19 February 2007

On Art and Life

It's been one of my pleasures to know the visual artist Morgan Monceaux for a number of years, and last year even took a Mental Health 'art day' off from work for the unveiling of his work at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. His portraits of figures from history (US Presidents and First Ladies, jazz musicians and singers, figures from the Black West, etc) often have found elements and text added onto the paintings.

For example, his Ray Charles (right, in the Portrait Gallery collection) uses popsicle sticks to represent the piano and microphone. The sunglasses Ray wears and the buttons on his coat Morgan found on the street. A short bio of Ray surrounds the figure. The more you look at one of Morgan's paintings, the fuller, denser and more complex they become.

A recent profile in the Baltimore Sun details some of the monumental issues he has been dealing with both in his work and his life. It's an excellent and all too rare portrait of a vital, working African American artist.

I been particularly honored to have been able to see some of his recent work, his series on African American opera 'Divas' from conception to completion. This is a perfect subject for him, by the way, since the artist can be a bit of a 'diva' himself! Visiting him in his home (also childhood home of "Mr. Hi-de-ho" Cab Calloway -- there must be something special about that house!) and seeing his 'Madame Butterfly' (below) develop over a number of weeks was astonishing. As usual, the reproduction does not do justice to the glorious burst of colors that vibrate off the canvas (the gold of the tatami mat, the kimonos, the cherry blossoms in the background...). One evening, I watched as a pencil-drawn line was painted, then transformed into a door frame, and layer after layer of paint was applied to create just the right shade of red for the doors themselves, as Puccini's music surrounded us.

While I may be a writer, I admit to having little understanding of the creative process, particularly in other art forms. I can't carry a tune in a shopping cart, so singers amaze me. Me, draw a straight line, a circle, anything? Forget about it...so artists astound me. To my mind, Morgan has to be some kind of alchemist, wizard, Maji, something, in order to be able to do what he does. His work has certainly kept him alive and active while going through difficult trials (HIV, cancer, the break up of a long-term relationship) that would have felled a lesser person. A remarkable man, and a remarkable artist.

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