Friday, September 30, 2016


Here's a story that brings a couple of familiar threads together--the vocation, and the relationship between father and son. The relationship that Jim Morphesis describes here threatens, at first, to be one of those in which the son craves his father's approval, and suffers profoundly when he fails to get it. The young Jim in this story, though, rejects that possibility. In an act of what he calls "revenge," he decides he's going to prove his father wrong... It turns out to be a story of a young man's persistence and dogged belief in himself.  Jim Morphesis today (the link here is to an article I wrote about him some time ago for Huffington Post; if I have it right, he does not have a website) is, of course--what else?--an artist of distinction. I'm attaching images of two of his paintings below the text.

Jim Morphesis

I was fifteen years old when I decided this would be the evening that I would declare to my parents that I was going to be a professional artist. 

For as long as I could remember, I had been painting, drawing and sculpting objects out of clay, sticks, feathers, and whatever else I could find. I had won a prize in every annual school art competition. I did request drawings for teachers in my grade school and for about a third of my classmates. I did, however, put an end to this habit before advancing to junior high school. 

In junior high, and into high school, I designed theatre sets, drew cartoons for the school magazine and even painted my version of our high school mascot, a big growling tiger, right in the middle of the basketball court. From grade school into high school, I was the “go-to artist.” I felt certain that my parents would be delighted with my decision. 

And so that evening I confidently headed for the den where my mother and father were watching television. I practically jumped into the room, stood before them, blocking their view of the television, and exclaimed that I was going to be an art major in college and become a professional artist. 

My proclamation was met with no applause. Not even a smile. Well, all right, I think that I remember my mother at least having a “that’s nice dear” expression on her face. On the other hand, my father’s gaze was definitely severe and it wasn’t just that I was preventing him from seeing the TV screen. Why was he not excited? My becoming a professional artist made perfect sense. Telling my father, some years before, that I wanted to become a professional football player was, of course, ridiculous. But this decision was sound. To become an artist was surely my destiny.

My father fixed me with a disturbing stare and took a moment to collect his thoughts.  “OK,” he said finally. “If you want to get serious about being an artist, you have to fill five large sheets of sketch paper with drawings every week.  At the end of the week, you will present me with these drawings. If I don’t think they’re good enough, you won’t be going out with friends over the weekend.” I knew immediately what was going on in his head. He was thinking that I wouldn’t be up to the challenge, that I would give up on this idea of an art career. Damn. I was left with no choice. I agreed to his demand and turned to leave the room. As I walked to the door, I heard my father say quietly to my mother: “He hasn’t got it in him!”

Feeling absolutely crushed, I headed back to my room with a strange, queasy sensation in the pit of my stomach. What was I thinking? I should have expected this. My father’s approval was hard to come by; tossing out demeaning comments and unfair demands was a tradition with him.  But could he be right? Maybe I didn’t have the discipline, or worse, the talent to become a real artist. It wasn’t as though my father didn’t know what it took to be a professional artist. There was a time when he was one of the most sought-after young illustrators in the Northeast. But the outbreak of World War II put an end to his burgeoning art career. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and thrived on the authority and the fascinating experiences that the military provided him. After twenty-six years of service, he retired a full Colonel. My father’s achievements were significant and would always seem impossible to match.

That difficult evening, and for a moment, I remembered a brief but wonderful time when my father returned to commercial art. For his illustration assignments, he would often use my mother, my older brother, neighbors, and myself as models. We would be dressed in costumes and posed as the different characters that he painted for his advertising jobs. He was, unfortunately, never able to return to the big commissions he was offered prior to the war and before he had the responsibilities of a house and family. Once again, he abandoned his artwork and moved on to other professions. But for a time I had been able to watch my father work in his studio. He was a skilled draftsman and his artwork was technically exquisite. Being with my father in the studio was a privilege I took full advantage of and I learned so very much. These remembrances, however, made his harsh reaction to my wanting to be a professional artist all the more devastating.

The dreary walk to my bedroom finally ended. I stepped into the room and, suddenly, things seemed different. A number of my artworks were lying around the room and when I looked at them, my attitude changed. There was something good in these works. I started to feel a little aggressive. I thought to myself, “No, Dad was wrong. I have the talent and the discipline and I’m going to prove it to him. Later that night, I snuck into where he had for years stored his art supplies. I procured a large drawing pad, a handful of pencils and erasers, and began my revenge.

Well, perhaps this was not the most positive motivation, but it worked. The next day I began drawing. I drew everything, apples, bananas, trash cans, my left hand, people I saw walking dogs out the window, and from photographs printed in Sports Illustrated I drew a portrait of my football hero, Jim Brown. Light bulbs, I drew piles of frosted light bulbs.  I loved drawing those light bulbs. When my father looked at my first five sheets of drawings, and specifically my light bulb renderings, he paused. He asked where I learned to rub the graphite to a smooth, middle, value and erase out light areas to create the reflections on those bulbs. I told him it just seemed the natural thing to do. I noticed an approving smile. With that quiet response, I knew that he was coming around. That was quite a moment for me.

Another special moment occurred while I worked to fill those sketchpads, to prove myself right. One morning, I flipped through the pages of National Geographic looking for inspirational images and the photo of a woman carrying a sack of grain on her head caught my eye. I decided to draw her. When I finished the drawing and leaned back to better see my work, I noticed that the voluptuous little figure that I drew was very animated. With a great deal of attitude and balancing that big bundle atop her head, she seemed to dance across the drawing paper. My drawing was alive—and this didn’t come from the photo. I thought to myself, “I think I made art. Maybe I do have something to offer!” No longer would I have to try to be an artist. I was being one.

After a few weeks of examining sheet after sheet of my drawings, my father went back to concentrating on golf. He never again questioned my commitment to art or my abilities to create it. Later, during my first year of art school, I chose to major in painting and not illustration. He didn’t interfere. 

Jim Morphesis, Rose XIII, 2012, oil & mixed media on wood panel, 26  x  26 inches
Jim Morphesis, Untitled, 1985, oil & mixed media on wood panel, 26 x 20 inches

1 comment:

  1. Jim, So wonderful to read your childhood memories! Although we grew thousands of miles apart many of my early years experiences dovetail with yours... My dad also served in the military for many years and had a strong set of rendering skills which he used for relaxation, a bit unusual for a lawyer and a military officer of that time. We didn’t have television during those days...
    I also tried to get around my parents' ideas about my professional future... and only after I finished with high school they agreed I could take a year to see if I could get into the Athens Academy of Fine Arts…