Graham Morgan, left, and his father Tom, standing by their respective artworks, began painting together during the pandemic in the basement of their home in Portland. They sit next to each other and paint the same image. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Tom Morgan can thank his son, Graham, for rekindling his interest in painting.

And Bob Ross.

Graham Morgan signed up for a painting class as an elective during his final semester last year at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. When the pandemic abruptly brought him back to Portland, Graham brought his unfinished assignments and supplies with him and set up a studio in the family’s West End home.

Soon enough, his father joined in. Tom, now 64, got his degree in art from the School of Visual Arts in New York in the early 1980s and makes his living designing books, but it had been a very long time since he had picked up a brush to paint anything other than a threshold. For his father’s birthday last year, Graham gave his dad painting supplies and an open invitation to watch a how-to-paint video by Ross, the TV evangelist painter famous for “The Joy of Painting” instructional videos.

Nonplussed about spending time with Ross, Tom was certain he wanted to spend time with his son – and said yes to both. Since then, they’ve begun a painting club, with a membership of two. Two or three times a week, father and son sit at twin easels to paint their own painting of the same subject, each with his own set of paints, supplies and techniques, and a shared interest in exploring the mysteries of inspiration and creativity.

Tom Morgan and his son Graham began painting together during the pandemic in the basement of their home in Portland. They sit next to each other in a small space in their basement and paint the same image. Tom Morgan painted the still life on the left, Graham Morgan painted the one on the right. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Graham, 24, has since graduated from Roger Williams. He works as a park ranger in South Portland and lives at his parents’ home. The painting routine has outlasted any class assignments or passing interest. Father and son have made about 25 paintings during their sessions – still lifes, scenes from Portland, any subject that catches their mutual interest. They’ve always been close, but sitting side by side over the past 15 months, painting together and talking, has brought them closer.

On this Father’s Day, Tom Morgan feels especially grateful.

“It has been one of the blessings to have him around and to spend this time together. It’s absurdly wonderful,” he said. “I feel lucky to have that opportunity.”

Another son, 21-year-old Wyeth (named for another painter), recently joined the Marines.

Tom Morgan, who is married to author and editor Genevieve (G.A.) Morgan, completely credits Graham for bringing him “kicking and screaming back to the palette.” He also credits Ross, whose rote instruction removes any sense of creativity or originality from the creative process, for motivating him.

“That guy does a painting every 27 minutes. It was unbelievable. We had to stop and start and stop and start, but it was a fantastic experience,” Tom Morgan said, laughing. “Having gone to art school in the days of conceptual art, I probably learned more about applying paint in the 27 minutes I listened to Bob Ross than in four years of art school. Or six years of art school, whatever it was.”

He laughed again.

Bob Ross was an initial foray. Since then, they’ve chosen subjects on their own and painted at their own pace. Some paintings haven taken two or three weeks, others two months or more.

Among other things, this bonding experience has helped Tom Morgan realize that painting can be fun again. More accurately, his son has reminded him how to have fun with art. At some point, art became a career and painting a chore. Out of college, Tom Morgan followed his art degree to an art gallery, where he designed art catalogs. From there, he began designing magazines, and then eventually books. It’s been a good career.

“But I have done zero painting, and I had forgotten how fun it is,” he said. “One of the good things about sitting side by side is we talk quite a bit, and he hears me say the same (stuff) over and over again. And one thing I keep saying is, ‘I love to paint!’ Just applying paint on canvas is so awesome. It really is a lot of fun. So that was a revelation.”

For Graham, the revelation of painting is how it has allowed him to see the world with more perspective. He is the son of creative parents, so he has always learned to look differently. But painting is different altogether. “I notice light a lot more now,” he said. “And color, definitely.”

Paintings of Widgery Wharf by Tom Morgan, left, and his son Graham. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

But he cautions about reading any deep meaning into these paintings. These are street scenes of the local Cumberland Farms, the Longfellow statue and assorted still lifes of things like bar bells, a hockey glove and a bottle of liquor – common interests.

“We probably shouldn’t admit that, but it’s quite frankly true,” Tom said, affirming his son’s conclusion their paintings are without intellectual layers. “We have just been trying to paint what is around us – Gen, the dog, Widgery Wharf, the buildings around us.”

And while it may be true these are surface-level paintings, they are striving to be more. This past March, father and son traveled to Chicago to see an exhibition of paintings by Claude Monet. They had come a long way since Bob Ross.

Though their paintings look similar, there are subtle differences. Tom tends to be a little looser with his lines, less literal in his colors. Those differences are apparent in a pair of paintings from Widgery Wharf, where Tom took liberties with the color of the sky and water. “Graham was true to the colors – blue water, blue sky. I did some purple thing, because I was probably trying to channel Monet in my half-baked way,” he said.

When the painting club began, they met upstairs. But as time went on and the clutter of paintings and supplies expanded, they moved to the basement. A few years before, Wyeth turned the basement into both a workspace, with a bench for projects, and a gathering place for his friends, with sofas. Last year, they added a pool table.

When the painting club moved downstairs, Tom and Graham took over the workbench and later emptied the closet of cans of house paint and set up their easels and chairs in there. That is where they have settled. It’s cramped, but comfortable in a space bewteen where Tom keeps his hockey equipment – he skates in a men’s league in Falmouth – and a massive, long-retired furnace.

They make tea, shoot pool, paint, shoot pool some more.

Is it competitive?

“No, not really,” Graham said.

“Yes, it is,” replied his father. “I would be a slower painter were he not sitting next to me. The competition of keeping up, so he doesn’t finish a painting and then stand around waiting for me to finish, to keep things moving, that’s real. If I had been on my own, I would be on my fourth painting by now. He is also not as timid a painter as I have often been. He has actually said, ‘Just jump in, dad. Go ahead and give it a shot.’ So that is helpful, and different.”

It’s competitive in other ways, though not necessarily head-to-head. They both want to get better. At this time, they have no plans to exhibit their work, though both said they would like to some day.

“We’re not ready yet,” Graham said, displaying the wisdom of a son who has learned from his father that in order to make a truly great painting, it takes years of work – no matter what Bob Ross would have you believe.


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