Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Notes from a Lunch Hour with Artist Bill Morgan

Jeredt Runions, a local painter and curator who has been active in the arts community, said I really needed to meet Bill Morgan, an art instructor at UWS for whom he had the highest regard. In late March as I walked past Perry Framing in Duluth I saw some striking pieces that really grabbed me. I entered the storefront with my eyes alive, wanting to snap photos of everything. I was told they were Bill Morgan’s and were being prepared for an upcoming show next door at the Zietgeist. This was the spark that led me to call Runions to set up our meeting.

The first Monday in April I slid over to UWS during my lunch hour to meet this creative spirit whose work so resonated with me. I found my way to the third floor and was directed to the end of the hall where I met a congenial man who welcomed me to his lair. To his left were piles of well-thumbed art books with colorful covers. I could have spent the rest of the day in this space, but I only had the hour.

Originally from St. Louis, Morgan teaches art history and studio art here in Superior.

EN: What are the key ideas you try to get your students to understand?
Bill Morgan: Somehow in the West we think everything is a problem to be solved. I don’t think this way. You should be relaxed and enjoy oneself. Some painters have everything worked out in advance, all their colors, everything. That’s anathema to me. I start with canvas, and see what happens. I’m not afraid of words. I see them as patterns. They can work as just a visual experience.

I began with traditional oil painting. I was trained traditionally… gesso, sanding, etc. Eventually I began to use acrylics. I used to make tons of watercolors, which was second to oil. Acrylics didn’t mix well at first. Then I saw students using them and finally began to see there had been improvements.

EN: How did you first come to take an interest in art?
Bill Morgan: So many people tell me they had parents who didn’t want them to go into art. I had the opposite experience. My grandpa was an architect. Grandma designed debutante ball gowns… ritzy stuff. I grew up watching grandpa draw and grandma designing clothes. I was totally encouraged to take up art. I had art in high school and junior high, and took college level art during summers.

Washington University in St. Louis had some very good teachers. I had a lulu of a teacher in physics but most of my teachers were helpful and enthusiastic. I liked being a student. A lot of my students, their attendance is iffy. I never get sick.

EN: When you were a young art student, did you have any ideas about where art was going in the next 30 years?
Bill Morgan: First thing I was aware of -- St Louis had a very good art museum – was African art and cubist art. I became interested in art history very early. There was a magazine published only for a couple years called It Is that was put out by abstract expressionists. In with them was De Kooning and Clyfford Still, among others. I loved the way they handled paint. I loved their work. That and museum-going influenced me.

Pop art came to me as a jolt, but then I began to like it. I especially liked American art. European art was secondary, though I loved Miro and Picasso. The artist I did not relate to was Matisse.

I didn’t have trouble with Minimalism. A lot of these things I can appreciate but they don’t influence me. Minimal art is so serious. Without a little humor it’s a pretty bad trip.

EN: In what ways has the direction art has gone surprised you?
Bill Morgan: I think the problem started with Happenings, though I liked Happenings. There’s a lot of stuff that looks like a pile of garbage and I just don’t get it.

EN: What is the role of art museums today?
Bill Morgan: I’m still very much a museum-goer and gallery-goer. I think a lot of art is just for shock value and I think shock value should be over with. I don’t have much use for it and I don’t know that it should be encouraged in the university. You have to learn the basics. Not everything you touch is going to be good, though I do believe in fortuitous accidents.

EN: What’s your take on the Twin Ports arts scene?
Bill Morgan: I’m surprised there’s so much art going on, everywhere. There’s a lot going on up here. You come across it accidentally… it’s very rewarding and intriguing.

EN: Who have been your biggest influences as an artist and why?
Bill Morgan: Favorite artists, though I am not influenced by them... I’m the biggest fan of Edvard Munch, though I don’t use his images or style. I love his work. His style is just smoking. At the same time, James Ensor, I love his work. I don’t have any of that bitterness in my work. I had a wonderful childhood, a beautiful childhood.

One of the artists I dislike in history is Renoir, though many like his work. There’s a lot of art I don’t understand. Seurat … I don’t get that… you can keep him off the streets.

EN: Your take on Dali?
Bill Morgan: I talked about him today. I grew up loving him, but then all of a sudden I discovered abstract expressionism and for a while loathed him. Now I like him again. He’s complicated. Some people are total voyeurs, and he’s a total voyeur.

EN: And digital art?
Bill Morgan: I wouldn’t have anything against it. It’s just a tool. I just haven’t seen anything I like. Photography can be a fine art, but there is so much that is so bad.

EN: Why are artists an important part of a community?
Bill Morgan: Anybody who enhances or even decorates life is beautiful. Like good food and good wine… It can be puzzling, but it enhances life and makes life better.

Thank you, Bill, for your time. We're looking forward to your April 23 opening at the Zeitgeist Cafe.


cjw said...

Mr. Morgan gave freely his input during my yrs
At the university and for that I am grateful. Raising my glass to him is an understatement. Can't wait for the upcoming exhibition.

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for the comment. I have heard nothing but good things about Bill Morgan as an influence on students, but got especially jazzed when I saw his work. I, too, am looking forward to his upcoming exhibition.

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