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Norma Morgan: In the Lands of the Moors & Catskills

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

By Bruce Weber

For anyone interested in the artist Norma Morgan I wanted you to know that I have recently organized an exhibition of her work at the Woodstock Arists Association and Museum and have authored a more extensive essay on her work for the fully illustrated catalog.

May 2023

Geoffrey Clements (?-?)

Norma Morgan, 1966

Archives of American Art

Norma Morgan (1928-2017) was a fascinating painter and printmaker who lived and worked intermittently in Woodstock over the course of 1969 to about 2010. Little remembered or written about in recent years, Morgan had an active and highly successful career in New York City. One of the few African American artists to spend much time working in Woodstock during the course of the era, there remains surprisingly little trace of her presence in the area. This blog aims to help return Morgan to public view and relate some of the pertinent details of her life, career and interests.

Norma Morgan was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1928. Her mother Ethel became pregnant with her at the age of fifteen, and was forced to leave home by her father Grant W. Morgan. Norma’s father died before she was a year old, and soon after her mother found employment as a domestic worker in the home of the Reverend Stuart Means and his wife Katherine Elizabeth Gower Means. Ethel and Norma lived with the Means for many years. Norma liked to draw as a child, and first picked up a brush at the age of nine when she retouched wallpaper flowers which had been damaged by mildew.

While attending Hill House High School, Morgan was introduced to the African American illustrator, cartoonist and author Elton C. Fax, who later devoted a chapter to her work in his book Seventeen Black Artists.(1) In the book Morgan mentions her passion for drawing sailboats while she was in high school, and recalls loving “the feeling of being free to sail away in my imagination to all sorts of strange places.”(2)

Hans Hofmann Teaching in Provincetown, c. 1956-1957

[Woodstock artist and collector Jean Young is the woman at far left in the striped t-shirt]

Following graduation from high school in 1945, Morgan attended the Whitney School of Art in New Haven, which offered classes in drawing and painting in oil and watercolor. In 1947, she moved with her mother to Manhattan, where they lived in an apartment in the Phipps housing development on West 63rd Street, where the great jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk was one of their neighbors. For two years Morgan attended the morning life class of Julian E. Levi at the Art Students League, and spent afternoons studying with the renowned artist and teacher Hans Hofmann at his school in Greenwich Village.(3) Hofmann taught his students to comprehend objects and the figure as a system of intersecting planes, and to develop the ability to convey the dynamic play of tensions in space, which surround and interact with these forms. Morgan later related that “I knew how to paint . . . but [Hofmann] taught me the relationship between color, [and] one object to another.” (4). Fax explained that Levi’s class “held the greater emotional appeal for Morgan, [though she] was no less attentive to her work with Hofmann.”(5)

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Turning Forms, 1950

Color engraving and aquatint on wove paper

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

One of the models in Levi’s class at the Art Students League reached out to Morgan and suggested she would benefit by joining Atelier 17, which was founded in Paris in the 1920s by English painter and printmaker William Stanley Hayter. On departing Europe for the United States in 1940, Hayter ran Atelier 17 in New York City for a decade. Morgan was one of two female African American artists to join the workshop; the other was Evangeline St. Claire.(6) Hayter helped revive interest in intaglio techniques (engraving, etching, and drypoint), and encouraged the development of new methods such as soft-ground etching and color viscosity. At Atelier 17 he also incorporated practices from movements such as Surrealism—particularly psychic automatism. Art historian and curator Joann Moser has noted that at the time of re-establishing Atelier 17 in New York, Hayter’s “involvement with automatism, abstraction, and experimentation reflected some of the most advanced tendencies in art.”(6)

Morgan developed a major interest in engraving. She explained that she taught herself the engraving process “because Atelier 17 was not a formal classroom but a workshop situation. I looked at what the others were doing and I learned from them.” (7) She also related that she “always painted slowly, so engraving seemed like a solution for me. . . . I engrave from my sketches and from my imagination. My work has always been a combination of both sources.”(8)

The color engraving and aquatint Turning Forms dates from Morgan’s period at Atelier 17. This experimental plate reflects Hayter’s general influence and guidance . The lively abstract composition features dense patterns of deeply cut lines, which are punctuated by dark areas of relief, and vibrant tones of red and yellow.

At some period during her career Morgan also worked at the African American artist Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop in New York City. This workshop has provided generations of American artists a place to experiment and perfect their printmaking skills.

Morgan spent most of the period from 1951-1953 and 1961-1966 working in England and Scotland. In 1951, she received a fellowship for study abroad from the John Hay Whitney Foundation. Upon receiving the fellowship she immediately made “plans to visit the setting of the novels by [Thomas] Hardy and [the] Brontë [sisters]. The British Information Center provided me with addresses of lodgings and farmhouses where I could stay.”(10) In addition to the writings of Hardy and the Brontë sisters she was drawn abroad by her admiration for the romantic landscapes of Scotland by the 19th-century African American painter Robert S. Duncanson, whose work was the subject of an important article by the African American historian, artist and teacher James A. Porter that appeared in 1951 in the periodical Art in America.(11)

Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872)

Scottish Landscape, 1871

Smithsonian American Art Museum

In Great Britain, Morgan abandoned abstraction and became devoted to picturing the dramatic landscape of South West England and the Scottish Highlands. Her works feature craggy terrains and windswept moors, as well as vistas of rugged hills dotted with stone cabins. Her bold and moody pictures are composed of strong shapes, and striking contrasts of dark and light. Storms clouds often are visible in the distance.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Wild, 1952

Copper engraving on paper

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Moor Lodge, c.1955

Engraving on paper

Dolan/Maxwell Gallery

Morgan emphasized physical decay and erosion. She believed this added a further dimension to “the visual scene. Old buildings, hills and the like all yield a good source for exploration.”(12) Fax conjectured that “one is tempted to believe that [Morgan’s] deliberate choice of decaying, eroding subject matter—her harsh, desolate English countryside and her strong handling of it— are symbolic. Who is to say that the restrictions imposed upon her as a woman who is also black have not evoked this kind of stark creative response?”(13)

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

David in the Wilderness, 1955-1956

Engraving on paper

The 1950s and 1960s were the high point of Morgan’s career, and her work was exhibited widely in the United States and abroad in these decades and after. In 1955, her engraving Granite Tor won the first purchase prize at the annual print show in Philadelphia and became part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Shortly after the Museum of Modern Art acquired an impression of this print as well as the engraving David in the Wilderness. In the mid-1950s, the artist had a solo exhibition at the Pachita Crespi Gallery in New York City, and was commissioned to create prints by the Library of Congress and Associated American Artists.

In 1959, Morgan had a solo exhibition at Bodley Galleries, a prominent gallery in New York that specialized in contemporary and modern art. Among the other artists to show there at the time were the young Larry Rivers and Andy Warhol. Morgan’s work was featured at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, which was held in Dakar, Senegal in 1966, as part of the exhibition Ten Negro Artists from the United States. This was an important moment for the presentation of contemporary African American visual art on a global stage, and raised the profile of black artists within the United States and abroad.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Morgan was championed by Bertina Carter Hunter. Hunter was the founder and president of the Counterpoints Guild, which was formed in 1967 to provide a forum for the work of African American artists. She later became the founding director of the Norsam Gallery in New York, which represented chiefly African American artists. Morgan exhibited regularly at the Counterpoints Guild and Norsam Gallery. Hunter was an avid art collector, and donated many works to institutions, including pictures by Morgan.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Stormy Clove, Catskill Mountains, 1974

Engraving on paper

Historical Society of Woodstock

In 1969, Morgan began to divide her time between New York City and Woodstock.(14) She was drawn to the area by her love of the local landscape. and her interest in hiking, camping, swimming and cross country skiing. For a period she lived in an apartment on the second floor of 5-7 Rock City Road. Morgan traveled to Woodstock by bus (she didn’t drive), and the apartment was a short and convenient walk to the stop In the center of the village. It is not known whether Morgan developed any close relationships or friendships in town. Longtime resident artists Paula Nelson, Daniel Gelfand, and Richard Pantell, and poets Mikhail Horowitz and Teresa Costa, recall seeing her around town or at gallery openings. Walter Petrucci, who organized an exhibition of Morgan’s work in 1979 at his gallery in nearby Saugerties, unfortunately recalls few details about their interchange or work together.

Following the initial publication of this piece on October 10th, 2020, the longtime Woodstock resident John Lavalle sent me an email relating that when he owned and operated Sight & Sound in Woodstock from 1969-1981 "Norma was a regular and very valued customer [for our custom photographic services]. We assisted her with enlargements that she used in her work. A kind and gentle women and the only woman artist of color among our clients."

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

A Catskill Winter, 1983

Engraving on paper

Norma Morgan (1928-2017

Hyad's Bath & Shelving Rock - Kaaterskill Clove, 1994

Watercolor on paper

Dolan/Maxwell Gallery

From 1969 through about 2010, Morgan created paintings, watercolors and prints of the Catskills in the romantic spirit of her English and Scottish landscapes. In 1983, she was honored with the Woodstock Artists Association’s annual print award, which resulted in a commission to create an edition of one-hundred-and-one impressions of her engraving A Catskill Winter. In a recent telephone conversation, the artist Daniel Gelfand recalled assisting Morgan with the printing of this engraving. Among her other pictures of local subjects are the evocative and atmospheric black and white engraving Stormy Clove, Catskill Mountains, and her large painting Fawn’s Leap, which pictures the Kaaterskill Creek waterfall cascading over large boulders, and includes an image of her mother singing in the company of two female musicians. Morgan’s mother Ethel frequently accompanied her to the Catskills.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

A Troll. Kaaterskill Clove, 1987

Watercolor on paper

Dolan/Maxwell Gallery

In the 1980s, Morgan began to incorporate imaginary images of trolls, wood sprites and elfs into her soft green and emerald-toned oils and watercolors - a reflection of her humorous point of view. The writer Sandra Lewis Smith felt that the imaginary creatures appealed to Morgan’s mystical side.(15)

Harriet Tanin (1929-2009)

Norma Morgan, 1981

Gelatin silver print

Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art

Teresa Costa recalls that Morgan always had a smile on her face. Harriet Tannin captured Morgan’s cheerful disposition in her photograph of 1981, which depicts the artist holding up her engraving My Grandfather (from 1972), one of a small group of portrait and figurative works that Morgan created over the course of her career. The group includes engraved portraits of her mother, and of the African American abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman, a rare work by Morgan touching on a key figure in African American history. In a letter of July 22, 1959 to the writer and biologist Cedric Dover she explained her general aversion to depicting subjects dealing with African American life and history, and related that her “idea of poetry and art . . . is to rise above the situation . . . . I hope that my art does not limit itself by even national boundaries but can be enjoyed on an international basis, and by all people and age groups.”(16) Morgan’s grandfather Grant eventually resolved his differences with his daughter Ethel. In 1985, the artist referred to herself as “a very wealthy woman. I still have my family, my grandfather and my mother, and I have my work. I have all of this.” (17)

Around 2010, Morgan stopped coming to Woodstock. Her mother died in 2011, and four years later she moved into a retirement facility in New Britain, Connecticut. Morgan died in October of 2017. In his review of her print exhibition at Walter Petrucci's Work of Art Gallery in Saugerties in 1979, the artist and writer Bernard X. Bovasso applauded her talent and strength as an artist, and astutely commented that Morgan “found the mystic stones, the dolmens and megaliths of Albion’s prehistory [wherever she looked] and challenged them with her burin.”(18)

(1) Cynthia Hawkins, “Norma Morgan,” African American National Biography Online.

See https:/

(2) Elton C. Fax, Seventeen Black Artists (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1971), p. 254.

(3) Morgan is quoted in Sandra Lewis Smith, “Norma Morgan: A Matter of Balance,” Black American Literatue Forum, vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 34.

(4) Fax, p. 258.

(5) Christine Weyl, The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Mid-Century New York (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2019), p. 248

(6) Joann Moser. “The Impact of Stanley William Hayter on Post-War American Art,” Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 18, no. 1 (1978): 5.

(7) Fax, p. 259.

(8) Smith, p. 34.

(9) Moser, p. 8.

(10) Fax p. 259.

(11) Ibid. p. 264.

(12) Morgan is quoted in E. Exler, “Norma Morgan – Romanticism and Printmaking,” Sagaletter (Summer 1990): 5.

(13) Fax, p. 259.

(14) Hawkins, “Norma Morgan.”

(15) Smith, p. 35.

(16) Morgan's letter to Dover is quoted in Nico Slate, The Prism of Race: W. E. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and the Colored World of Cedric Dover (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 129.

(17) Morgan is quoted in Smith, p. 35.

(18) Bernard X. Bovasso, “The Engravings of Norma Morgan at the Petrucci Gallery in Saugerties,” Woodstock Times, February 22 1979, p. 7.

* * *

For their special assistance in researching and writing this piece, I would like to thank Roberta Hudson Strachan, Kim Apolant, Christina Weyl, Cynthia Hawkins, Mike Pastore, Jon Eckel, Ron Rumsford, Nico Slate, Richard Pantell, Teresa Costa, Mikhail Horowitz, and Daniel Gelfand.

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Beautiful article. In the Summer of 2021, the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD held a solo exhibition of Ms. Morgan's work called 'Enchanted World'. You can reach out to the museum to receive a copy of the catalog. It was widely acclaimed and a largely successful tribute to this remarkable artist. I lent five works from my collection to the museum for the exhibition...and decided to donate one of the works to their permanent collection...

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