Daniel Morper

Departure [1996], oil, 18 x 24.,painting, southwest art.
Departure [1996], oil, 18 x 24.

By Norman Kolpas

With its picturesque adobe buildings set along narrow streets and alleys, Santa Fe seems like an artist’s dream location. Evidence of this is everywhere: in paintings of the City Different found in local galleries or the occasional in-progress canvas set up on an easel at a scenic vantage point.

You won’t catch Daniel Morper, however, strolling Santa Fe’s streets in search of inspiration. Instead you’ll find him down by the old train depot, a short walk from his home near the downtown plaza. Behind the station are the rail yards, where Santa Fe’s strict zoning laws don’t apply to the clapboard sheds and corrugated warehouses that serve the locomotives, boxcars, Pullman coaches, and cabooses passing through.

Waiting to Load [1998], oil, 13 x 16.,painting, southwest art.
Waiting to Load [1998], oil, 13 x 16.

“The rail yards in Santa Fe are the only place here that hasn’t been fixed up for the real estate market,” Morper says. “It is quite wonderful, with warehouses and dirt and gravel and empty space you can contemplate in. Near my house, it’s the place where I can see the most sky, where I can get out to see the sunset.”

You can hear in those words the romantic tug of the rails on Morper’s heart. And you can experience his feelings for that setting even more powerfully in the latest paintings this accomplished artist has produced canvases that subtly capture the way the rails have become part of a romantic vision of the American West while also synthesizing the artist’s own past.

On Balance [1998], oil, 42 x 56.,painting, southwest art.
On Balance [1998], oil, 42 x 56.

Morper has spent much of his life crisscrossing the nation, and this traveling spirit permeates his work. His father was a lawyer with the Veterans Administration, and the family moved often from Morper’s birthplace in Fort Benning, GA, to Chicago, Seattle, St. Paul, and Arlington, VA. “I think there is definitely a feeling of wanting to go back to places in my paintings,” he acknowledges, “of trying to reacquaint myself with the feelings, a mood, a sense of being there.”

Further back than he can remember, Morper has used art to connect with the world around him. “My mother recounts that my kindergarten teacher was amazed by all the details I put into a picture I had done of a house,” he says. “A young child generally draws symbols of things, but I had made it more concrete.” By the time he was 10, while the family was living in St. Paul, that love of detail found expression in an interest in bird-watching and an admiration for John James Audubon’s Birds of America, an original copy of which was on display at the local Audubon Society.

Toys [1999], oil, 34 x 44.,painting, southwest art.
Toys [1999], oil, 34 x 44.

Still, Morper says of his childhood, “I had no sense then that people actually did art for a living. I just painted or drew as the spirit moved me every once in a while, as more of a recreation.”

Following his father’s path, he planned to be a lawyer, completing his undergraduate work at the University of Notre Dame before attending Columbia Law School in New York City. He spent seven years practicing labor law, including stints representing farm workers in California and working with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC.

The Material Ghost [1998], oil, 27 x 36.,painting, southwest art.
The Material Ghost [1998], oil, 27 x 36.

But Morper grew dissatisfied with his career choice and turned his attention back to art. In 1972 he took six months off from work to visit the great art museums of Europe. Occasionally he’d do a painting, including one large abstract work that was included in the 1974 biennial show at New York’s Corcoran Museum of Art. Finally he decided to make the break and moved to Manhattan to pursue a career in art.

At that time Morper made a decision to paint in a representational vein. “I felt a need to connect to a specific environment, just to record my experience there, which required a very precise realism,” he explains. In 1978 his first one-man show sold out, and critics praised his highly detailed images of the tops of buildings against vibrant blue skies.

Loaded [1996], oil, 13 x 13.,painting, southwest art.
Loaded [1996], oil, 13 x 13.

Looking at those canvases from two decades ago, you can see the same meditative quietude found in such current paintings as Waiting to Load or The Material Ghost. Morper says that their sense of melancholy is similar to the feelings evoked by the works of Edward Hopper, an artist whom he greatly admires. “My paintings come from someone reflecting on a quiet space,” he says. “You sense it’s a space fraught with some emotion.”

With success in New York came a desire to reconnect with the wide-open spaces he had visited as a child. He started taking painting trips out West every spring, producing vast landscapes to complement the more constrained vistas of his city scenes. Around the time Morper was rediscovering the West, he also met artist Carol Mothner [SWA NOV 98]. They fell in love, settled in Santa Fe in 1985, and married soon thereafter. “It’s a great thing when the person you’re living with understands what you’re doing,” Morper says. “Each of us can give constructive criticism without demoralizing the other person.”

From South Dakota’s Badlands to the Grand Canyon, Morper found in the West endless forms to delight and challenge him. “I spent a number of years working on stylistic strategies to allow more atmosphere to come into the paintings,” he says. “And I finally found that the easiest and probably best answer is getting the light right, which makes everything real, and then the painting takes on a life of its own.”

Light plays a crucial part in his rail yard paintings setting a mood, giving the canvases an inner glow, and making the rails themselves come sinuously alive as they catch the rays of the rising or setting sun. Illuminations, for example, literally draws the viewer into a scene at the Santa Fe rail yards with tracks brought to life by the setting sun. That same sunlight richly burnishes buildings and casts a lengthy shadow that lends deep mystery to the solitary figure of a woman standing near an old caboose. Such elements irresistibly intrigue the imagination, a deliberate goal. “I see painting as constructing a stage, which will allow a story to be played out,” Morper says.

Even more theatrical is Toys. Starting with his familiar neighborhood rail yards, Morper eliminated all buildings from the scene to create “a vast landscape, an indeterminate place” in which he positioned a boxcar, a passenger car, and a child’s tricycle elements that feel as poignantly alienated as the characters in a Beckett play. Reflecting the sky are puddles left by a swift-moving storm still visible in the background, which adds an enthralling sense of time’s passage to the otherwise still scene and causes the viewer’s gaze to shift repeatedly between the precisely rendered foreground objects and the vast landscape in the distance.

Despite his focus on the rails, Morper still approaches such paintings as landscapes—breathtaking panoramas in which the machine has indelibly made its mark. In  Enlightment, two pairs of gleaming tracks converge in a snow-covered field and then disappear into the sunset. In Evening Stillness, a rail line snakes alongside southern New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache bird sanctuary, where the empty tracks underscore the stillness of sandhill cranes standing in water that reflects the evening sky.

Such overtly romantic images have led some critics in the past to label Morper a luminist, referring to the group of mid-19th-century American artists who strived to capture the spirit behind the material world through their depiction of light. While not actually applying that label to himself, he does acknowledge that the description fits his own works. “Luminism depends on a fairly quiet composition, with an all-enveloping light and an attention to detail,” he says.

If you must use the term, however, at least call Morper a 21st-century luminist, one who finds spirit as much in the objects of the rail yard as in earth, water, and sky. “I really want both natural and manmade elements in my paintings,” he says. “That’s what I consider the logical landscape.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Tatistcheff Gallery, New York, NY; LewAllen Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM; and Robischon Gallery, Denver, CO.

Norman Kolpas also wrote an article about Nancy Guzik on page 65 of this issue.

Featured in December 2009