They’re not footballs. That was the first line of critique Jeff Morton gave my still-life painting when I was a senior at Covenant and before he was hired. Indeed there are no terminal lines on soup can lids. Watch your whites. OK, the clouds in my small landscape painting were straight-from-the-tube of unmixed color and unconvincing. Pretty direct critique, it seemed, and blunt. And very on-target. That irritated me. It also convinced me he was a first-rate professor with an eye for painting that doesn’t get taught. His nonchalance was of a Yale survivor.
There was no art major fifteen years ago when I was finishing my degree in Philosophy & Religion. Ed Kellogg put Jeff and me together to size each other up. Jeff was a painter and professor of a caliber I had studied with at the art school I’d transferred from. I was Covenant’s only, if not first, art-world savvy student, having my own CV while still in college. Jeff caught my self-absorption, my arrogance, and disregarded it completely. We became friends.
Jeff texted me a couple weeks ago from the High Museum in Atlanta to notify me he was in a room of Ellsworth Kelly paintings which he knew I’d appreciate. He was with 50 or so Covenant students, which I appreciated too, but only superficially. Don’t let them touch the art, I replied. He said that I should check out the school website where I could see schematics of the new art building, what is to replace the Art Barn, that was, in the photograph he also sent me, just a giant pile of wood. My hurt turned to amazement when it hit me: Jeff Morton had forever changed Covenant College.
The crisp rendering of high modernist architecture, a view to the future, made me reflect on the long series of Jeff’s accomplishments – hiring Kaybe, pushing uncomfortable curriculum, establishing an art major, claiming walls for a gallery, attracting dozens of students (well, hundreds now) to visual art, organizing trips to New York, creating a space for graphic design, hiring Elissa, and now – but not to conclude any such list – construction of a facility that will not only ground a higher level of student art-making; it also represents the birth of a movement in our Presbyterian “cultural mandate”. Is there any such precedent? I’d say no.
Jeff isn’t the first professor at Covenant to opt for ministerial labor at the expense of a higher profile in academia, or in his case, too, the art market. But I can think of no more explicit example of self-dispossession, especially in a field – fine art – that runs on the cultural currencies of self-promotion and exclusivism. Some of his graduate school colleagues are now world famous (and I think this might gnaw at him just a bit), and Jeff is in constant anxiety from being away from his studio. He confesses to me, on the regular, he’s busy and exhausted. And I remind him, on the regular, he likes it. This is what he wants. Students drive him and vice versa. Covenant drives him and vice versa. He has options to do otherwise and he never takes them.
I am an artist and art writer in New York. Jeff has encouraged me and stuck with me for a decade and a half as I get knocked aboutand turned upside down as a Christian who feels pulled into that part of the art world he knows but left for something else. He’s watched me succeed and fail, brag and bust, drop names and drop out several times. But as with his loyalty to Covenant, so it has been with me, his first but unofficial student on Lookout Mountain.
What matters most to us is often too close to the eye to see. Jeff Morton matters to Covenant, but I’m sending this in from Brooklyn to encourage people on campus to see more clearly the scope of his accomplishments as an educator, an artist, and a Christian. If Jeff is like most other artists he hopes his work will survive for generations to come.
Rob Colvin, ’00