This is how Professor Jeff Morton—just “Morty” to those who know him—teaches students how to paint: He comes into the studio on time (which is not true for several members of the class). He wears low-top hiking shoes with paint spots on them, loose fitting ashe colored carpenter’s pants that reinforce his sturdy build, a knit sweater, and a soft felt cap perched far back on his head. To protect his clothes and carry his pencils and brushes, he wears a black apron smeared and spattered with streaks of paint. His gray-rimmed glasses accentuate his often knitted brow, and the gray and white stubble on his balding dome gives him, at times, a prickly demeanor. But his scowl is merely an externalization of deep thought, and quickly dissolves into a wry smile. His classes reflect his character—in addition to painting, a single class period might include a short discussion on the French postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard over freshly baked doughnuts coupled with the music of his favorite band, The War on Drugs. Morty makes sure that art at Covenant isn’t just about technique. It's about making something out of the world around us—out of the place in which we find ourselves.
Incidentally, place is the subject of the Christ and Culture lecture Morty delivers on a yearly basis. At first, it can be hard to see how this abstract concept fits in with all the other subjects that seem so critically timed to give students a framework for the issues of the day. President Halvorson speaks on the dangers of technology and the need for unmediated dialogue. Dr. Vos lectures on the objectification of women in corporate advertising. Professor Corbett expounds upon the decadence of the US consumer culture. But Morty talks about place. And he talks about art. By addressing the creation of and reactions to public sculpture, Morty is able to address the social, psychological, and even political implications of the spaces we study, live, and work in.
Take our campus here on Lookout Mountain. In all of the advertising pamphlets and brochures, Covenant looks like paradise on earth. The sun is always shimmering lightly on the leaves and the grass always looks like golf course turf. Drones are used to capture the perfect aerial image of the campus layout. But going to school here doesn’t always feel like paradise.
During his lecture Morty references the work of Elizabeth Tubergen (‘08), whose art SIP included a video of a woman in a trench coat holding a black umbrella and wandering around in a circle in thick fog. The physical fog that so thickly envelopes the school mirrors the mental fog that can occur when one is presented with new ideas or conflicting information. The action of directionless wandering produces in the viewer the same anxiety faced by many seniors contemplating life after college. But in his lecture, Morty makes sure to draw attention back to the paradoxical combination of criticism and belief. “Our students look for forms of unity and coherence while living here,” he says. “They should not give up trying to find it, even though our attempts to create unity are at times filled with brokenness and disappointment.” Morty makes sure that sentiment is lived out in the art department through the creation of art.
Now back to our painting class. As soon as Morty has collected easel, canvas, paints and props, he checks to see if the class has reached “critical mass.” Then the demonstration begins. “Today we are going to be painting a still life,” he announces. He has already shown us how to stretch, gesso, and prime our canvases. He has us gather behind him as he stands in front of his easel contemplating a bowl of lemons casting a shadow on a red brick. Then he begins to mix his colors. First he mixes a daub of titanium white with with a bit of burnt umber and just a fleck of ultramarine. Then he dips his brush in a mason jar filled with a golden liquid and lathers it into his pigments. Now that he has added a mixture of linseed oil and mineral spirits to his paints, they take on the consistency of melted butter. He loads his brush with paint and turns to his canvas.
He begins by drawing the contour of the bowl and the lemons. He moves quickly and describes his choices as he goes. “Draw the entire lip of the bowl, even where it goes behind the lemons. You can always paint over it later, but for now you must make sure you understand the form.” As he constructs his underdrawing he accentuates the relationships between the lemons and the bowl, the bowl and the table, the table and the brick. In a matter of minutes he translates the still life objects onto his canvas. “At this point I’m not that worried about precision,” he instructs, “I can come back and redefine my objects as I add layers of color.” Over consecutive class periods he adds to his initial canvas showing how to layer complimentary colors to create volume and depth resulting in a tangible sense of atmosphere and light. The piece is never “finished” in a traditional academic sense, but it has a rough and ready immediacy about it that is inspiring.
These demonstration pieces offer a striking compliment to his meticulous painted canvases displayed in a recent month long show at the Creative Artist’s Guild in Dalton, GA. He refers to these as his “forever paintings” because he builds them up, layer upon detailed layer for weeks, sometimes months. These paintings of fields of kudzu are displayed along with detailed pencil sketches, large charcoal drawings of kudzu roots, and large pieces of raw canvas covered with the spray painted outline of kudzu leaves and vines. Besides showing a impressive range of skills, these pieces demonstrate Morty’s obsessive investigation of the place in which he lives, teaches, and thrives.