“I love what I do,” said Velma J. Morris, an artist who paints with acrylics, and who continues to paint and exhibit her work at age 77. “It affords me the opportunity to meet interesting people.”
At four and a half, she drew on every sheet of paper she could find. She even drew in the borders of books. “I was happy to draw,” she recalled. Growing up in Lincoln Heights, she went to a Catholic school on Anthony Wayne Ave. She moved to Seventh St. downtown at age seven and lived with her grandparents.
Later, she moved to Sims St., no longer in existence, in Walnut Hills near Essex Studios. Morris attended Windsor Elementary School and Ach Junior High School, both now closed. As a student at Hughes High School, she fell in love with William Howard Morris, Jr. and quit school to marry him in her senior year. “At that time, all I thought about was getting married and having kids,” she said.
Morris moved to acrylics when she found she was allergic to oils, under the direction of her high school art teacher. “I drew all the time,” said Morris, who also made doll clothes. Other hobbies didn’t interest her. “My family bought me a bicycle,” she said. “I hardly rode it. I didn’t know how much they sacrificed.”
“As a family, we never talked about color,” said Morris, who raised two sons, Wendell, 55, and William Howard Morris III, 58. Divorced at 35, she has spent 40 years in her house in Springdale. Her extended family is biracial: both of her sons married white women. Wendell is an auto mechanic, but according to his mother, has a good art eye. “If he looks at it, it’s a better piece,” she said. Her other son is a graphic designer.
Morris never liked to be referred to as a black woman artist; rather, she considers herself an artist, period. She didn’t enter black art shows until she was established.
Although she never pursued a formal art education, she took classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnati taught by the late artist Ruthie Pearlman. Lela Cooney at Baker Hunt Art & Cultural Center in Covington in the 1980’s was an important mentor for Morris. But, she made her living at the former McAlpin’s department store, working in fashion fabrics and custom draperies. Morris set up appointments with the customers. “I didn’t try for a supervisor role,” she said.
Both the Women’s Art Club of Cincinnati, located in Mariemont, and the Cincinnati Art Club, in Mt. Adams, asked Velma Morris to join; the latter, until recently, was an all male institution. As a student of 14, she walked to Eden Park and saw the Cincinnati Art Club building. She thought to herself, “I would like to do that (club).” Later, she became the first African American female member and a signature member of the Cincinnati Art Club.
In addition, Morris served on the Women’s Art Committee of the downtown YWCA, which sponsors female artists in its gallery with regular exhibitions. She exhibited at the first Hyde Park Square Art Show as well as Summerfair, when it was still located in Mt. Adams.
“I’m not a party person,” said Morris, “unless people want to talk about art.” By 1999, she had retired from McAlpin’s and began teaching acrylics two nights a week at Baker Hunt. “I was a lot happier when I got back into art,” she said. Her sons agreed. She now teaches four sessions of eight weeks each. Morris enjoys teaching younger people and helping them find their creativity. “It doesn’t drop in your lap,” she said.
Morris recently exhibited in Feast for the Eyes, a show of various artists at the Woman’s Art Club of Cincinnati’s The Barn, its exhibition space. The ages of artists range from 15 to 95 at the show, which runs from May 1 to May 30. Horses are the main subjects of her paintings; they date back to the time when her former husband bought a quarter horse and trained him. “He had books on horses,” said Morris. “We went to River Downs where I was fascinated with the running of the horses and the colors.” Morris’ paintings of horses are widely known for their senses of movement and speed, and her frequent use of primary colors.
Basically a self-taught artist, Morris said, “I don’t like to be stuck in a category.” When she did a piece about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 50-year anniversary of the civil rights movement, she cried. “It tore at me,” she said. She will enter the painting in a Louisville contest this year.
“I don’t like the negative stuff,” said Morris. She likes people to be uplifted by her art.
From January to March 2003, she had a one-person show at The Weston Gallery at The Arnonoff Center, focusing on chairs, which read as stand-ins for people. In 1996, she had a one-person exhibit at The Closson Gallery in Kenwood. Both shows helped her sell more work. She also had a one-person exhibit with 85 pieces at Middletown Art Center in 2013. Currently, she is doing smaller pieces, things she can carry, art that fits in tinier spaces and work that costs less. Her work has also appeared in numerous group shows in this region.
She views the current art scene as more active and with more leadership in Dayton, primarily due to Willis “Bing” Davis, president, Board of Directors of the National Conference of Artists, who lives in Dayton. But, she mentions Cincinnati artist Toilynn O’Neal, who has a new pop-up gallery with rotating shows at 791 E. McMillan St. in the Dillard Building near Peebles Corner. An African American woman, she is trying to pull new artists together and market their work.
From 1996 to 2007, Morris served as a judge for the Overture Awards, an arts competition for grades 9 – 12. “I love seeing other pieces of work,” she said. “I am interested in students having their own voice. What I will do is suggest. I don’t demonstrate a piece of work. We all have our own voices,” Morris added.
Artists who influenced her included the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, such as Gauguin, Manet and Cezanne: she is fascinated by their use of color. “I like things with spirit. I draw with my brush and correct as well,” she said.
Morris has volunteered as a visitor service aide at the Cincinnati Art Museum for seven years. She attends exhibits at the Taft Museum of Art. “You can always be busy,” said Morris.
A portrait of her mother dominates her living room. She was blind when she died in her 70’s. “We could have saved her sight if we had known,” said Morris. “Since we were so close, I need to tell Mom about (things),” said Morris. Images of people, often family members, are an important part of Morris’ body of work; her series of women wearing hats is one of her best and most popular.
Eight years ago, Morris lost sight in her right eye. That hasn’t stopped her from painting, driving and exhibiting. At 77, she is still active and mobile. “I am going to work until I get tired,” said Morris, citing the energy needed for a show.
Velma Morris – a model for aging gracefully, but actively.