By Gussie Fauntleroy
Who knew thinking backwards and in reverse could be a good thing? Ed Morgan certainly didn’t when, as a young man, he applied for a job at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, MO. He had no idea his tendency to what he now refers to as dyslexia would lead to a successful fine-art career. The 66-year-old artist also attributes his success to his ability to focus on just one thing without becoming distracted.
These inborn traits were called into service in 1964 when Morgan was offered a job at Hallmark—not drawing humorous greeting cards, as he had expected, but as part of an elite group of artists creating images using a combination of metal-plate engraving and embossing. Very few artists qualify for the job, he points out, because “they can’t think backwards and in reverse, and they don’t have the temperament to sit there for days and put every hair on a dog.”
Visualizing a piece “backwards and in reverse” means the finished image is left-to-right reversed from the original drawing. At the same time, the engraving must be done so the highest raised areas in the finished piece are the areas cut most deeply into the metal plate. The need for absolute focus comes in at every stage in the process, including the detailed watercolors Morgan adds to each embossed piece, along with the application of exquisitely delicate pieces of hand-dyed silk and small touches of gold leaf.
It’s a recipe for continual challenge, even for an artist who’s been refining the process for more than 45 years. He’s the only artist he’s aware of who uses this labor-intensive, multi-step sculptural engraving process. Yet the results—depicting themes of American Indian culture, animals, flowers, and birds—are so intriguing and aesthetically pleasing that Morgan often pre-sells his work before it even leaves the studio.
Leading the way through the rambling rooms of his two-story adobe house and studio in the historic section of Taos, NM, the artist stops proudly before an expansive, 15-foot-high wall. Floor to ceiling it is covered with paintings by such greats as Howard Terping, Clark Hulings, and Richard Schmid. Other walls are adorned with authentic 19th-century Plains Indian artifacts, including beaded leggings, moccasins, vests, rawhide parfleche bags, and a full-sized buffalo head.
These objects reflect Morgan’s lifelong fascination with American Indian cultures and history. Raised in Missouri, where his Osage Indian great-grandmother gave him dried frogs and moose-hide mittens for Christmas, he spent summers with his grandparents and moved in with them at age 10 after his father died. As an active Boy Scout in Kansas City, he took part in dances and ceremonies that taught and celebrated Native American lore.
Another foretelling page in the artist’s early life was a picture he cut from the back of a comic book and thumbtacked to the wall above his bed. Day after day he stared at the detailed print of a Hidatsa Dog Dance warrior in a spectacular hackled magpie headdress. It was by the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, who accompanied German explorer Maximilian on expeditions up the Missouri River in the early 1830s.
Morgan still has the print, now framed. Some years ago he used sculptural engraving to create a series of works inspired by the image. One of these, DOG DANCERS SOCIETY, holds the honor of being his all-time favorite piece. It’s a nighttime scene featuring seven warriors preparing for a dance. Requiring four engraved plates, with the embossed images spliced together to create a single scene, the piece took a full year to complete. Following Morgan through his multi-room studio, it’s easy to see how one artwork could entail that much effort and time.
First comes an idea, often kindled by objects in his artifact collection or from research in his upstairs library, which is filled with books on history and art. Another major source of inspiration is his first-hand facsimile experience of pioneer and American Indian life in the early West. At the annual Rendezvous gatherings he attends, held at various sites around the West, participants live for a week in teepee camps. They cook outside and eat, dress, and carry out daily life using only items, tools, and methods that existed no later than 1840. Ed and Virginia Morgan were married at Rendezvous in 1982, and since then their children and grandchildren have taken part in the gatherings as well.
With the seed of an idea, Morgan heads to the drawing studio. Giving no consideration to the technical challenges that could ensue in the engraving stage, he draws the image he wants to produce. And challenges do arise. “Every time I draw something, I run into engraving problems,” he says.
In one piece, for example, a kneeling warrior holds an eagle on his arm and a parfleche bag between his knees—a complicated scene to translate backwards and in reverse on the engraving plate. “I told Virginia, ‘I have no idea of what I’m doing,’” Morgan recalls, shaking his head and smiling. “And Virginia says: ‘You say that every time!’”
He draws the scene anyway and then uses a stylus to create tracings of the image on Mylar (nylon foil) sheets. In the engraving room, he employs these tracings and traditional metalworking tools to carve the scene into a magnesium zinc plate. (Engraving differs from etching, which uses acid to cut into the plate.)
As he carves he adds fine details, always keeping in mind that the highest raised areas must be cut the deepest—and that once a cut is made, it can’t be undone. “After you take the metal out, you can’t put it back. So you don’t make mistakes,” he affirms. In all his years of engraving, not once has he had to throw out a plate and start over.
After the plate is engraved, Morgan moves to the room that houses his press, a 1952 German-made behemoth adapted for his needs. The 4,000-pound press is painted pearl green, black, and red like a train engine—and has a similar feeling of power: It delivers 60 tons of pressure and can heat whatever is in it to 300 degrees.
The engraved plate is mounted in the press along with a board covered with a thick layer of epoxy-like material. Under heat and pressure the material fills all the carved lines and spaces and then hardens, producing a positive (raised) image, called a counter. Once the counter is hard, Morgan uses carving tools to remove any excess material and fine-tune the details.
Then comes the embossing. A sheet of 100 percent rag paper is placed over the counter in the press and hit with those 60 tons of pressure, transferring the raised image onto the paper. Before lifting the paper off the counter, Morgan meticulously adds life to selected parts of the picture by applying watercolor, fine Chinese silk, and small areas of gold leaf.
After each material is applied the image returns to the press. This essentially “fires” the paint, producing a depth and intensity of color resembling enamel. Similarly, the silk become burnished, “like a shiny old pair of jazz musician’s pants,” as Morgan puts it. Because the silk’s grain runs in various directions, light reflects differently off each tiny piece. As a result, the colors change shades as the viewer moves around the artwork.
For many years Virginia cut and applied the silk. Working together, the couple sometimes went 24 hours straight. Virginia retired a few years ago to turn her attention to other interests, including yoga, Pilates, and qigong, a meditative practice. “If it wasn’t for her support and working with me and keeping me out of trouble all these years, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Ed. Now he performs each step in the process himself, although these days he sets an easier pace for himself.
Morgan learned engraving and embossing as a young apprentice working side-by-side with a mentor at Hallmark Cards. His “hard-core training” meant workdays starting at 7 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m., six days a week. Later he left Hallmark to join American Greeting Cards, where he helped establish that company’s first engraving department. In 1970, having fallen in love with northern New Mexico a few years earlier, he settled in Taos. Soon he began adding watercolor and silk to his embossed images, gradually refining the process that became uniquely his own. Today Morgan creates one-of-a-kind pieces as well as small editions of what he calls “original multiples,” adding paint and silk to the pieces in varying combinations.
“I could have been accepted way faster if I did something where people knew what the hell it was,” he reflects with a wry smile. “But I stumbled into this and it turns out I can do it, I’m good at it, I’m driven, and I enjoy it. I love what I do.”
Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; www.edmorgangallery.com.
Summer Show, Settlers West Galleries, May 8.
Featured in March 2010