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Two Worlds: Norma Morgan in Scotland & the Catskills

By Pamela M. Conacher

In the course of researching the fine art collection of the Historical Society of Woodstock in 2019, I discovered the work of artist Norma Morgan (1928-2017). A year later I authored an essay on Morgan’s life and career for Learning Woodstock Art Colony. The publication of the piece led to my curating the exhibition "Norma Morgan: In the Lands of the Moors and Catskills," which is on view at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum through September 10th. In celebration of this event I asked Pamela M. Conacher (nee Wilkinson) of Scotland to write about her memories of Morgan.

Morgan specialized in engraving, but also was active as a painter and watercolorist. An illustrated exhibition catalogue is available for purchase from the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, which includes my expanded essay on the artist, who spent long periods of time in Woodstock from 1969 to about 2010.

I’ll be giving a gallery talk on Norma Morgan at the association on Saturday, May 13th at 3 p.m.

Bruce Weber

Learning Woodstock Art Colony

Norma Morgan on the Beach

Outside Invercaimbe

Wearing her Green Cagoule

and Heavy Rucksack, 1966

Wilkinson Family Archive

Norma Morgan came to live with our family in Arisaig on the Northwest Highlands of Scotland during the mid 1960’s.(1) I am unsure how she came to find us but I can only presume it was due to my mother’s art school background. I can picture Norma alighting from the train in Arisaig, her large, heavy rucksack on her back, wearing her green canvas cagoule and asking someone where she could find accommodation. My mother taught art in the local schools, was a weaver and also painted watercolors for sale to visitors, so was well known in our small community as "the artist." The two-and-a-half-mile walk from the station would have taken Norma to our old croft house, a spectacular location facing the sea in one direction and the mountains in the other.(2)

At that time I would have been around 6 or 7 years old, my brother Peter three years older and my sister Joyce just a baby. My father, George, may have been away at sea—he was a Merchant Navy officer—and my mother, Beatrice, would have welcomed Norma and enjoyed her company as a fellow artist. They were of a similar age and from very different backgrounds but with a shared love of art, music and the landscape.

The arrival of a female African American artist in our small, remote community must have been of great interest, but, as a child, I seemed to take it in my stride and we loved having Norma with us. Spending time with an independent and fascinating woman, living her life on her own terms, can only have influenced my future life choices. Her good nature and patience with me never faltered as I asked questions, painted my own work (in the style of Norma!), practiced my recorder and watched her work.

Invercaimbe Croft House,

from a Watercolour by

Beatrice M. Wilkinson 1963

Wilkinson Family Collection

Norma stayed in the top left-hand room.

The Room Norma Lived in and Used as a Studio in the Wilkinson Home

with Views to the River Caimbe,

the Hill Craig Mhor, and Moors, 2023

Invercaimbe Croft House, 2023

Looking Toward the River Caimbe

Norma's room has the open

window at the top right.

Norma took over one of the upstairs bedrooms in our home and I have vivid memories of one wall covered by a large painting of mountains and being fascinated by the scale and detail of her work. She also pointed out the couple in an embrace tucked in behind a rock, something that seemed to crop up frequently in her work. There were tubes of paint everywhere, works in progress and detailed sketches, and her black lace underwear strung out on a line by the window! Thinking back, she must have had a bed in there somewhere but I can’t remember it.

Norma Morgan (1958-2017)

Middle Dene Farm, c. 1955

This engraving is in the collection

of the Wilkinson family and was gifted to the family by Norma

Norma camped out sometimes, beside the sea and up on the moor, and her green tent was one of my earliest memories of her. I really wanted one too, and found the whole experience of camping so exciting. Her green tent was still going strong and taking her on adventures 30 years later.(3)

M. E. Petree, Norma Morgan with Mandolin, Catskills, c. 1990s,

Wilkinson Family Archive

I remember Norma playing the recorder and talking about folk music with my mother. Her good nature, smile and happiness with her way of life lifted all of us. My childhood was enriched by Norma’s visits and her letters over the years made a connection between our two very different worlds.

Beatrice with Pamela

on Hannah the Donkey,

Photo by Norma Morgan, 1966

Wilkinson Family Archive

I am unable to get accurate information on Norma’s time with us, as my mother died in 2016. But I do have a collection of letters, cards and photos, as their friendship endured over the years until ill health and their subsequent passing.

The excitement of the arrival

of a letter from Norma!

Wilkinson Family Archive

Letter from Norma 1999,

Wilkinson Family Archive

The Catskill Mountains,

Rico’s Big Indian House (Annex Building)

Taken from the Meadow,

Photo by Norma Morgan, June 1970

Wilkinson Family Archive

Norma Skiing at Frost Valley,

Catskill Mountains, March 1976

Wilkinson Family Archive

As children, we would await the arrival of Norma’s letters and cards eagerly and my mother would read them out to us. When we were older we would study them in great detail; even the stamp and her handwriting was exciting! We learnt about Norma’s time in New York, her mother Ethel, her studio in Woodstock, exhibitions and her life—such a different and exotic (to us!) world, far from the wilds of Scotland. She always planned to come back to visit but I think her last trip was in 1966.(4)

In 2009 I was very fortunate to visit Norma while in New York on a work trip and we spent a precious day together reminiscing. We hadn't seen each other since 1966 but her welcoming smile was just the same. Norma and her mother Ethel lived in a small apartment in Phelps House. Ethel had the bedroom and Norma slept on the sofa. Norma divided her time between New York and her studio in Woodstock, taking the long bus journey regularly and creating the majority of her large paintings there.(5)

Robert Laurer, Ethel Morgan Singing, 2002, Wilkinson Family Archive

Letter from Norma Morgan to

Beatrice M. Wilkinson, December 1, 1998

Wilkinson Family Archive

Norma was devoted to Ethel and her death must have devastated her. It felt so special to spend time with them both and to hear about Ethel’s life. She was an amazing woman with a fascinating life story and it was easy to see where Norma acquired her strength and independence from.

On a shelf in the apartment was a model of a ship, the Queen Mary, made by Norma when she was a child; it was beautifully crafted and very detailed, about a meter long, and I wondered where she found all the information to make such a complex model. "From a book" was the answer. I think she said she was around 12 years old when she made it.

One wall was taken up with the painting of the mountains I remember from my childhood, and Norma showed me photos of her time with us—the one of me on our donkey Hannah with my mother is on the wall beside my desk as Norma gave it to me when I left.

Norma Morgan in the Garden

of Phelps House, NYC,

During Visit of Pamela M. Conacher,

April 2009

It was obvious that her time with us had a huge influence on her life and work and she was genuinely moved to have me visit, as was I to see her again. Other memories of my day included sitting in sunshine in the garden after lunch, admiring the blossoms in the trees and talking about Arisaig and the people she had met there. Finding the Highlands in New York was very special and being able to reconnect with Norma after so many years felt natural and right.

When I returned home and told my mother all about the visit she was delighted to hear about her friend. Norma wrote to us both afterwards to say how much she had enjoyed talking about Arisaig, to meeting me as an adult and how her time with us had given her lasting memories.

One of the last letters I have was when Norma wrote to my mother in 2010, saying Ethel was frail and had moved into a nursing home but that the National Gallery in Washington, D.C .had acquired one of her engravings and that she was working on a new engraving and painting.

She signed off with "wishing I could visit," something she said in all her letters over the years.

Letters and cards from Norma stopped coming in about 2013, around the time my mother became ill and subsequently moved into a care home. I wrote to Norma after my mother’s death but got no reply, so I presumed she had died or was ill.

When Bruce Weber contacted me to ask about Norma’s time in Scotland I was able to finally find out that Norma had moved into a care facility around the same time as my mother and had died the year after her. Their relationship was clearly important and special to both of them, as their long correspondence confirms; it is a privilege to think that all these years later their story is being told.

Norma in Mallaig, Near Arisaig,

August 1966

Photo taken by her Boyfriend Don Macrae

Wilkinson Family Archive

View West Towards the Wilkinson House and the Islands , 2023

East to the Hills and Moors,

View from the Room Used by Norma, 2023

I feel very fortunate that I was able to spend time with Norma when I was a child and had the opportunity to meet her again as an adult. She was a truly inspirational and special person, an artist whose work showed her romance and passion for her subject and the landscapes that inspired her—from the Highlands of Scotland, through the Moors of Yorkshire to the Catskill Mountains.

14th April 2023

1--As noted , Norma Morgan came to live with our family in the 60’s. I don’t have exact dates but from letters and photos presume it was some time between 1963-66 and that she stayed with us several times, renting a room as a studio but also living with us as a family. She corresponded with my mother, Beatrice M. Wilkinson (nee Spaven), from the 60’s until ill health stopped the letters around 2013. My mother was a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, and after marrying my father, George, they went to live in Arisaig in the northwest of Scotland. Myself and my siblings (Peter, Joyce, Julie and Colin) were brought up on the family croft at Invercaimbe. My father died suddenly on the July 23, 1972 and my mother continued to live at Invercaimbe until she moved to a care home in Mallaig in 2014. She died on July 23, 2016.

Fortunately some of the correspondence from Norma remains with the family and we are delighted to be able to contribute to the celebration of Norma’s life at the time of her exhibition at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum in 2023.

2-“Thank goodness you have decided to stay in Arisaig; it is indeed your home and such a lovely one! Most of us should be lucky enough to daily experience such ideal surroundings; I often use your house, beach, mountains and the general look of the colorful artist's paradise!“ Letter from Norma Morgan to Beatrice M. Wilkinson following the death of our father, George, September 11th 1972.

3- “The campsite and its new additions sounds fine and I wish I could be there to open up the camping season and to use the mod cons! I still use the tent, which was new the summer I was in Arisaig, and although faded (the fly-sheet has dulled but the tent, which is protected by the fly-sheet, is still the same rich green) is in excellent condition with no leaks as yet. I have used it about 90 times since new.”

Letter from Norma Morgan to Beatrice M. Wilkinson, November 12, 1975.

“I always think of my camping on your beautiful beach with my new tent. By the way, I used the same tent this summer as I have every year since 1965. Besides being a bit faded , the tent is still in perfect condition; it does not leak and the guy lines are still intact. It speaks well of Blacks of Greenock, where it was purchased!” Letter from Norma Morgan to Beatrice M, Wilkinson, 1994.

4-“The bus is handy, stopping less than 5 minutes walk from the Woodstock studio. I don’t own a car so it comes as a welcome way of getting back and forth to the city with my portfolio. I’m in Woodstock about 6 weeks and in NYC for the next 6 weeks usually. The space at my mother’s apartment is small so I work on [prints] there and the larger paintings in Woodstock. It’s about 40 miles from where the 1969 music festival was held. Though the name 'Woodstock’ wasn’t changed. It is an arts colony dating from 1903. I have a bicycle to get around on though I mainly use it for exercise and not needed for transportation. I walk to do grocery shopping; hope I’ll be able to keep the Woodstock studio, they have recently increased the rent. Keep well and I hope to get over to see beautiful Arisaig again, love Norma.” Letter from Norma Morgan to Beatrice M. Wilkinson, possibly from around 1991.

“I am working on 5 x 7ft acrylic painting on canvas of a stormy scene on the moors with myself seated on some rocks, enjoying the scene. I am also engraving a picture of the 145 year old house in Woodstock, New York where I rent a studio for painting. The engraving is done at my mother’s apartment in new York City and I divide my time between the two places.’’ Letter from Norma Morgan to Beatrice M. Wilkinson, Dec 3rd 1999.

5- “I’m busy working on the series of three engravings for the American Bi-Centennial which have to be completed by next June. They are; The Labrador Duck (just completed); Wild Turkey, and Bald Eagle, an endangered species. The pay is good, the firm likes my work and I am able to work on my own art at the same time. This commission won’t last forever so I am ‘making hay while the sun shines.’ Have been staying up in Woodstock, New York in the Catskill Mts. for the past few months, but Woodstock is only two and ¼ hours by bus from NYC. So I get to 63rd St, once a month as it is still my address. Woodstock is an artists colony and I have often thought of staying up there but never quite had the funds. I have a small studio, do my own cooking. It is in a re-converted inn, about 110 years old. Everyone here is in their twenties and struggling and so, though I’m a few years older, because I have no car, and am also struggling (and always will) they figure I must be ‘in the same boat’ and I get a chance to visit the local discotheques and get my eardrums blasted by rock music (some of it great) along with all the rest. They have open poetry readings every Monday night in a local cafe. Mother has read some of her poems when visiting the town, and I read one of mine. I’m working on a painting of a scene (from photos I took in Scotland) of a valley as seen from a height of about 3000 ft. With mist and crags; ‘the old Morgan favorite.’” Letter from Norma Morgan to Beatrice Wilkinson, November 12, 1975.

All correspondence copyright of the Wilkinson Family Archive.

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Karen King
Karen King
05 may 2023

Great blog post! We enjoyed the opening of this exhibit at WAAM.

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