Morris Morgan, 92, talks about his life experiences including growing up in the Great Depression Era, his service during World War II, moving to Alaska, painting and writing poetry at his home Tuesday afternoon, November 27, 2012. Eric Engman/News-Miner
FAIRBANKS — With a sweeping picturesque view from the paint-smattered studio on the second story of the home he started building off Chena Hot Springs Road in 1964, 92-year-old Morris Morgan is surrounded by a lifetime of paintings.
The walls and corners are crowded with canvasses spanning from Alaska landscapes he enjoyed as a geographer and brightly colored depictions of the Southwest to a storm-swept scene of the Deep South where he grew up in poverty and haunting abstract paintings from his time fighting in the Pacific during World War II, a time he doesn’t like to talk about.
Morgan, who speaks with a warm twang in his voice that hints at his childhood in Louisiana, has captured his life in oils and acrylics, on canvasses that span walls to canvasses no bigger than a paperback novel.
“I started painting when I got out of the service,” he said. “I’ve been painting since ’47 or ’48 and I’ve had hiatuses and there’s other periods where I shouldn’t have painted.”
Morgan has a disarming way of injecting humor, often at his own expense, into his everyday stories.
He speaks of shenanigans he and his friends got into during the down time between fighting battles in the Pacific Theater during the war, laughing at each development in each story. But he becomes more grim as he recalls the horror and terrible reality of war.
“There’s time the uselessness of it all really hit you. There were other times I was bored to death,” he said, but added he had signed up to return even after he was wounded. “I guess I might have thought it was the most exciting time of my life. I can’t explain why I wanted very bad to go back but imbecility was the main cause of it.”
But Morgan said the war ended up being a small part of his life. It’s just one of many things he’s done in his life, he said, and just one of the many subjects that can be expressed at the easel.
His maps and illustrations fill a stack of books on his work desk.
A scene of the Tanana River at Big Delta at breakup is a familiar theme in many of his paintings. One painting in his living room shows it at breakup, an incomplete painting is stacked against the wall in his studio and one in his kitchen depicts the scene during summer. He’s working on another that depicts the same place during freezeup.
Other paintings reflect a childhood of poverty in the South. Morgan said his childhood was filled with memories of moving from house to house, often in the middle of the night to avoid the collectors. He said the only model he ever used is a lamp he remembers from that time.
Only a few of Morgan’s paintings have left his possession over the years. He says he’s always been a little self-conscious about his work
“If someone likes a painting of mine, it really boosts my ego,” he said. “Although I worry about their ability to see good paintings.”
Morgan also is a bit of a writer and he has sheafs of neatly hand-written prose and poems reflecting on himself.
“I’d like to live long enough to write something fairly short, to the point, of what I think is possible to happen to the world,” he said, adding that he’s worried about environmental and climate changes that are threatening to distort the landscapes he paints.
“This may sound way out of my abilities, no doubt it is. ... Being a geographer has a lot of burden on it. I’m quite ignorant when it comes to the world. But certain aspects of the world and its people I know very well, and I worry about it.”
Morgan, who never learned to type, said he’s concerned many people are losing purpose in the technology-filled world.
“I’m happy to see young folks with a cause; looking forward to something is a complete necessity,” he said. “I try to practice that. To have something that I’m looking forward to, to accomplish something, to paint something, you’ve got to have something to look forward to. When you begin to not have something to look forward, what’s the purpose. There’s got to be purpose in your life.”
When he takes a moment to reflect on his life, the good, the bad, the best moments and the nightmares, Morgan says it’s all part of who he is.
“I’ve had a very interesting life,” he said, looking from the warm light of his living room to the cool blue light of a setting winter sun outside. “And I thank God every day for it.”