Found-object artist Robert Morgan connects past and modern epidemics

Contributing WriterApril 19, 2012 

  • If You Go

    Gallery Hop

    What: Open walking tour of museums, galleries and studios throughout downtown Lexington.

    When: 5-8 p.m. April 20.

    Guide: Go to Galleryhoplex.com for a guide to participating venues. Call (859) 255-2951 for more information.

    Admission: Free.

Robert Morgan has always collected found objects — discarded junk that some people might call trash — and given them new life and meaning in his artwork.

He does the same with people.

Morgan, 60, has been an integral member of both the arts community and the gay community for decades and has witnessed the harrowing toll that drug addiction and AIDS have taken on fellow artists and friends.

Sober for 25 years, Morgan understands the often-lonely plight of those facing addiction or disease and is the kind of guy you call in the middle of the night if you're in trouble.

"I just give people my number," Morgan says while giving a tour of his studio.

He points to a statue called The Benediction, a doll-like sculpture embedded with objects that speak to the memory of a friend who died of a drug overdose.

"It will be a year this Friday since I got the call," Morgan says.

There are bits of telephone parts — old receivers and tangles of chords — woven throughout the piece.

The piece isn't just about one phone call, but "all the calls," Morgan says.

He has spent many nights counseling troubled friends over the phone. A lot of people have called over the years.

'But a lot don't," Morgan says with noticeable disappointment.

The Benediction is one of a dozen works to be featured Friday during Gallery Hop at the Hunt Morgan House.

Sponsored by Bluegrass Historic Trust, Robert Morgan at the Hunt Morgan House will feature a dozen of Morgan's works. Musical entertainment will be provided by Warren Byrom and Seth Murphy.

Morgan, whose Central Kentucky roots go back to pioneer days, sees the exhibit as a way to juxtapose Lexington's past and present, particularly its more turbulent times.

Morgan is quick to say that Lexington is not a stranger to tragedy, a theme that he hopes will be underscored by the exhibit's historic setting.

Morgan has focused on one particularly turbulent 50-year period in Lexington's history: a stretch that included the 1833 cholera epidemic and the Civil War.

"Most people don't know that Lexington was nearly wiped out," Morgan says of the cholera epidemic, which he uses to draw parallels to the modern AIDS epidemic.

"There were bodies piled up in the street," Morgan says, "and all the gravediggers had left town."

One man, William "King" Solomon, helped stem the tide of disease by burying bodies day and night.

Solomon, a white man and an alcoholic who made his living digging cisterns and graves, was punished for vagrancy by being sold at the slave market. He was bought for $13 by a free black woman named Aunt Charlotte, whom he had previously known in Virginia.

Solomon became the unlikely hero of Lexington because of his dedication to burying the dead.

Morgan doesn't go so far as to compare himself to Solomon, but he does draw comparisons between public behavior then and now.

Morgan recalls the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when medical centers and families shunned AIDS victims.

"We were renting apartments and putting beds in them just for people to go and die," Morgan says.

During the cholera epidemic, most doctors had left town. A few residents, like King Solomon, stuck it out.

Another hero was Maria Gratz, who founded The Lexington Orphan Society to care for children whose families had been decimated by the outbreak.

Morgan's connection to the city's past and his role in a modern epidemic are palpable.

He says two artworks are dedicated to his ancestral family.

"Not just blood family," he says.

"I, personally, have cared for 21 people who have died," Morgan says of the loved ones he has lost.

The sculptures are made from strips of rubber from discarded tires on the highway, another indication that Morgan finds usefulness, even beauty, in items other people would throw away.

Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.

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