When Tazewell Morton came to our offices last fall, he brought along a whole portfolio of his work. I had written down a list of questions I planned to discuss during our meeting, but instead something more offbeat, and ultimately more interesting transpired. For nearly two hours, Tazewell and I flipped through reproductions of his work and he told me the snippet story behind each piece.
Our meeting left me fascinated, and, if I'm honest, a little bleary eyed. I couldn't help but be humbled by Tazewell's more than half century of work, but I also wasn't sure how I was going to account for it in 800 words.
He showed me a wide range of paintings, each one capturing a different element of his life. There was a smokey scene with coastal sea animals playing poker. With a wry smile Tazewell explained that he was supposed to be the crab. Then there were the highly stylized paintings of figures on wheels, a series that helped establish him as a serious artist. He had several interpretations of musicians parading through New Orleans, his favorite city. In homage to his beloved Gulf Coast, there were also a multitude of seascapes. He brought along Louie the Buoy, a children's book about Hurricane Camille that he illustrated. And revealing a more spiritual and religious side, Tazewell also had his more recently fashioned ceramic nativities and Christmas tree ornaments.
As a writer, the challenge became not a lack of story, but that there were so many stories embedded into such a range of work. In an ideal world, I would have loved to create an exhibit of Tazewell's work, with rich captions to accompany his broad range of eclectic art. After a tour through the well-curated corridors, the viewer would walk away with a meaningful impression of Tazewell's work and a sense of the pieces of life that most influenced him.
But I had a deadline. So I set about writing a story that would capture his eclectic spirit and communicate in words his visually oriented life. It took a few rounds of editing, but I was happy with the final story.
Tazewell probably summed it up best, quipping at the end of our meeting, "Everything one does is a story."
The statement still has my wheels turning. For him, and the rest of us, there is no single story, but rather a myriad of different narrative snippets that come together to form the whole. The question becomes, what do we leave behind to tell those stories?
Tazewell described his life like a gumbo—a mixture full of different ingredients and packed with often intense flavor. His variety of work, he reflected, likely prevented him from ever becoming a major success as either a commercial or fine artist. Tazewell did a bit of both, but was never wholly defined by either field. Yet his body of work speaks to life full of rich narratives, whether or not they paved the way for professional accolades.
Like Tazewell, we all tell many stories, and the things we produce leave a trail. I suspect that such a trail often looks more like a spiral or a starburst than a neatly hewn path (at least it would in my case). I find fresh inspiration in Tazewell's stories—splashes of color and stylized shapes that speak to a life creatively lived. It's not an easy story to tell, and an even harder one to live, but he can have no doubt that he made something—many things—of himself. There are worse things than spending 60-plus years that way.