Mourning Elemore

by R. Reese Fuller

With the death of Elemore Morgan Jr., the South has lost one of its greatest artists and champions.

Elemore Morgan Jr. on the porch of his studio in 2002

photo by Terri Fensel

One morning in 2002, while Elemore Morgan Jr. walked through the paintings he had stored in his studio, he told me how he priced his art — it was based upon the emotional attachment he had for each work. “It’s what it’s going to cost for somebody to take it from me,” he noted. It had nothing to do with the amount of acrylic paints he used, the size of the Masonite on which he painted, the wear and tear on his van to drive to the rice fields he rendered every day, the transportation cost and time to sell a finished piece in New Orleans, or the amount of time it took him to complete it.

It seemed like an arbitrary system. I told him there had to be a better way to come up with a price tag for his work.

He stopped what he was doing, stared at me and asked, “Do you know of a better way?”

When it was put that bluntly, I didn’t, and even if I did, it wouldn’t have mattered. That was Elemore. He loved his art — what he called his obsession — and he made up his own rules as he went along so that he could pursue his art.

On Sunday, May 18, Elemore’s lifelong waltz with art in all its forms came to an end. He died at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore around 5:30 p.m. from complications from heart surgery he underwent in early April. He was 76 years old. As of press time, funeral arrangements for Elemore were pending, but his family had established a memorial fund in his name at UL Lafayette.

Elemore was born in Baton Rouge in 1931. He was the only child of renowned photographer Elemore Morgan Sr. The younger Elemore grew up on his grandfather’s farm, where he used to say he “got a good dose of nature.” He obtained a fine arts degree from LSU in 1952 and then served in the U.S. Air Force as a supply clerk during the Korean War. Under the GI Bill, he attended the Ruskin School of Fine Arts at the University of Oxford in England. He returned to Louisiana, and for 35 years taught art as a UL professor until his retirement in 1998.

He believed in hard work, in showing up every day. If the sun was shining, you could bet that Elemore was in a field somewhere painting, regardless of how hot it might be. He not only believed in hard work, he believed in doing what worked and never cutting corners, doing what the moment required of you.

For more than 20 years, Elemore was represented by Arthur Roger of the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans. “It’s a very big blow,” Roger says. “It’s a big loss. There’s not really any other way that I can look at it right now.” He says that the demand for Elemore’s work far outstretched what Elemore was able to produce, and all of the works in his current exhibit, which opened May 3, were sold before they were even hung. “But Elemore would be making his work whether anyone bought it or not,” Roger says. Elemore’s current exhibit has been extended to May 31.

“Without a doubt, we’ve lost one of the most important painters in Louisiana, probably one of the most important painters in Louisiana’s history,” says Rick Gruber, director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. “I think equally important, from our perspective here at the Ogden Musuem, working with New Orleans and Louisiana but also with the larger South, he’s one of the most important painters in the South.”

“One of the themes in our programming is a sense of place — artists and a sense of place,” Gruber adds. “And Elemore embodies that about as clearly as anyone in Louisiana and in the South.” Gruber notes that in returning to Louisiana in ’57, Elemore became “an ambassador, artist, teacher, educator, a mentor to many.” Gruber remembers that after the hurricanes of 2005, Elemore was seemingly at every meeting about hurricane recovery. “Anywhere with anybody who was looking at how to rebuild Louisiana, Elemore seemed to have been there. It was amazing.”

Elemore always stayed true to his uncompromising belief that art and life were inextricably intertwined. In a story I wrote about him for Louisiana Life in 2002, he said, “If you think you want to be an artist, 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.”

Contributions to the Elemore Morgan Jr. Memorial Fund can be made to the UL Lafayette Foundation, Office of Development, P.O. Drawer 43410, Lafayette, LA, 70504.