Elemore Morgan Jr.’s gaze settles on Elise Toups as intensely as the day she began working on his portrait.
He was undergoing treatments for an illness at the time. Complications from heart surgery would take his life soon after. But not before he could tell her to quit with the landscapes ? portraits are what she should be painting.
She has a way with faces. No, it’s more than that. She has a way of reading people, then capturing what she reads in a portrait. Especially in their eyes.
The people in Toups’ portraits have been places. They’ve seen things. Morgan had seen a lot in his 76 years, putting much of what he saw ? and the way he saw it ? on canvas.
Morgan was known as the dean of Acadiana artists, son of legendary Louisiana photographer Elemore Morgan Sr. His work is known throughout the world.
So, Toups didn’t hesitate to sign up for a painting workshop offered by Morgan. Landscapes were her forté, so it only made sense to learn more from the best.
However, Morgan didn’t establish his workshop to teach students to emulate his work. His goal was to help artists develop their own styles. As he saw it, Toups was a painter of people.
“He was being treated for his illness at the time, but he was down on the floor,” Toups said.
She stoops down on the LSU Museum of Art’s floor, pretending to sift through invisible pieces of art.
“There he was on the floor going through our artwork, and he was so agile,” Toups said.
She stands and gazes at her portrait of the artist. This was the first of her portraits, a series of large paintings of friends and acquaintances reminiscent of Chuck Close’s photorealistic portraits created from grids of square paper.
Toups will acknowledge that Close is one of her inspirations. To see other pieces in this series, viewers can visit the LSU School of Art’s Alfred C. Glassell Jr. Exhibition Gallery downstairs in the Shaw Center for the Arts, where her show I Want to Take You With Me runs through Friday, Aug. 26.
The show is a combination of three series, almost a retrospective commemorating her work before she leaves for Michigan, where she’ll begin work on her master’s degree.
For now, though, she stands in the Museum of Art’s LSU Art Past and Present Gallery, where three of her paintings join works by Leanne McClurg Cambric, Alex Harvie, Kathryn Hunter and Chris Smith in a show highlighting work by graduates of the LSU School of Art.
This means Toups is on a double bill in the Shaw Center.
“And I’m really excited,” she said. “I have the exhibit downstairs, and I have my first museum showing here.”
She glances again at her portrait of Morgan. He gazes back at her, his mouth slightly open, in the midst of a conversation, just as he was the day Toups snapped the photograph of her teacher.
He believed in her, in her work. A continuation of that work can be found downstairs in Glassell Gallery.
The title of Toups’ exhibit has special meaning. I Want to Take You With Me means just that ? she wants to take others’ photographed portraits with her to Michigan to use in creating more painted portraits. To do this, Toups partitioned off a section of the gallery to use as a photo booth during the exhibit’s opening reception on Aug. 14.
Toups matched one of 13 backgrounds to the sitter, then snapped a photo. The photos will remain on view throughout the exhibit, after which they’ll be shipped to Toups to begin the new phase of her portrait project.
“The photo booth is also a way for me to get to visit everyone before they leave the gallery,” Toups said.
She says this on the Friday before the exhibit’s opening, the same day she took the elevator to the Shaw Center’s fifth floor to peek in on her work in the museum.
“It’s also easier for everyone, because the visitors don’t have to make a special effort to tell me goodbye after having their mug shots taken,” Toups said. “We will have already spent time together. Then I can take them with me.”
Also in this show are pieces from Toups’ St. Ann series, featuring painted scenes of New Orleans Krewe of St. Ann on Mardi Gras Day. Toups’ dad introduced her to this krewe, as well as its annual Mardi Gras Ball when he lived in the French Quarter.
Covering the wall in the corner opposite the photo booth are small, framed sketches Toups has drawn along the way.
“I couldn’t afford big pieces when I started collecting art, but I wanted to support the artists,” Toups said. “I bought these frames a few years ago, and I cut paper to fit the frames. This was something I could do ? I could always take the paper with me and draw wherever I was.”
The drawings are bits and pieces of Toups’ life. There’s her dog, one of her chickens, one of her mother’s llamas standing in a water bowl.
Toups’ mother lives two hours away in Mississippi, where she keeps goats, sheep and, yes, llamas. Her home also houses two studios ? one for herself and one for Toups.
“It’s a place where I know I can always go and make work,” Toups said. “And that’s what I want to do in Michigan. I’ll be teaching while I’m working on my master’s degree. And I want to be able to make work while I’m there.”
The small drawings show her dedication.
“I wanted to make work that is affordable,” Toups said. “People can walk away with a piece of work, and it doesn’t break them. The smallest pieces are $15, the next size is $25 and the biggest pieces are $35.”
The best part is that though these drawings are representative of Toups’ everyday life, viewers can interpret them differently. Perhaps Toups’ dachshund will be a reminder of a childhood pet; her chickens may drum up memories of those at grandma’s house.
Toups earned her bachelor’s degree from LSU in 2005. She’s since shown her work in galleries throughout Baton Rouge.
Now she can only imagine how her artistic adventure will continue in Michigan.
Surely she will see faces she’ll want to turn into portraits. She already has a good start with the reception photographs she’ll be bringing with her.
This, no doubt, would have made Elemore Morgan Jr. proud.