A Louisiana Life: Elemore Morgan Jr.

An artist out-standing in the field
Autumn 2002

W hen the sun is shining, Elemore Morgan Jr. stands in the rice fields with a piece of Masonite secured to an easel. He’s an upright praying mantis of a man with a straw lifeguard hat and a beige jumpsuit with specks of acrylic paint in every shade of the rainbow.

His vibrant, saturated paintings on Masonite reflect the intense heat and overbearing humidity of the rice fields in Acadia and Vermilion parishes in the summer. The images are of vast, open spaces, dynamic skies, imposing buildings and reflective waters. The paintings are more than just one man’s vision of the southwest Louisiana landscapes. They are constant reminders of what the land feels like and who we are in relation to it.

Morgan was born in Baton Rouge in 1931. He was an only child, raised on his grandfather’s farm in what was then a rural area. Today the farm has been replaced with an Albertson’s grocery store, a hospital, restaurants and office buildings lining Essen Lane. He attributes his intense interest in his surrounding environment to his rural, and sometimes isolated, upbringing.

“If you have more nature and less man,” he says, “it’s going to have a certain effect on you. If you live in the city and you hardly see the sky, you’re going to think different. From growing up on that family farm and getting a real strong dose of nature, I need it to function. I also find that I’m in much better shape mentally if I’m out in nature on a regular basis.”

Morgan’s father was another strong influence in his artistic development. Elemore Sr. had several jobs before he found his true calling later in life as a photographer. One of his last and uncompleted works was a photographic essay of a single oak tree along the banks of the Amite River.

“My father had a very good eye,” Morgan says. For Morgan, seeing is more than just the act of viewing. It’s also the beginning of understanding.

“So much of what we do comes from our own personal vision,” he says. “It’s how you see things. Most people go through life and never really know how much they’re missing. Once you start seeing, you start to see all kinds of stuff around you that you’ve been missing.”

Depending on how he sees a setting, Morgan cuts his pieces of Masonite to fit the land and his vision. It keeps him from having to stretch canvas over wooden frames and allows him to frame his work however he chooses.

Morgan attended Louisiana State University and studied art under the tutelage of Caroline Durieux, Ralston Crawford and David LeDoux.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, he served for two years in the U.S. Air Force as a supply officer during the Korean War. With the help of the GI Bill, Morgan then attended the Ruskin School of Fine Arts at the University of Oxford in England. On the weekends he explored Europe and painted. He returned to Louisiana in 1957 and later begin working in Lafayette with longtime friend and architect Neil Nehrbass.

For nearly a decade he lived in a garage apartment and spent his days painting and reading Russian literature. For about a year, John Kennedy Toole, future author of A Confederacy of Dunces, lived below Morgan while he taught at Southwestern Louisiana Institute, now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In 1965 Morgan began teaching art at Southwestern. For 32 years he taught art classes and spent his free moments in the rice fields honing his art. In 1971, at the end of what Morgan calls his “monastic years,” he married Mary Gutekunst (whose last name, coincidentally, means “good art” in German).

“If you think you want to be an artist,” he says, “you need to pay attention to that, wherever it may lead you. It may not lead you exactly where you think, but I’m absolutely convinced that you pay attention and trust your own vision wherever it leads you. It is kind of uncertain. But boy, I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t really want to live any other way. It’ll kill you to try to run away from it.”

At 71 years old, Morgan is a husband, father of three daughters and soon to be a grandfather. He continues to paint the land around him and has begun a series of paintings based on his travels across the United States. His work can be viewed at the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans.

This article originally appeared in Louisiana Life.