The light of day
After 20 years of collecting dust in a barn, the late Ken Morrow’s sculptures are finally on display
“Your next assignment is to do a self portrait. It can be in any medium you choose. It’s due for critique in four weeks.”
It was 1982, and the small beginning sculpture class gathered in Chico State’s Ayres Hall collectively groaned at the next project assigned by their art teacher. Some later slipped out to the (now-closed) Canal Street bar to talk about ideas over coffee cocktails.
The professor was Ken Morrow, who by then had logged 27 years of teaching studio-art and art-education classes. He was a powerhouse of a man in his mid-50s. Everyone knew he worked out, and his biceps bulged under his T-shirt. But he was always smiling, and was one of the rare teachers who you could tell felt very comfortable in his skin.
He smiled as he later admonished this grimacing student working on her clay bust portrait: “The cheekbones need to be higher. The lips should be fuller. Maybe you should get a little mirror to look at while you work.” The piece finally was finished, fired and graded and now reigns in the backyard garden, a life-size person bursting eerily out of the ground like something from a horror movie.
Students came and graduated, and Morrow kept teaching. But the Chicago native was on the brink of retirement in 1985, after 30 years of teaching at Chico State, soon to devote all his time to making art. By that time, he had exhibited 150 one-man shows, including a 1956 exhibition at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, and his work already graced 28 major collections.
Although he had earned a B.A. in psychology from Chico State, Morrow worked in a bevy of mediums and techniques, including drawing, painting, printmaking, clay, wood, stone and cast bronze. But he later seemed to be partial to acrylic on canvas, and had a way with metal and the welding torch, although he easily put his touch to any medium. Even the wooden gate opening to his yard on Arbutus Avenue bore his creative mark.
By 1985, Morrow’s four daughters were grown and starting families of their own. Daughter Elizabeth lived in Leavenworth, Wash., and her sister Janet had moved to Seattle. In February of that year, Morrow and Donna, his wife of 34 years, were making the two-and-a-half-hour trek from Leavenworth through the Cascade Mountains west to the Seattle Bon Marché department store to attend the opening of an exhibition of his work in the store’s third-floor gallery. Ken and Donna Morrow died when their car hit an icy patch of road.
The other two daughters, Diane, now of Davis, and Kathi, of Orangevale, Calif., helped disperse the art that filled Morrow’s home and studio. Many of the prolific artist’s larger sculptural works went into a barn in north Chico, hidden for 20 years.
The Ken Morrow Memorial Collection opened April 23 at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center. Presented with the Valley Sculpture Artists (VSA) Annual Open Sculpture Exhibition, in conjunction with the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Sacramento Fine Arts Center, the tribute exhibit spotlights those larger-than-life sculptures, along with a few paintings.
The 18 sculptures are intense pieces of dark welded steel. Some figures are biblical in reference and wear an intense countenance like “Abraham and Sarah” and “Moses.” Others refer to indigenous cultures where medicine men rule, as in “The Shaman and the Owl” and “The Shaman with Horn.”
“Trojan Horse” and “Icarus” refer to mythical creatures. Horses reign with “Equestrienne” and the “Mistress of the Pale Horse,” a graceful piece that takes the image of Lady Godiva further, sans the long hair but heavy with child. Still others are more whimsical, like “Space Junk,” which bears more reference to sea life than debris floating in space.
Abstract paintings with titles like “Vision Seeker” and “Night Danger” reflected Morrow’s view that each piece “insisted on what it wanted to be,” evidenced by dripping outlines. But the rich, almost transparent colors—blue and purple—come alive with gold metallic paint that seemed to shimmer in unison with the mystical Native American music that played in the gallery.
The few paintings in the exhibition had been displayed in an early 1980s show in Chico, but according to Diane, Morrow never showed his sculptures that he lived with in and out of his home.
“Johnny Russell was a good friend of my dad’s,” she noted. “After my parents died, we sold the house on Arbutus and Johnny volunteered to store some of the sculptures in his barn.”
After 20 years came the call that Russell was selling the property. A few weeks before, VSA member and president Sue Anne Foster, who had years before befriended Morrow’s daughter Kathi via a carpool, discussed the possibility of an exhibition at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center. Things moved quickly after that.
“I had some pieces in storage in Davis,” Diane recalled, “and my sister had some in Orangevale. We picked out what we wanted to put in a show and spent a day cleaning and vacuuming 20 years of barn dust.”
They added some of Morrow’s poems and his prose that begins: “How like windows are my paintings … Move to this open window. How sweet the breeze. Enter, for now mine.”
“He journaled a lot,” Diane said. “He wrote in the morning with a cup of coffee on the deck. It was his quiet time.”
The Morrow daughters also included in the exhibition “Departure,” the only two-dimensional piece sans color. It’s a flowing abstract or energy and light, with two faint but distinct profiles of ethereal creatures drifting apart.
“It was the last piece he ever did,” Diane revealed. “It was on the floor when we walked into his studio the next day after the accident. It was strange because there was no color in it.
“Dad was going to do an early retirement. He was looking at a big change, in transition, on the cusp of leaving his teaching career and just being an artist. He didn’t like fame. He just did art because he liked it. Maybe he just had a feeling, like something big was happening.”