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From Undiscovered to Rediscovered, an Artist Battles On

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by Patricia Cohen, New York Times

morganmonceaux2Morgan Monceaux drew his first portrait of a black American president in 1990.

It was Warren G. Harding.

“I had heard he had black ancestors,” Mr. Monceaux said, sitting in the cluttered living room of his row house here. He has drawn every one of the presidents, using oil pastels with found objects like campaign buttons, lace, neckties and coins. A handful, including Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes, are drawn as African-Americans or multiracial. (Ronald Reagan’s copper-colored skin is just a tan, Mr. Monceaux explained.)

He finally got to create a portrait of the real thing last summer after Barack Obama was chosen as the Democratic nominee.

“I knew he was going to win,” he said.

Mr. Monceaux, whose current show, “Divas,” is at New Door Creative here through March, first exhibited the presidents in 1992 at Morgan Rank’s gallery in East Hampton, on Long Island. At the time he was living nearby in a migrant shack by the railroad and working as a janitor at a bar. Walking by the gallery, which specialized in primitive American art, he decided to look inside.

“I can do this,” he said.

Mr. Rank was skeptical: “No one out here can do this.”

So Mr. Monceaux said, “I can prove it” and later brought Mr. Rank back to his shack and showed him the 40 presidential portraits he had done. A few weeks after that Mr. Rank held an exhibition of his work, which Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker called “a unique meditation on history.”

Was he surprised by the sudden acclaim?

“I’m still surprised, I guess,” said Mr. Monceaux, who also has three works in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. He wore a thick black sweater, faded and stained, that covered what he calls his “daddy gut,” as well as tattoos on his upper arms. He has survived three marriages, two bouts of lung cancer, H.I.V. infection, arteriosclerosis, homelessness, poverty and depression, so at 63 Mr. Monceaux knows better than to rely on success, or much of anything, really, except his drive to paint.

Born in Alexandria, La., he studied music at Bishop College in Dallas with the idea of becoming an opera singer. He volunteered for the Army, and by the time he returned from Vietnam in 1968 he was suffering from severe bouts of depression. He spent the next two decades homeless or itinerant, working as a janitor, short-order cook, gas station attendant and more.

In 1990 he was living off Dumpsters and squatting in an abandoned South Bronx building when he found some supplies a sign painter had left on the roof and, for the first time in his life, picked up a brush. He has been obsessed with painting ever since.

After his Hamptons debut he had a few other exhibitions. Two series of paintings — jazz artists and African-American cowboys — were collected and published as books for children. Yet reality did not quite match the movie-of-the-week story arc. He was H.I.V. positive and developed lung cancer (now in remission).

In 2002 he moved to Baltimore and worked part time at a leather bar to earn enough for food and art supplies. Camay Murphy, the daughter of the legendary jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, offered to let him move into the abandoned house in West Baltimore that her father had grown up in, which Mr. Monceaux ultimately bought for $3,000 and a couple of paintings. Once a thriving artistic center that had been home to Thurgood Marshall, Billie Holiday and James Brown, the neighborhood is now filled with public housing, boarded-up buildings and vacant lots.

Friends from New York, the painter Gail Bruce and her husband, Murray, came to visit. “Morgan was very sick and living in a house that was shameful,” Mr. Bruce said. “It had no windows, it had no water, it had no heat.”

Mr. Bruce, the owner of Ramscale, a Manhattan gallery, said, “Climbing through this mess of a house, I found all the presidents.” (Although Mr. Monceaux had offers to buy individual paintings, he wanted to keep the series together.) “There were lots of things I found on the floor, one of his jazz pieces with a boot print.”

Mr. Bruce brought dozens of paintings back to his gallery and took Mr. Monceaux’s work to the National Portrait Gallery, which ended up acquiring portraits of Ray Charles, Dinah Washington and B. B. King.

In July 2006 the Portrait Gallery reopened after a six-year renovation, and Mr. Monceaux, whose lung cancer had returned, went to the opening. “He wept,” Mr. Bruce said. “He was on his knees.”

In March 2007 Michelle Talibah, the owner of New Door Creative, hosted a one-man show of his work. Enough sold for Mr. Monceaux to finally buy a furnace (though his windows are still covered by plastic sheeting to keep out the draft) and start renovations.

Last week Ms. Talibah and Mr. Monceaux slowly walked through his “Divas” show, looking at the 15 oil paintings of African-American opera singers. In front of a painting of Ruby Hinds performing in Leroy Jenkins’s opera ballet “The Mother of Three Sons,” Mr. Monceaux noted that he was able to fit in only two of the three brothers.

“This was the only canvas I had that day, and this painting was saying it just had to be done,” he said. The “Divas” series would never have been created without donations for supplies from friends and supporters, he added.

His favorite in the series, he said, is of Lillian Evanti performing “The Bell Song” in 1927 from Léo Delibe’s “Lakmé.” Evanti’s dress is made of lace affixed to the canvas. Small bells are attached, and Mr. Monceaux tinkled them with a flick of his finger. Thick swirls of blue, red and yellow paint surround the figures.

“That’s called impasto,” Ms. Talibah informed Mr. Monceaux, who never had any formal art training.

“He plays with perspective in a way that gives them motion,” she said. “The skewed textures and rhythms translate what would otherwise be illustration into theater.”

Mr. Monceaux offered a tentative “O.K.,” as if he were trying a designer jacket on for size at a Madison Avenue store and assessing whether the unaccustomed figure staring back in the mirror was really him.

“Intellectually it makes sense,” he said. “Am I thinking about that while I’m doing it? No. The paintings are coming out. Boom.”

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Written by Symphony

March 19, 2009 at 8:16 am

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