MORANG AND FRIENDS: Ghost Stories

El Farol- A Toast to Morang- Matthews Gallery Blog

“There are ghosts at El Farol, there’s no question about it,” says Freda Keller with a playful smile. “There’s been a lot that’s happened over the years. In 1835 there were gunfights in the bar. People hear and see ghosts late at night.”

Keller is the general manager at Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant and cantina, and we’re on a hunt for a particular ghost. Alfred Morang (1901-1958) often haunted the establishment in his years among the living. This Thursday, El Farol and Matthews Gallery are throwing a special toast to his lingering spirit in the cantina, where Morang painted a series of stunning murals. The event will christen our December 12-26 exhibition MORANG AND FRIENDS, which features rare artwork and artifacts from the man who was known as Santa Fe’s Toulouse-Lautrec.

El Farol- A Toast to Morang- Matthews Gallery Blog

“The biggest thing with El Farol, the reason why it’s been around so long, is that it’s family driven,” Keller says. “I think the customers feel like they’re family, and obviously [Morang] did too. Being an artist and offering to do these murals, you would have to be part of the family of El Farol.”

Like any proud clan, the El Farol staff is always happy to take guests on an art tour through their cozy rooms. In addition to Morang’s works, there are murals and paintings by Santa Fe legends William Vincent (a student of Morang), Stan Natchez, Sergio Moyano and Roland van Loon. Keller produces a little fact sheet that helps everyone keep the stories straight. Here’s the write-up on Morang:

El Farol- A Toast to Morang- Matthews Gallery Blog

When you enter our rustic cantina, one of the first things to catch your eye will be the beautiful murals displayed throughout. The first artist to grace our walls was Alfred Morang.  On the long west wall of the bar and one behind the bar, are our oldest murals were painted between 1948 and 1952. Mr. Morang was already an established artist when he frequented El Farol during that period. He painted the murals to settle his tab at El Farol.  The scenes are of local landscapes and adobe homes in Santa Fe. We’ve chosen to reproduce our most famous mural of the flamenco dancer in the red dress accompanied by a guitarist as our poster for the 2004 Muralist dinner.  From 1968 to 1980 the owner at the time covered the murals with paneling.  When Bob Ward purchased El Farol in 1980 he removed the paneling to discover the beautiful murals beneath.  When David Salazar purchased El Farol in 1985 he was always mindful of the treasures on the walls.  Painting, re-stucco and remodeling were completed while protecting the murals.

Then comes the part of the tour that sends chills up our spines. Do you believe in ghosts? Maybe this will convince you:

On Easter morning in 1997 David and the staff were awakened by phone calls that El Farol had been burned.  The murals, though singed, had made it through the fire.

Morang died in a 1958 studio fire, so the news that some of his most notable works survived a blaze decades later is eerie to say the least. We walk over to the cantina to view the murals. When the hostess hears us mention Morang’s name, she lights up.

El Farol- A Toast to Morang- Matthews Gallery Blog

“That’s right, the murals still have burn marks on them from the fire,” she says, pointing out subtle passages of missing pigment that were lost to the flames. “They still don’t know how that fire started. They think someone may have set it.”

El Farol has long since been restored to its elegant Old West aesthetic, much as it was when Morang would stop by for a shot of cognac and draw inspiration for his impressionistic paintings of Santa Fe’s wild 1940’s nightlife. On Thursday at 6:30 PM, Keller will join the gallery staff to tell stories and toast the artist with a new “Alfred’s Special” cocktail.

El Farol- A Toast to Morang- Matthews Gallery Blog

“I read up on Morang and learned that he was born in Maine, and how beautiful the landscapes are there,” says Keller. “He did a lot of painting there. His first inspiration was that landscape.” Keller selected a cocktail called Remember the Maine (with rye whiskey, Cherry Heering liqueur and a splash of absinthe) in honor of Morang’s home state. Come have a drink and time travel with us to a true Santa Fe golden age!

Learn more about our Toast to Morang event on the El Farol website and on our gallery homepage, and connect with us Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn more about Morang.

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MORANG AND FRIENDS: The Violin

Alfred Morang's Violin will appear in the Morang and Friends exhibition- Matthews Gallery Blog

When Alfred Morang was a teenager he took to the nightclubs of Boston with his trusty violin. He had been a sickly child, bedridden and unable to attend school, but his mother and uncle recognized his fiery creativity and hired private music and painting tutors. Morang grew from a talented tot to a full-fledged young Renaissance Man, and his passionate musical performances earned him enough money to thrive. It was the beginning of a lifelong artistic journey.

A century later, Morang’s fiddle launched yet another adventure. Santa Fe art collector Paul Parker was researching Morang’s life when he came upon a letter by the artist’s longtime wife Dorothy. After Morang’s tragic death in a studio fire, Dorothy was having a hard time finding an heir to his worldly possessions. She’d finally contacted a distant relative, and was arranging the shipment of a few things collected from the ruins of Morang’s Canyon Road casita.

Santa Fe Artist Alfred Morang Playing the Violin- Matthews Gallery BlogAlfred Morang playing his violin

The letter was Parker’s first clue in a treasure hunt that spanned the nation and stretched to the farthest branches of the Morang family tree. At the end of the trail was a treasure trove that connected the dots of Morang’s life, from his early years as a celebrated musician and writer to his time as an iconic Santa Fe artist. Morang’s well-worn violin, blackened by the fire, is perhaps Parker’s most striking find. It will appear alongside Morang’s artwork in our December 12-26 exhibition MORANG AND FRIENDS.

We interviewed Parker about his search for the fascinating artifacts that will anchor our exhibition to this legendary Santa Fe master:

Paul Parker Inspects a Painting by Alfred Morang- Matthews Gallery Blog Paul Parker inspecting a painting by Alfred Morang

 

 How did you first get interested in Alfred Morang?

I came to Santa Fe in the 1990’s, and met Jim Parsons in Taos not long after. He had a little booth with a rack of prints and drawings and things, and he had a pile of books called The Art Fever. We hit it off and just talked and talked, and I bought a copy of his book. I took it home and read it, and realized who I was talking to.

There was a time when Jim Parsons was the most powerful person in the Western art business. Back in the day, he had a little art gallery in his Denver apartment. He convinced Philip Anschutz to start a Western art collection, which is now the largest and most prestigious collection of Western art in private hands in the world.

Jim was a giant Morang fan, and he showed me his work. I became instantly fascinated with Morang’s story. I had seen his paintings in El Farol but didn’t know anything about him until Jim told me.

Tell me about Morang’s childhood.

He was born in a little town called Ellsworth, Maine. There’s still a Morang Chevrolet in Ellsworth that his father owned with another partner. He and his mother had a very close relationship.

Even as a child, Morang was something of a polymath.

 Yes, he learned from Carrol S. Tyson and other American Impressionists. He was also the youngest-ever solo violinist to play at Jordan Hall in Boston. I mean, he was a very accomplished musician. His wife Dorothy was a member of the music conservancy in Boston. That’s where he met her.

Alfred Morang- The Artist's Studio Portland Maine- Pen and Ink- Matthews Gallery Blog

Alfred Morang, Artist’s Studio-Portland, 1932, Pen and Ink

 

He and Dorothy lived in Portland, Maine before his tuberculosis forced them to move to Santa Fe in 1938. Morang had a successful a writing and painting career back East. What are your thoughts on his early work?

I’ve seen some of his work from back then. Like a lot of artists, when Morang came to New Mexico and saw the color and the light and everything, it inspired him. I think that’s the biggest thing.

It’s almost akin to my life. I thought I enjoyed art, but until I moved to Santa Fe, until I drove by 100 galleries every night on my way home and everybody that I associated with and talked to was in the business in some way, shape or form, something about that was really inspiring.

Artifacts of Santa Fe Artist Alfred Morang to Appear in December Exhibition- Matthews Gallery BlogSanta Fe New Mexican columnist Lorraine Carr covered Morang’s memorial service in February, 1958

 

How did you start hunting for the box of Morang’s possessions?

I was writing a story about Morang, and I went to the library to find out what the newspaper said when he died in 1958. I was reading all of the articles and eulogies and things, and I thought, ‘This is an amazing man.”

After I went to the library that day, I realized I needed more research, so I went to the New Mexico Museum of Art and searched their archives for anything I could find in Alfred Morang’s folder. That’s when I found Dorothy Morang’s folder, and saw her letter. It said that she had sent this box of Morang’s possessions away to Carrie Morang Robinson in Atlanta, Georgia. All I had was the name Carrie Morang Robinson and this address in Atlanta. I did my research and found out that she was deceased. I couldn’t find any relatives, and her former house had a different owner.

 That must have seemed like a dead-end.

Yeah, I made several phone calls and then just kind of gave up for a while. Then something hit me a couple months later and I said, “Damn it, I’m going to try again.”

I did some more research and tried to find Alfred’s relatives. Carrie Morang Robinson was the daughter of one of Alfred Morang’s uncles because she was a cousin and had the family name. I found one uncle’s name through the Morang Chevy dealership in Ellsworth, but then I ran into another dead-end.

A couple months later I got a Maine antiques publication, and there was something about ancestors in it. I got some other names of who Carrie Morang Robinson’s father might have been. I found some members of the Robinson family, and started researching them.

You were making some headway!

 I just start calling people again, and this woman whose name was Robinson came up. I called her, and she said, “Oh, our cousin Alfred. Our mother used to tell us about him.” I started telling her a little bit of the story, and she said, “You have to talk to Gwen.” I just lit up, because Gwen was Carrie Morang Robinson’s granddaughter and lived with her grandmother in the final years of her life. Now Gwen owns Carrie’s house.

I called Gwen up, and she had all of these family stories about Alfred, that he used to go through the woods with his violin and his cats following him. “Weird cousin Alfred” or something like that. She said, “Well, if my grandmother owned the box, it’s probably still up in the attic.” Then I got excited.

You were one step away. It must have been tantalizing. 

Well, Gwen was renting the house, so she told me she’d search for the stuff the next time she was in Atlanta. A month or two goes by, and I call her up again. She says, “We’ll be selling the house, so I’ll look for it then.” A long period of time goes by, and all of a sudden I hear the phone ring one day. “Well, I found your box,” she says. “I’ve got a couple more things—a violin and a painting.”

 Paul Parker Surveys Artifacts of Legendary Santa Fe Artist Alfred Morang- Matthews Gallery BlogParker surveys sketches and other artifacts of Alfred Morang

 

How did it feel when Morang’s artifacts finally arrived at your door? 

It was absolutely phenomenal. It was like the biggest Christmas ever. To see that violin and just to touch it. Talk about personal.

The box was full of many different short stories and manuscripts, which he submitted to radio stations to be read as radio plays. Many of these stories were never published, and might have been lost forever.

Did this elaborate hunt make you wonder why someone didn’t try to keep the artifacts in Santa Fe? 

Dorothy and Alfred got divorced in 1950, but even then Dorothy kind of watched out for him. When he died, she knew about this cousin Carrie Morang Robinson, who was the only rightful heir to his possessions. Dorothy stepped up to help contact her, and at the time it wasn’t a big deal to send them away.

One of the stories that Morang’s adopted daughter Claire LaTour has told me is that they didn’t know what to do with his ashes. They left them in a closet in the art museum after the last memorial service. Claire came back, and somebody flew her over Canyon Road and she dumped his ashes out the window of the airplane, which was a difficult task. She told me, “I was wearing a fur coat, and I always laughed that forever afterward I was brushing Alfred out of my coat.”

Alfred Morang- Autumn in the Park- Oil on Canvas- Matthews Gallery BlogAlfred Morang, Autumn in the Park, 1954, Oil on Canvas

 

Morang’s colorful personality often overshadows his artwork. Is that frustrating for you, as a big fan of his work ?

It’s the same frustration that I have now with van Gogh. I know from all my research that van Gogh was not a crazy man. He had epileptic fits that affected his life and personality, but he was a very brilliant man and definitely not insane.

It’s almost the same thing with Alfred. People like the story of a bohemian alcoholic, something that fits better with the story of Toulouse-Lautrec. He wasn’t an alcoholic. He couldn’t have done the things that he did if he were an alcoholic.

The greatest quote that I’ve ever heard about an artist is from Morang’s memorial service. It’s not attributed to anybody specifically, but an unknown artist said, “It’s no wonder that we in Santa Fe mourn the loss of Alfred, he taught half of us how to paint and the other half how to see.” After Morang’s death, all of a sudden people started to realize that he was a great artist. People regretted that they didn’t pay enough attention to him.

Coming up next week, Paul Parker digs up more mysteries of Alfred Morang’s life and travels to Paris to complete a mission in Morang’s memory. Make sure to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for daily updates on MORANG AND FRIENDS.