For 20 years after his military service in Vietnam ended in 1968, Morgan Monceaux roamed the country working odd jobs -- short-order cook, gas-station attendant, janitor. When he got bored, he'd pick up and move to the next place.
He wandered from Washing-ton state to Florida and to points in between. He hitched rides and slept wherever he could lay his head. He dug meals out of dumpsters; for a while he was homeless.
Then in 1990, when he was 43, he began to paint.
He was living in an abandoned building in the South Bronx in New York City. "It was the middle of winter, there were some sign painters who had left paint in the building," he recalls. "So I used it."
At first, he painted abstract designs. Then he became fascinated with the nation's presidents and began researching them at the New York Public Library, one of the few places in which he found a measure of peace.
With his head full of paint colors and presidents, Monceaux moved from the Bronx to a shack that was once used by migrant workers in tony Southampton. He found a job as a janitor in a local nightclub. And the pictures flowed.
Monceaux's colorful outsider art is the subject of a delightful exhibition at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center downtown. Called "Shall We Dance?" the show presents two dozen mixed-media paintings honoring great African-American dancers of stage and screen.
The pictures include portraits of legendary terpsichoreans Janet Collins, who danced in the 1950s with the Metropolitan Opera and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, and Lavinta Yarbor-ough, a member of the modern dance company formed by Agnes DeMille, a contemporary of Martha Graham. These two are part of a body of work by a prolific artist who has carved out a niche for himself as an American primitive.
'There's a story line'
"If Elected I Promise -- From George to George," was Monceaux's first project, completed in 1991. It depicts U.S. presidents from George Washington to George Herbert Walker Bush and was followed by three series on jazz greats and on black cowboys and Indians of the Old West.
"I can't explain how I do it," Monceaux says. "I work in series, there's a story line, and I try to start at the beginning and work my way as close to the end as I can get. I spend at least a year studying my subject. When I'm finished, the work starts."
Monceaux's lively casts of characters, drawn in pastels and paint, and embellished with bits of fabric, beads, buttons and other found objects, instantly command viewers' attention.
There's whimsy in his work, and a deep empathy with his subjects that often is spelled out in layers of idiosyncratic, handwritten text that surround the figures. These anecdotes and biographical notes, which seem almost casually strewn across the surface of his paintings, are in fact the result of painstaking research.
In many ways, Monceaux, who was born in 1947 in Alexandria, La., exemplifies what it is to be an "outsider" artist. He has no formal training in art, and, as a homeless person, lived much of his adult life outside conventional society. His work does not belong to a folk tradition but is inspired by a private vision that exists apart from traditional notions of art and artmaking. However, in recent years, success has brought Monceaux rewards to which many formally trained artists also aspire.
Artwork out of hiding
He was discovered in the early 1990s by an East Hampton gallery owner.
While still working as a janitor and painting in his spare time, Monceaux passed a gallery in East Hampton that specialized in primitive American art. "I saw the works in his window. The images were raw just like mine," he recalls. "So I walked in and said 'I know someone who can do this.' And the owner said, 'No one out here can paint like this.' That's when I told him that's what I did."
The gallery owner, Morgan Rank, asked for slides but Monceaux didn't have any. So he asked to see the paintings, but Monceaux didn't have a way to transport them. Finally, Rank drove Monceaux home and looked at the paintings there. He was so impressed that a few weeks later he gave Monceaux a one-man show.
Within a few years, Monceaux had been written up in the New York Times and interviewed on Good Morning America. He published two children's books, Jazz: My Music, My People and My Heroes, My People: African Americans and Native Americans in the West, both based on his paintings. These days his works sell for between $4,000 and $7,000, and he earns enough to make ends meet without a day job. He's making it as an artist, something he never dreamed could happen.
Last year, Monceaux moved from Providence, R.I., where he had been living since 1995, to Baltimore. The city seems a natural fit for the artist, especially since the American Visionary Art Museum here specializes in just the kind of art he makes. He had rented studio space in the Abell Building on East Baltimore Street, but after a water main there broke, the structure was condemned. So, Monceaux is looking to move yet again. Maybe he won't go far.
"Shall We Dance?" runs through May 3. The gallery is at 847 N. Howard St. Admission is free. Hours are Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Call 410-225-3130.