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July/August 2016

For All Fine Art Collectors


JIM MORGAN

TrusTing His Vision By Mary Nelson

U

tah artist James Morgan never for a moment questioned his destiny. He would be an artist. Yes, there were challenges along the way, but anything worth doing often comes with some trials, and he was not deterred— slowed down, maybe, but not deterred. Although he uneasily glosses over the time he spent working days at a piano factory (something he’d like to forget entirely) and nights at his easel, it’s clear that Morgan has earned his credentials. The rewards have been worth it. And Morgan admits that working in that piano factory got him over a financial hump, while he provided for his wife Ruth and two sons, Cody and Andrew. But, there came a time when it was clear to Ruth that he needed to move on. Morgan credits her with giving him that all-important nudge into becoming a fulltime fine artist. “She has been my constant support in all ways,” he says. “We finally sat down in 1982, when the boys were about age 10 and 6, and she made it clear that she wanted me to [go into art full time]. She gave me a boot in the pants, and here we are. I don’t know what I’d have done without her.” 64

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Last Open Water, oil, 24˝ by 36˝ “On a rapidly freezing marsh on the north end of the Great Salt Lake, a mix of late-leaving waterfowl—mostly tundra swans, diving ducks, and mallards—lingers and keeps open the unfrozen remnants of a large rest lake. I am fascinated by the unique marshscapes of northern Utah. The area is always an endless source of inspiration.”

As a child, Morgan’s artistic aspirations set him apart in his small, rural home in central Utah. “I was kind of an odd duck in a town where mining, agriculture, and ranching were the main employment options,” he says. “But becoming an artist chose me, I didn’t choose it.” Young Morgan received unreserved support, especially from his father, a miner, who appreciated art and dabbled in it himself in his spare time. So it was that Morgan never questioned that his future would find him creating art.

Today, as an adult, Morgan’s art is a testament to his love for wildlife and nature, his intimacy with flora and fauna, great or small, and his intense passion for expressing himself and the beauty of nature through his paintings. This is who he is. “I’m not sure what style is,” he says hesitantly. “To me, it’s not something we should strive for as artists. The way we paint is always evolving, and we’re always trying to improve.” It would seem that Morgan has achieved a style in a non-style sort of way, because his art is unmistakable and recognizable even from a distance. Morgan attributes that to the fact that he infuses his subject matter with the light, color, and balance between his subject and the environment, explaining that it’s essential to see beyond the physical scene. He becomes attuned to the nuances and essences of his surroundings and the animals he so happily studies—artfully and magically capturing their spirit in his paintings. Growing up in central Utah, among the wide-open spaces and the natural beauty of the area, Morgan delighted in roaming the canyons and fields that surrounded his home. He learned to see larger vistas, but maybe more important, he scrutinized the resident wildlife, focusing on the more intimate aspects of the creatures and the land they inhabited. Later, those observations would allow him to “bring an awareness to others of the often-overlooked and intimate aspects of nature.” Art instruction in Morgan’s smalltown school was woefully inadequate; in fact, it was non-existent. Fortunately, his sixth grade teacher took an interest in her young student and nurtured his budding talent. The teacher, whom Morgan describes as “a Sunday painter,” took note of the students who were interested in art and instilled in them a passion for close observation of their surroundings. She mentored a small group of children that would congregate in old barnyards, pastures, and other open spaces. She’d plunk them down and tell them to absorb their surroundings and fashion paintings from what they saw, an exercise that is still habit with Morgan to this day. As he grew older, Morgan and a group of high school students hired July/August 2016 • ART of the WEST

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Above - Exit Left, oil, 24˝ by 36˝ “Running on silver water to gain flight, tundra swans gracefully depart a shallow marsh in late November, continuing their southbound journey.” Opposite Page - Sunning, oil, 23˝ by 18˝ “More of my favorite things—trying to interpret the fleeting effects of low winter light on snow and the wonderful abstract shapes of a neglected snow-covered farm yard. Joining the scene for a moment is a cottontail rabbit.”

an art professor from a nearby university to teach them the fundamentals of art. “[The professor] came to the school about six times in the evening to give us a general idea of what the heck art was and teach some of the techniques and equipment required to do art,” he says. “Other than that we had nothing.” In 1966, driven to pursue art education at a higher level, Morgan entered Utah State University, earning a Bachelor of Fine arts degree in the early ‘70s. Getting most of that education during the ‘60s, however, meant it was a loosely structured curriculum. It was the era of hip-

pies, flower children, and free love and, similar to the overall climate of the time, instructors taught students to do their own thing. It was “cool” back then, but Morgan laments that learning the fundamentals of art—drawing, painting techniques, composition, and color—had to be gleaned from other sources.

Morgan sought—and found— what he needed by studying the works of artists that included Anders Zorn, Isaac Leitan, Carl Rungius, Bruno Liljefors, and Bob Kuhn, whose art taught him more than his college professors had. By merely studying their paintings, Morgan says, he began to understand art through osmosis. Nature, also, was his tutor. “The most important aspect of being an artist is to be an observer,” he says. “Nature’s ever-changing moods are a wellspring of inspiration. I’m convinced that no one can improve on natural compositions, when they can be isolated. Natural rhythms, too, can be magical if you can isolate them, and that gets easier with experience. It comes from trusting your own vision.” Natural compositions and rhythms are apparent in—and important to— Morgan’s art. Yes, he paints with “light, brushstrokes, and texture in the style of an impressionist, constantly searching for different ways July/August 2016 • ART of the WEST

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A December Evening, oil, 24˝ by 36˝ “The last few minutes of sunlight, late on a quiet winter evening in a burned-over, leafless aspen grove, silent as snow, with the exception of the pleasant calls of the constantly cheerful chickadees, is one of my projects in contrasts.”

to express the beauty in nature,” he says, but, more important is emulating and expressing in his own art what touches him about the work of artists he loves. “I enjoy those artists’ work, not because of the subject matter or the technique they use, but for their originality, honest effort, and lack of contrivance,” he says. “Each has a personal way of interpreting the things they observed.” A quote by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson more or less describes how Morgan has pursued his artistic career. “Do not go where the path may lead: go instead where there is no path and leave a trail,” Emerson wrote, words that describe Morgan’s artistic path. His excite68

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ment in painting comes in finding new ways to interpret nature, looking closely to discover something lyrical and harmonious. “This harmony is further aided by the play of light, shadow, and subtle color changes,” he explains. “I am intrigued by the patterns and shapes found in nature and concentrate on the effects of light on these elements and the resulting array of colors in nature’s changing moods.” The only way to happen upon the lyrical and harmonious is to be part of it, Morgan says. So it’s not surprising that he spends much of his time wandering the countryside, waiting for ideas to present themselves. Inspiration is as close as his Mendon,

Utah, back yard, which boasts diverse landscape, a variety of wildlife, mountains, vast marshes, and everything in between. Landscape has always been Morgan’s go-to source for inspiration, but it is the intricacies of the land that have become his muse, ultimately providing the essence and spirit of a scene. “Especially enjoyable are the four distinct seasons that the area offers,” he says. “This diverse landscape provides me with endless possibilities for painting subjects.” Although Morgan spends hours observing nature firsthand, he finds deadlines too constraining to allow him the time he would like to paint on site. “I really enjoy painting out-


Top - Clear and Cold, oil, 30˝ by 48˝ “A trio of pintail ducks rests and preens in the sun on the December ice of a mostly frozen marsh. This is my effort at orchestrating the elements of color, contrasts, and winter patterns.” Bottom - Silent as Shadows, oil, 30˝ by 48˝ “A mature tom mountain lion emerges from the shadows of a petroglyph-covered sandstone wall somewhere in the desert Southwest. I truly enjoy trying to capture the spirit and presence of North American cats.”

side,” he says. “It’s a good exercise in observation. If there is one key ingredient into the way I operate, it is being a keen observer. I manage to observe animals and see how they harmonize with their surroundings.” On occasion, Morgan and Ruth travel outside the area, visiting areas with landscapes that are vastly different from those in Utah. Having recently returned from a trip to the coast of Maine, Morgan says such excursions keep his ideas fresh and his eye keen. Mary Nelson is a writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. July/August 2016 • ART of the WEST

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James Morgan, Art of the West, July-August 2016  
James Morgan, Art of the West, July-August 2016  

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