October 15, 1997,
Magnificent Obsession; Ike Morgan's schizophrenia gives his renowned
art its unique perspective
AUSTIN - Just inside the heavy iron gates of the Austin
State Hospital, a road shaded by pecan trees leads visitors
to Extended Care units one and two. Here, in this
antiseptic ward, lives Ike E. Morgan, the prolific and
nationally known folk artist. He has made his studio among
the hospital's lawns and courtyards for the past 20 years -
ever since being diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 18.
Often, he can be found rolling canvas out on
paint-splattered garden benches or sidewalks or even
grass. Working with three, four and five pieces at once,
Mr. Morgan lays them all in a row or in a horseshoe. First
he inks the outlines, then one color at a time, he brushes on
thick strokes, using the oil paint like a sculptor molds clay.
Setting up outside "is nice when the winds are not trying to
blow everything away. . . . When it's blowing real hard, I
figure it's trying to scare me away, " says Mr. Morgan with
his toothy grin and mischievous chuckle.
Completing 50 paintings in a three-week period is not
uncommon for Mr. Morgan, a speed that can easily be
construed as obsessive if not for his blase demeanor. "I
may work today or maybe tomorrow, " he often says. Yet,
almost always he picks up his brush.
A feat that seems all the more amazing considering any one
of Mr. Morgan's troubles - mental illness, isolation, a killing
- could have destroyed him. Instead, his creative spirit has
blossomed to the point that art experts say he, along with a
few others, will define Texas folk art in the late 20th
century. His work will be shown at the McKinney Avenue
Contemporary Jan. 10 through Feb. 22 in a portion of the
traveling exhibit "Spirited Journeys: Self-Taught Artists in
the Twentieth Century. "
"Ike Morgan exemplifies what is called outsider art, " says
Chuck Rosenak, a Tesuque, N.M., folk art collector.
"Now we are just beginning to realize how important "
Texas folk art in general and Mr. Morgan's work in
particular "is in America. "
Where exactly creativity and insanity merge is unknown,
but Mr. Morgan's art representatives, Bruce and Julie
Webb, owners of the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie,
believe his artistry wouldn't have reached this level without
the isolation his mental illness has brought him. Part of it is
the time he has had to focus on his artistic endeavors
without the worries of making a living, and part of it is "his
strong impressionist style that varies because of his
schizophrenia, " says Ms. Webb.
At times, his pieces differ so much that one might think they
were done by two artists. One image might have the crude
lines of a child's cartoon and another the strokes of an
"It's raw art, " says Mr. Webb. "Ike has a way of taking
something that to the normal eye would appear one way
but through Ike's eyes and hands, he transforms it to look
completely different. "
On a recent cloudy day, Mr. Morgan sits on the concrete
sidewalk outside his ward, a single-story building that
screams 1960s with its aqua-green tile, flat-topped roof
and dark-beige brick.
Sporting an ill-fitting blue-and-gold-plaid suit with high-top
tennis shoes, the soft-spoken Mr. Morgan talks
nonchalantly about his art: "It's just something to do as the
years go by. You do get in better spirits to work than not
to work. "
The 39-year-old Mr. Morgan takes a few puffs off a newly
rolled cigarette. Careful not to bend or scrunch it, he taps
the orange cinder on the concrete. After checking the end
with his fingers to be sure it's snuffed out, he slips it back in
" Painting gives me something to achieve and get done. "
Over the years, Mr. Morgan has mostly created portraits
based on images from magazines and books that he finds
stacked on hospital carts. His subjects have included
Madonna and Michael Jackson, religious and political
figures, the Mona Lisa, Santa Claus and Dr. Seuss.
For the past 10 years, his obsession has been American
political leaders. Standing witness is his dog-eared volume
of the presidents with its pages coming apart. Paper money
has also inspired Mr. Morgan, particularly the dollar bill.
Early on, he used it to paint the likeness of George
Washington, his favorite president. "He's been very nice to
me over the years, " says Mr. Morgan. "He's given me
something to do. "
What draws Mr. Morgan to a subject is "a facial
expression or something that you can't get over. " The man,
who's described as a loner and driven painter, doesn't
understand his subjects' political significance. Sometimes
he knows their names and other times he might say, "That
could be Lincoln or Washington, " but in reality it might be
Penniless when he first came to the hospital, Mr. Morgan
would gather pecans and sell them for $ 2 a bag to
soft-hearted staff members so he could buy drawing
pencils. His canvas was anything he could pull out of the
Dumpster or find: cardboard boxes, curtains, roll-up
blinds, shirt boxes, wood. To afford tobacco and coffee,
he'd draw sketches on the inside of cigarette packages and
sell them for 25 cents.
The artistry of Mr. Morgan was first discovered in 1987
when a hospital brought a stack of work to Leslie Muth
when she owned a Houston gallery. "It was very exciting
because the work was like the edgy European art that Jean
Dubuffet had discovered from patients in European mental
hospitals, " says Ms. Muth.
Now, seven of Ike's works hang at the University of Texas
at Austin's Huntington Art Gallery's "Spirited Journeys "
exhibit, which continues through Sunday.
The Leslie Muth Gallery in Sante Fe, N.M., and the Webb
Gallery represent him, as do galleries in Chicago and New
York. The Milwaukee Art Museum has two of his works,
and the Museum of American Folk Art in New York
displayed a piece in its 1990-91 "Cutting Edge " exhibit.
The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of
American Art in Washington, D.C., acquired a piece of his
His works have been included in the Museum of American
Folk Art Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Folk
Art and Artists by Chuck and Jan Rosenak and in a 1993
exhibit at Musee D'Arte Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Country singer Trisha Yearwood owns one of his paintings
of the Christmas pageants, a rule-breaking
pencil-and-pastel on canvas.
Self-taught, Mr. Morgan has no sense of paintings' do's
and don'ts, explains Mr. Webb. A university-trained artist
might judge oil or acrylics as the only suitable paint for the
canvas, whereas Mr. Morgan will experiment with
anything. "There is no right or wrong for Ike, " says Mr.
His artwork sells for $ 300 to $ 900, earning him the
standard 50 percent. Managing this for him is Pat Giles, a
financial guardian for Family Eldercare Inc., appointed by
the probate court in Travis County. She handles a bank
account for him, doles out a monthly allowance, catalogs his
art and takes care of his gallery contracts.