and I wondered to what extent, if at all, he has integrated Steiner’s writings into his worldview. Is spiritual lineage merely a metaphor for inspiration or does he intend the meaning in an esoteric sense, as Steiner did? Nerdrum’s work seems to reflect some deep subterranean current that I cannot quite put my finger on, quite apart from technique.

I’m still glad I talked to him. Nerdrum has a reputation as being a bit difficult, and some people have gone so far as to call him an out-and-out a**hole. A long time ago, however, I stopped avoiding difficult people and started seeking them out. They are rough, their edges sharp, but that is because you are making real contact, touching the “real them,” and sometimes our true selves are not smooth and silky, but more like sandpaper. Difficult people are alchemical corrosive, but sometimes there is gold in the end.

After the cocktail party on the patio, I spent the rest of the week scurrying from event to event, trying desperately to see and hear everything but utterly failing in spite of flat shoes and lots of coffee. But many of the panels have appeared on Youtube and many of the papers I missed are now out in print in Kitsch & Beauty, edited by Michael Pearce.

One of the happiest parts of the conference was meeting so many accomplished women artists and attending the “Women by Women” show at the Kwan Fong Gallery. (And now I shall revert to using the usual English terminology for people who make images. For although “artist” can sometimes mean a person who, say, makes tool sheds from hair and places them in museums, sometimes “painter” means the person who climbs on a ladder and puts opaque pigment on your house or barn.)

The very first person I met was Gezien Van de Riet, an artist who had flown all the way from the Netherlands. Her work (thank goodness for iPhones and websites!) consists of light-filled woodland landscapes, richly colored in pastels, with such jewel-like clarity that they could almost be scientific illustrations. I think we felt a natural affinity for one another.

It was also a real pleasure to meet Elana Hagler (now also resident in the Deep South) and attend her talk on “Apollo and Dionysus in the Representational Painting Family Feud.” I thought I was fairly familiar with most 20th Century painting schools, but when she told me that she was a “Perceptual Painter,” I had to Google it because it was completely new to me. Her exquisite portraits and still life works are carefully observed, every stroke considered and placed with Apollonian reserve, using a deliciously cool palette. These qualities are balanced by a distinct freshness and ease, seen also in her studies and plein air work, work that undoubtedly provides the Dionysian underpinnings for her more finished studio painting. I enjoyed her talk because it helped me understand my own journey as an artist. As a scientific illustrator, I’m just about on the far end of the Apollonian scale, but I’m trying to ease over to the middle in my painting.

Monday evening, my husband and I had dinner with Ryan Brooker, the young man whose remarkable self-portrait I had seen years ago when he worked with my son, and he shared a preview of his talk the next day on sacred geometry: “Beyond the Golden Ratio.” He is an undeniably brilliant young man. The next day I attended his talk, where a big crowd shared my enthusiasm and several people encouraged him to write an e-book and make it available.

I finally met Richard Thomas Scott, my Skype teacher, and listened to him present his paper, “Truth is only Skin Deep,” in which he spoke movingly about his experience of surviving a high school shooting and how that event fed his desire to make his life and work meaningful. This resonated with me because of similar events in my own life that led me to similar conclusions. His deeply felt talk brought tears to my eyes and I was not the only one. And there were other similar moments during the week.

The panel discussion “The Aesthetics of 21st Century Representational Art – (Odd Nerdrum’s Kitsch and Roger Scruton’s Beauty)” sounds pretty intellectual and cold, doesn’t it? But the speakers (I especially remember Julio Reyes, Alan Lawson, and Jan-Ove Tuv) talked about deeply emotional themes: the redemptive power of art, the importance of intention, what we as artists hand on to the next generation. When they spoke of what painting means and should mean and how it relates to their own lives, their words moved me greatly because I knew they understood that art is not a frivolous pursuit, but has meaning for us and for those who come after us.

On Tuesday afternoon, Odd Nerdrum and Roger Scruton spoke at length in a panel discussion on “Contemporary Representational Aesthetics.” Nerdrum expressed humor, but also touches of hurt and bitterness in his talk that afternoon, and flashes of genuine anger. “They are not nice people,” he said at one point, referring to the relentless arbiters of PostModern taste. He meant it, and who can blame him? His prison sentence has been reduced to one year, but he will not be allowed to paint in prison as things stand according to Norwegian law. Scruton, on the other hand, as fond as he truly seems of beautiful painting, sees the realist painting world as a niche where painters so inspired should retire without open rebellion against the status quo. He carefully remained aloof from reckless talk of any new movement in painting.

And finally, at the show “Resonating Images III,” I got to see two of Nerdrum’s paintings up close.

On Wednesday night my husband and I got all dressed up and went upstairs for the banquet. Kelly Mellos, a lovely and very accomplished young portrait painter, and I spent the entire evening chattering away. (An equally charming woman from Texas, also a painter, sat with us too, but I drank way too much wine and lost her card in my luggage mess.)

Before the dinner began I looked up, and there walking right by our table was Odd, so close I could see him even without my glasses. Forgetting my shyness, I smiled and just waved hi to him! And he smiled with such a friendly and eager expression, like a happy schoolboy, and waved back at me as if he were glad that I recognized him! Well, right then and there I could understand why his students seem to love him so dearly.

Next morning we had to leave early and catch our plane (and miss Juliette Aristides, sadly). At breakfast in the hotel, we noticed Odd and some friends at another table. My husband, Ken, knew that I had brought On Kitsch with me and asked if I wanted him to run upstairs and get it so I could ask Odd and Jan-Ove Tuv for autographs. I said no, partly because I’m shy, partly because I hate to disturb people while they’re eating breakfast, and partly because autographs seem strangely impersonal after the fact. It’s the asking for them that’s real, isn’t it?

Then the thought occurred to me of asking Odd and Jan to just hold the book for a minute so I could take it home and keep it as a sort of painting talisman, silly, I know, but in the end I chickened out. Even though Odd had said to me, in his stiff and heavy Norwegian accent, I came here to talk, so talk. But perhaps the little moment at the banquet was enough.

Monica Cook’s “Milk Fruit” at the Cress

Last night I went back to UTC after work to hear Monica Cook talk about her painting, sculpture, and stop-motion animation as part of the Diane Marek visiting artist series. As usual, the artist is first-rate. MonicaCook1But I’d gotten the impression from reading about Cook in Juxtapoz that her painting was on an equal footing with her sculptural assemblages and animation. I was wrong — she seems to have stopped painting entirely. So my plan to ask her about being a figurative painter, and a woman, in the PoMo/Conceptual underbelly of the NYC art world fell through. I have no idea what is behind her decision to stop painting the large scale, surreal figurative works that she had become well-known for doing, but when I heard her speaking about her decision to stop painting and begin doing sculptural assemblages and animation her voice seemed to break a little.

I came away from her talk surprised and a little puzzled, although truly sympathetic. She is obviously phenomenally talented, but maybe she’s tired of hearing that. Ruth Grover, the curator at the Cress Gallery, spoke of Cook’s determination to learn to draw, driving from Dalton, GA., where she grew up, all the way to UTC as a high school student to attend Tuesday-night figure drawing class. That kind of determination to learn anatomy and drawing doesn’t just disappear, ever, in my experience. A quiet and soft-spoken woman, Cook said that painting in her studio alone, using reference taken in photo shoots, was something she preferred, so it hardly seemed that the sheer stress of painting was what got to her. She only said she “wasn’t happy with how she was painting.”

She spoke bravely of forging ahead in her own direction, not allowing critics to derail her. I asked her if her collectors had wanted her to paint the same thing over and over and over, and she thoughtfully nodded yes. It was “like a divorce,” she said, to be cut off from her gallery representation and to lose so many collectors at once. Having experienced a bit of the same thing on a smaller scale I can understand a little how she felt. But still her decision saddened me a little bit. She must have worked in her studio many long, lonely hours over many years to paint at such a level.

MilkFruit1On the other hand, perhaps creating an assemblage like “Milk Fruit” could be artistic therapy if one were just sick and tired of painting for a bunch of collectors and galleries continually demanding more of the same. Cook’s love for grotesquerie is given full rein here: it’s funny, charming, and even she called it “ugly.” In both her paintings and her assemblages, her obsessions seem to center around the body and its frightening needs vs. sacrifice and discipline. But there is redeeming humor amid this strung-together farm circus, and in her charmingly comical stop-action videos too.

I would love to see her go in the direction of the more recent 3-D work from 2014 that she showed in her talk. Delicate and beautifully finished, these translucent waxen figures and skeletal underpinnings dip beneath a surface reminiscent of still water — constructed from delicate veils of broken windshields. Yes, you heard me right, broken windshields. I thought I heard her tell someone she “made the bones herself.” These assemblages seemed to possess more of the weird luster of her paintings. I would love to see some of her animations with this level of lovely iridescent finish too.

I admit I was really looking forward to seeing some of her shimmering, fleshy, slimy figural paintings close up, even while feeling guilty for contributing one more voice to what is probably a cacophony of critical nagging. I asked her if she would ever paint again, and she said she probably would. I imagine she will, but on her own terms. You go girl, but please don’t stop doing the thing you do better than just about everyone else. At least not forever.

Postscript: I put a link to this post on my Facebook page, with Monica Cook’s painting above (which is not titled on her website or otherwise I’d credit it, but naturally it’s by Monica Cook), and was a bit taken aback by the response. Comments started with “Eeeeuw” to “Repulsive.” Wow. No one could see the beautiful painting because they were too wrapped up in their response to the subject matter, which is pomegranate seeds and feet, people. I thought surely that Cook stopped painting because some de-skilling critic shamed her for being “talented,” but now I wonder if it was prissy comments about her subject matter. Men make much, much ickier works of art and get paid bags of money for it. Why is it that women are expected to paint pretty, polite pictures that don’t offend on any level? I will have more to say about this later.