Remembering A Mentor, Remembering A Friend

The Paul and Lulu Hilliard Museum in Lafayette honors an Acadiana art legend, Elemore Morgan Jr., by showcasing the work of those he taught and touched.

Philip Gould, who took this photo, writes: “Two days before Elemore was set to travel to Maryland for heart surgery, he was painting for an upcoming show. I happened to be nearby and called to visit. Sadly, it happened to be the last time he painted out on his beloved South Louisiana prairie.”

philip gould

Acrylic leaves of an expansive artistic family tree hang upon the walls, the figurative branches all leading back to a man equal parts demanding and compassionate, the late Elemore Morgan Jr.

From now until May 2012, the University Art Museum on the campus of ULL pays tribute to Morgan’s accomplished life through an exhibit titled Morgan as Mentor. Acclaimed for a vast library of pieces in various media that have been displayed in the United States and abroad, Morgan willingly shared his gifts for three decades as a faculty member of ULL’s art department. This exhibit features the works of several dozen artists, all of whom credit Morgan as a significant artistic influence.

“We have a few pieces of Mr. Morgan’s work, but the thought was that to fully explore the impact he had on this university and the role he had here, we needed to reach out to those he mentored,” says Mark Tullos, director of the University Art Museum. “It’s important not only to see him as an artist but as a teacher, as well. To explore his life, you can’t ignore those he mentored.”

Although he compiled a hefty photographic portfolio that spoke of the soul of the Cajun culture, perhaps Morgan’s most-recognized work is his series of Acadiana landscape paintings. For his art or his teaching, Morgan was honored by the Center for Louisiana Studies, The Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Amoco Foundation and the Acadiana Arts Council.

But as painter Camille Banuchi and photographer Philip Gould both attest, running through Morgan’s recognitions like a roll call does a huge disservice to the thumbprint he pressed on the local art community. He didn’t live on paper. He was complex. He was nurturing. He was gracious with not only his time but also his attention. He was witty and quick. And as they illustrate, through their own personal stories and remembrances that run over with romanticism, Morgan’s lessons and teachings left a lasting impact upon those who consider him a mentor and friend.

Camille Banuchi, Painter

My phone remains outdated, my area code is a foreign 504 instead of a familiar 337, and yet I choose not to upgrade because doing so would mean saying goodbye to Elemore, in a way. There’s something special about this phone, a feature that no sort of cool app can provide – the sound of Elemore Morgan Jr.’s comforting tone left on my voicemail.

Though it’s just a standard message, nothing earth-shattering or profound, I often listen to it when I seek inspiration or am just having a bad day. By then, I considered him a dear friend. But when I first met him, he was my teacher.

As an art major at UL, students are required to complete a senior thesis portfolio. The process is guided by a faculty member, someone to bounce concepts or ideas off of. I was given a list of faculty members, but I remember thinking, ‘Forget this; I want Elemore.’ Actually, back then, I wasn’t incredibly familiar with his work but heard through the grapevine of students and professors that his teaching abilities were unrivaled. I went to Dean Gordon Brooks and asked if he’d reach out to this living legend on my behalf. Elemore was retired by then, but I’m forever grateful he chose to oversee my project. Because of that, I believe I was his last student.

Elemore was interested in humanity and the human condition, and for lack of a better phrase, he gave a damn. Most artists are self-absorbed, but he was not. He had a way of making me, and I’m sure a lot of other students, feel important – just his belief in us kept us going. Well, those of us with the backbone to keep going, anyway, because Elemore was a hard teacher who wasn’t afraid to be brutally honest. I recall him telling one student who was struggling, “Perhaps you should be a nurse.” I’ve heard older students tell stories of a man who was a bit quick-tempered, breaking drawing boards over his knee, but that’s not the Elemore I knew. Perhaps it was because he taught me in his later years, but the Elemore I knew was a peaceful, peaceful man.

He had these sayings – phrases that were classic Elemore – like, “Oh, that’s rich,” or an elongated “Myyyy goodness.” He’d often recite those signature lines while evaluating your work, and to hear them filled you up with a joy that’s hard to describe. His opinion was the only one that mattered to me.

For a man who’s done so much, he had a dry wit and could be humble and self-deprecating. I got a pot-bellied pig and, of course, named him Elemore. When the real Elemore finally met the four-legged Elemore, he introduced himself by saying, “What an honor.”

And, more than anything, he never forgot, and he always made you feel important. I’ll share this one story, because it speaks to who Elemore was. I was working as a production assistant/hospitality worker for the Performing Arts Society of Acadiana, and I was outside with the crew, and I saw his van pull up. My heart started beating so fast. I hadn’t seen him in a couple years.

I ran up to the van, and he said, “I need to get your information.” He took out a pen and a little Rolodex thing. He wrote my name and then said, “Is it still…?” and he recited my old address. I couldn’t believe he remembered my old address.

I sat next to him that night during the ballet, watching him sketch the performance, trying so hard to see what he saw, which is fitting in a way. With all the former students of Elemore’s and artists I’ve talked to, if there’s a resounding consensus, it’s that Elemore’s lasting lesson is he taught us to see.

Philip Gould, Photographer

I was never a formal student of Elemore’s, but he was a mentor in a lot of ways.

I moved to Louisiana from California in 1974, joining the staff of the Daily Iberian as a photographer. That’s where I would have met Elemore – at a festival. I think he could tell I was an outsider, and he later told me that he thought: “That guy’s up to something. He’s just a little too intense and working this thing hard.” To me, that was quite the compliment. But it wasn’t until two years later, when I left the Dallas Times-Herald and moved back to Louisiana to do thorough, in-depth photography of the Cajun culture, that I really got to know Elemore.

Elemore is a world-class conversationalist. He’s an excellent listener. When I came down to talk to him, he gave me his total focus and attention, offering very encouraging advice when needed. His interest in my work was genuine. He let me talk, and he listened, really listened. That was his way. I have so many examples of it.

One morning, we set out to capture this real specific image of men moving cattle across the marsh, across the bayou. We’re approaching the bridge in our car, and we see this group of rural Cajun cowboys up on the bridge crossing – the shot we came for is unfolding far before we’re ready! I park the car on the bridge, not even caring. I race up and catch them coming down the other side. I got my shot, but I forgot about the car.

Next thing you know, there’s a state trooper at my vehicle with his lights flashing, the whole thing. All he said to me was, “Do you realize how illegal this is?”

I started rambling, “You don’t understand my situation…” and Elemore immediately comes over and very calmly says to me, “Let the officer talk.” Elemore sat there and listened with his hand on his chin and said: “So you mean it’s dangerous to park here? Well, yeah, I can see that. That makes sense.” He let the trooper feel like he had done his job, and we got out of there without a ticket.

We got back in the car, and I said, “Wow, that was really something.” And all he said to me was, “You can’t argue with them.” It was wonderful. So simple.

When he was taking photos of people or sketching scenes, his demeanor was the same – he was the visitor, always gracious, always passive in a good way. He would sit there for two hours or so and just be talking to you and drawing these people out, getting them to talk about themselves. And at the end, he’d go, “Well, let’s take a picture.” And by that point, he’s gotten to the heart of these folks, and it’s amazing how much you see that in the photos or portraits.

From Elemore, I learned to deal with subjects and to relate to subjects and truly listen. That time invested with them helped you out so much photographically. I certainly appreciated his paintings. In fact, I’m in my living room now staring across at one. But our connection was through photography because we were interested in capturing the same thing, the essence of the Cajun culture.

Two days before he left Louisiana for heart surgery, he was painting for a show in New Orleans. This would be one of the last times he painted. I was able to photograph him, and it was a magic setting – Morgan painting a landscape as he sat and gazed into that landscape. I feel honored that I was able to capture that moment. It was the most rewarding sense of completion – engaging Morgan in the same easy manner he engaged so many subjects he photographed, using the lessons I learned from him to photograph him.
 

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