I have only been to New York City a few times in my life and each time it was with my Dad. The first time that I remember going to the Big Apple was as a kid for a family trip, which in our family meant we hit the art museums hard and we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset. We slept on the floor of a very nice woman, who actually turns out to be a very impressive woman. We rode the subway and it seemed dark and gritty. I only remember slices and slivers of that trip.
The second time I ventured to the city was twenty one years ago during my freshman year at college. My Dad flew up from Louisiana, my best friend flew up from North Carolina where she was going to school, and I flew up from Virginia. We all met up in New York for a fast and furious weekend. The gallery my dad belonged to in New Orleans was opening up a gallery space in New York. It was a fun night. For that trip, we slept on the floor of our friends' small apartment and we did a lot of walking.
And last week I snuck up to New York City to meet my mom and my sister for a special opening event. My dad wasn't physically with us, but his work and his spirit certainly were. In the years prior to his death, my father (Elemore Morgan, Jr.) was fortunate to be one of four artists selected by the Joan Mitchell Foundation to participate in a very unique and generous program to assist established artists with the overwhelming and arduous task of archiving, organizing, and preserving multiple generations of their work. I can't tell you what an amazing opportunity this was for my father and my family. It has truly made things happen that never would have been possible without their guidance and financial assistance.
In addition to all of the help with the archival process, the Joan Mitchell Foundation also awarded my father a grant that made one of his life long dreams a reality in his final year of life. My father was a painter who spent the majority of his time in the rice fields of south west Louisiana. He would load up his beloved 1975 Dodge plumber's truck, search out the perfect spot, slather on sunscreen, set up his easle, load it up with a piece of shaped masonite, smudge acrylic paints on large white metal trays, and start to paint what he saw in the fields and in the skies. He loved those prairie horizons.
However, he also loved the energy and life of city views. And in August 2007 at the age of 75, my father spent a month painting in New York City. I loved hearing from him during that month of painting. He was fired up by the experience of painting city horizons and living in Brooklyn. The pieces that emerged from that intense month vibrate with colors and movements and energy. They are truly his own unique view of a city that entranced him with her layers. My favorite and the largest piece from that time in New York is currently on exhibit here. And it is paired with another city view that my father loved: New Orleans.
So last week I climbed on a bus and headed up to New York City. Another trip to the city that was shaped by my Dad, centered on art, involved sleeping in tight quarters (actually a very fun way to bunk with my mom at The Jane) and included a lovely sunset walk (not on the Brooklyn Bridge but on the fabulous High Line). When I first entered the gallery space I felt myself choke up a bit. Seeing those beautiful paintings of my dad and also realizing that this was the first opening of his I had attended in which he would not be present. But before I could get too caught up in that sad realization, I was quickly caught up in an unexpected joy. We found ourselves being approached by former students of my dad's who are now transplanted to New York, old friends we hadn't seen in many years, and new friends.
As a child of two artists, a large part of my childhood involved attending openings. My sisters didn't really enjoy them, but I did. I liked getting dressed up. I liked the fancy little plastic cups and the bright gallery lights. I liked getting to stay up late and visiting with adults since it made me feel more grown up. But to be honest, I hadn't really been expecting to enjoy this opening all that much. I was primarily focused on seeing my Dad's work displayed in a public space (both pieces are so large that they can really only be appreciated in large spaces). And that's why I found myself surprisingly at ease and comforted by these friendly encounters. Laughing, sweating (it was a very warm evening and a very poor A.C. system) and savoring the stories of my dad as a beloved teacher and friend. Hearing those stories, sharing Louisiana roots, and making new connections in the middle of a gallery in New York City...those moments brought me closer to my Dad than I have felt in quite awhile. I wish he had been there, while at the same time realizing he really was there.
And that New York connection comes right back to today, September 11th. On September, 11th, 2001 we were waking up on the West Coast to the horrors unfolding in New York City. Without a second thought, I picked up the phone and called my Dad. Together we watched that second tower fall on little tv screens many miles apart and no where near New York City. Helpless, scared, and shocked, all I wanted to hear was my Dad's voice. I still crave that, but the recent trip to NYC also has me realizing again that his voice is still very alive and not just in his paintings or in my memories of him, but also in the people that knew him and I am so grateful for that.
It's funny that my moments in New York City have been so brief, so few, and so far between. I've never done any of the typical tourists things. I haven't been to the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island. I've never seen a Broadway show or eaten in a NY deli or ice-skated at Rockefeller Plaza. Now that we are just a few hours away, I know that I'll get to see and do those things, but thanks to my dad I have an appreciation and an affection for the city that is sculpted by his view of it. And I am anxious to return again soon.
If you are in New York during the month of September:
Creating a Living Legacy Exhibit
September 4-Sept.29th, 2012
CUE Art Foundation
511 W. 25th Street
New York, NY 10001