Artist Nyeema Morgan remembers being a child in the kitchen with her mom, Arlene Burke-Morgan. She was stirring a thick mixture and complained to her mom that it felt like her arm was about to fall off.
“She was like, ‘You’ve got to feel the resistance of the material,'” Nyeema said. “I think it was another level of just like, her consciousness, like spirit-body, like you respond to things in the world, you’re affected by it, there’s resistance, there’s give, there’s push, there’s pull … like you’ve got to feel the experience with all of you.”
Although she came from an artistic family, neither of Nyeema’s brothers Aswan, 43, or Nairobi, 50, became artists like she did, following in the footsteps of her mom, who died in 2017, and father Clarence Morgan, a former professor at the University of Minnesota, who now goes by Morgan or C. Morgan.
The life and artwork of C. and Arlene, who met in 1970 as art students in Philadelphia and came of age during the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s and ’70s, is celebrated in their collaborative exhibition “A Tender Spirit, a Vital Form: Arlene Burke-Morgan and Clarence Morgan,” on view at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota. The show includes 50 works by both artists, who focused primarily on abstraction as a means of visual communication.
What was it like being partners in art and life?
“If you are in a relationship with somebody who’s not in your field, that could also be problematic, in the sense that they don’t know the kind of idiosyncrasies of the artist mind,” C. Morgan said. “[Being with another artist,] there is a kind of base understanding of what it takes to kind of be at the top of your game.”
The artists were married in 1971, so they “kind of grew up together,” he said. “And then having kids at an early age, we grew into parenthood together. I think there was a perfect melding of our creative sensibilities.”
The artist-couple journey
Arlene received a master of fine arts degree in ceramics from East Carolina University and C. Morgan got a master of fine arts degree in painting from the University of Pennsylvania. Arlene showed nationally and her work is in various public collections, including the Walker Art Center. C. Morgan’s career continues growing internationally, with his most recent solo show at Burnet Fine Art & Advisory last year.
This show is expansive but not chronologically organized. Arlene’s early ceramics works, which have an extraterrestrial feeling, live in the middle gallery, and an area in another part of the gallery feels like an altar. Arlene’s source of inspiration came from her deeply spiritual connection to the world and her deep faith.
In C. Morgan’s earlier work, “Untitled,” 1976 — which has rows of red circles, green triangles, and blue half-circles with faces — there’s a geometric resemblance to contemporary artist Edie Fake.
C. Morgan found his way into abstraction through a desire to express himself.
“I couldn’t find myself in that Eurocentric tradition, so I stopped doing these observational drawings,” he said. “I was searching for something, and I kind of backed into abstraction because it wasn’t so much abstraction that I was interested in — I was interested in freedom. Abstraction seemed to be the one place that allowed you to be yourself.”
For Arlene, early on there were many self-portraits. She balanced making art and caring for kids.
“She didn’t have that separate time and space — she was making in the midst of taking care of us,” Nyeema said. “There were moments when we would be watching Saturday morning cartoons and she’d yell at us to sit perfectly still, because she was sitting on the floor and drawing us in her sketchbook.”
Curator Bob Cozzolino, who wrote one of the catalog exhibition essays, noted that C. Morgan’s work and knowledge is very much rooted in the history of abstraction and thinking about structure and form.
Morgan’s two graphite, colored pencil and acrylic on Dura-Lar pieces, “Untitled,” 2017 — three-dimensional-looking, pulsating circular forms filled with thick green-lined hexagons and pentagons — are positioned on either side of another of his untitled works. In the middle piece, the circular forms feel more cylindrical, and the lines aren’t filled in.
On the surface, the couple’s artworks seem to overlap, but look deeper and you’ll see the difference.
“Arlene didn’t have the time of day for that kind of stuff [the history of Abstraction], or talking about it or reading any of it. … It seems like it must have been a rigorous plan, but I think she was just following her intuition,” Cozzolino said. “That could be in some ways what’s different between the two of them.”
‘A Tender Spirit, a Vital Form: Arlene Burke-Morgan and Clarence Morgan’
When: Ends March 18.
Where: Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota’s Regis Center for Art, 405 21st Av. S., Mpls.
Info: 612-624-7530 or nash.umn.edu
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue. & Fri., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wed. & Thu., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.
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