Artist Ray Morgan lives on a farm a few miles southeast of Rolla.
A self-described hermit, he knew early on what he wanted to do with his life. “From the time I was a small child, I knew I wanted to draw, to create,” he said. “It was about the only thing I thought I was good at doing.”
Morgan’s work, a balance of realism and abstraction, will be featured in a one-man retrospective at Leach Theatre on the Missouri S&T campus this month. His body of work, spanning several decades, includes approximately 90 pieces. His subjects range from cityscapes and self-portraits to scenes in nature.
“I think I find most of my inspiration in nature,” said Morgan. “Nature has always been my most cooperative subject.”
Morgan admires the work of Cezanne, Matisse and Vincent van Gogh. “And although I hate to admit it, Gauguin, too,” he said.
Training at the Kansas City Art Institute on a full-tuition scholarship prepared the artist for the years of creativity that followed.
“The Art Institute really was a case of ‘unlearning’ for me,” he said. “I had to discard any preconceptions I had about drawing and working. In a way, it was very tough. I would equate it with going to a psychiatrist and being torn down emotionally to be built up again. It was a valuable time for me.”
Being an artist can be a difficult life, according to Morgan. “Other than self-gratification, it can be a very thankless avocation. Most times it can hardly be used for supporting oneself. I’ve always had to work in other ways, too.”
Morgan has worked as a land surveyor, engineer and draftsman, and has done “a bit of farming” over the years.
After walking around Leach Theatre recently and seeing his works being readied for the show, Morgan had a surprising reaction.
“I was somewhat amazed when I saw everything hung on the walls. I can scarcely remember some of these pieces. It’s like an awakening, like visiting old friends. I don’t have children, so in a way my work has always been my children.”
Working primarily in oil in recent years, Morgan explained that he started out in a completely different style and medium.
“For a long time, I worked only in black and white in the Japanese style of sumi-e,” he explained. “When I was very young, I was a pure realist, but I changed over the years at an attempt to simplify, and to shape relationships rather than form them. Several of the pieces in the show were done by just setting up a French easel and painting plein air.”
Page 2 of 3 - Morgan also believes in the importance of the palette. “Mostly it’s just preparing your tones and your colors before you ever begin the painting, so that all you have to do is reach for it. Someone who was struggling with color once asked me how I achieved such odd harmonies, and I simply said that I just never put down a color I do not like.”
The show, titled “Damaged In Creation,” features several studies in light and dark. Local residents will also recognize the beauty of the Dry Fork of the Meramec River in several of his pieces.
His self-portraits show his journey from young man to seasoned citizen. Morgan thinks self-portraits have one positive aspect. “When it comes to models, no one is more patient than yourself.”
Some personal pieces of art that hold special meaning to the artist are also in the collection.
Morgan has been married for two decades to Roberta (Birdie) Morgan, program director for the Department of International Affairs at Missouri S&T. One small piece in the show is actually a Valentine he painted for his then-girlfriend many years ago.
“I painted it for her when she was in graduate school in Utah. It was hard trying to maintain a long-distance relationship,” he explained. “At one point, we broke up, she sent the Valentine back, a dog chewed it, and years later she had someone frame it.”
Morgan believes that young artists should paint the things they like.
“Unless you are inspired by the subject, you won’t get very far,” he said. “I would also recommend the book ‘The Natural Way To Draw’ by Kimon Nicolaides. He is quite the task master in this guide, insisting that students do exercises over and over again until they develop the control that is necessary. He also shows different ways to express mass versus shape and form. But being inspired by your subject is the first step.”
Morgan hopes that the public will take some time to view his retrospective, and to come to their own conclusion about his work.
“I was inspired by museums and art work as I grew up, and I was deeply moved and inspired by art. That encouraged me to pursue it and try to perfect it, but things never quite live up to what your desire is, hence the show’s title ‘Damaged in Creation.’ ”
The past few years, the artist has been held back in his painting pursuit. “I had a tick-borne illness, and consequently suffered some neurological issues. It’s hard for me to hold a paint brush steadily now.”
Page 3 of 3 - Morgan hopes to return to painting, but he knows his work will have a different feeling and look due to his condition. He also agreed that it could be an interesting new look into his ‘bag of tricks.”
“I’ve always liked the idea of the kid that comes next. My desire with art has always been to create magic,” he said. “I don’t know what talent is, exactly, but when it comes to art, when it works – it is something like that produced by a magician.”
The public is invited to an opening reception Tuesday, Sept.10, at 6 p.m. at Leach Theatre on the Missouri S&T campus. The reception and exhibition are sponsored by the Missouri S&T Campus Art Committee.
For more information on the reception or exhibition, call 573-341-4185.