BLACK SILHOUETTES ON a brightly colored background, faces stylistically painted in overlapping profiles, musicians on wheels, a crab playing cards—such is the multifaceted portfolio of Tazewell Morton. After more than 60 years as a professional artist, he does not describe his career as a particular kind of progression. “I’ve worked in so many different directions,” he says instead. “I just enjoy doing whatever it is I’m doing.”
Tazewell can point to the consistent influence of modernist artists like Picasso, and the graphic quality gleaned from years in advertising. His achievements include a stint at Auburn University’s art department, his alma mater, where he designed a university flag that traveled to the moon aboard Apollo 16 with fellow alumnus and astronaut Ken Mattingly. Tazewell also spent nearly 30 years working with advertising firms in New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Boston.
He has done a bit of everything. Tazewell even created a line drawing of President Jimmy Carter that was handed out to campaign workers following Carter’s victory in the 1976 presidential election. All of this multidirectional movement has affected not only Tazewell’s subject matter, but also his medium. Most of his paintings are in acrylic or watercolor, he explains, because oil paint required more time and space than his lifestyle could afford.
When it comes to a single place for his creativity to grow, though, Tazewell always returns to the Gulf Coast. Tazewell was two years old when he first moved to the Mississippi coast, and as his artwork developed, its beaches and bayous provided ample inspiration. “You can see for miles and miles when you’re on the beach,” he says.
Today, Tazewell splits his time between Auburn, Alabama, and Pass Christian, Mississippi. When pondering the later phases of his art, he pauses to select the right word, “I’ve done so much… exercise,” he says. “I would like to finish my life in a more pastoral mode.” His recent work depicts the quieter coastal scenes he observes near his studio in Pass Christian. When the artist wants to liven things up, he turns to nearby New Orleans, where the city’s iconic food and music complement the color and energy of his work. Describing the city as “joy and happiness,” he says it has inspired paintings of seafood and street musicians. Tazewell even painted shrimp, crabs, and other gulf seafood playing jazz instruments. His painting of “Tazewell’s Seafood Gumbo,” includes his signature recipe and depictions of the many ingredients. “I guess my life is a gumbo,” he quips.
From his love for the Gulf Coast and its signature seafood to his background in graphic design and advertising, the defining elements of Tazewell’s artwork are also hallmarks in his personal story. When examining his work, the short-yet-meaningful narratives behind each painting come to the surface.
Looking at the image of a brightly colored acrylic painting of fishermen pulling in a massive net of fish, for instance, he begins to recall an early morning stroll along the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. He saw a boat approaching the shore, dragging in a huge catch of fish. As the fishermen brought in the net, their efforts formed a triangle—men on the beach pulling the net in opposite directions, while an additional man remained in the water behind the net, calling out directions to keep everyone’s efforts coordinated.
On the canvas, the figures are emphatically stylized, with bold shapes and colors creating a vibrant scene characteristic of Tazewell’s work. The story behind the painting carries particular significance for the artist. “This is what I call, ‘The Trinity,’” he says. “I believe in the trinity. I believe in you and me and something that joins us.”
He explains that while the concept of the trinity always perplexed him, witnessing that catch of fish shed a new, less orthodox light on an otherworldly power that he perceives keeping relationships in balance.
As for the catch that day, he adds with a smile, “you’ve never seen so many fish.”
Significant trios are a central theme in much of Tazewell’s work. Relying on a triune composition of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus, Tazewell has recently worked in clay to fashion ceramic nativities and Christmas tree ornaments. In addition to the holy family, he might add an angel, shepherd and sheep, or the three wise men, or create a whimsical lamb or angel ornament.
The nativities, like Tazewell’s other pieces, tell a story. As he puts it,“Everything one does is a story.” Having worked in a range of media, and depicted everything from jazz funerals to the Virgin Mary, Tazewell’s artwork relates a wide range of narratives, yet, he reflects optimistically, “It all ties together somehow.” Like a good gumbo, myriad elements combine to create the whole.
To see more of Tazewell's work, visit tazewellart.com.