BY VERONICA COONS
LARNED — Vernell Morgan, a Wichita artist whose work is on display at the Santa Fe Trail Center Museum in Larned, visited the museum on Saturday. Her visit coincided with the museum’s celebration and observance of Juneteenth. She spoke about her craft, how she came to be an artist, and offered stories behind some of the pieces.
Morgan is a celebrated artist who uses block print reduction as her medium. She carves her images from thin layers of linoleum block, each layer containing a separate color, each color printed several times until finally, the finished print is completed. The process can take several days or weeks to complete.
Morgan is also a middle school science teacher, and it was through her teaching that word of her art made it to legendary Civil Rights-era photographer Gordon Parks.
Parks’ attention, in fact, marked the beginning of Morgan’s emergence into the public eye. When she was first teaching at Holy Savior, two of her eighth grade students, without her knowledge, met with Parks when he came to Wichita. After they showed Parks her art, he contacted her.
“Mr. Parks gave me a call a week later and said that he would like to be responsible and support my very first art show in 1994,” Morgan said.
That was a pivotal year for Morgan. Not only did she hold her first art show at the Kansas Art Museum, showing 24 pieces, she also graduated with her Masters Degree in Art Education. Prior to that, she received a Bachelor’s Degree in Art Education, with 78 hours of science, and a license in special education.
“I use all of those to continue to do what I do, art,” she said.
Although she does not teach art in school, when she teaches science, she finds projects for students to do that encourage creative thinking and stepping outside the box, she said, to demonstrate their comprehension of what she has taught them.
They never let her down.
“That’s what art is,” she said. “Stepping outside the box and seeing what you can come up with, not buying anything necessarily, but seeing what you have at your own disposal, what resources you have.”
She also gave credit to John Boyd, professor of printmaking at Wichita State University and her teacher for more than 40 years. He passed away in 2012. She studied under him from 1970 until 2004. At that point, he acknowledged her mastery in her chosen craft of linoleum block printing.
“He told me, now, you are the master. Anytime you can go beyond nine colors to do a block, and nobody else can do that, you earned that title,” she said. “I never got a big head over that, but it made me feel good.”
David Bernard, also a professor of printmaking at Wichita State University, taught her patience and precision.
Artists that influenced her included Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. She likes them all for their bold uses of color and their bold use of lines. She noted that rarely will she not use black lines in her work because to her, black lines illustrate control, and she loves control.
Several of her prints are on display at the museum now, many from the 1990s when she made her debut. She hinted she has many new works she would like to share at the museum at a later date. She talked about each one, sharing what her motivation was behind each peace, and pointing out symbolism she used throughout. Symbolism plays a big role in her work, both the familiar and the not so familiar. From lyrics of Negro Spirituals like “Wading in the Water,” to Gothic themes to Ethiopian graphics, the symbols are woven into Morgan’s block reductions telling stories about family, history and spirituality.
After she finished her talk, Morgan demonstrated how linoleum block reductions are created. Spread across a long table were tools that included knives, thin linoleum sheets, thick paper, Plexiglas plates, ink and a very large rolling pin. Each color that goes into a block requires a layer of the linoleum to carefully be cut away. Then, that layer is printed several times over before the next layer is cut away, the ink spread and applied.
Morgan ran a roller across a piece of Plexiglas, loading a roller with an even coat of sticky ink. Then, she rolled it over the linoleum, coating the areas not cut away with the even layer of ink. She lay a piece of the art paper over the linoleum block, then carefully pressed it into the block with what looked like a rolling pin several times. When she was finished, she peeled back the art paper to reveal a print of the linoleum block underneath.
The Santa Fe Trail Center Museum’s Juneteenth Celebration marked the 153rd anniversary of the day Maj. General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived at Galveston Island to occupy it on behalf of the federal government following the end of the US Civil War. On June 19 he announced General Order No. 3 that stated “. . . in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
Even though the war had ended on April 9, news moved slowly, and many parts of the Deep South and Texas did not receive word for weeks, even months later.
Also appearing Saturday at the museum were Angela Bates, the Executive Director of Nicodemus Historical Society. Visitors were also provided a sneak peek at a gospel concert in the historic Johnson Street Escue Chapel. The full concert would be held later that evening at the Escue Chapel CME Church on Carroll Street in Larned.