Morris Taft Thomas spends some mornings talking to Willola.
She was his wife, his soulmate, his muse. She died in September 2016.
But she is there in the many color pencil drawings that are part of Thomas' solo show, "New Orleans Stroll," in Southern University's Visual Arts Gallery in Frank Hayden Hall. The show runs through March 8.
And Hayden's there, too. He was Morris' friend, so it seems only natural that a portrait of the late sculptor and teacher is included in the collection.
The 82-year-old artist received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from Southern. He's taught in the Rapides Parish school system and LSU at Alexandria. Collectors throughout the world have bought his work.
But none of these accomplishments eclipses his marriage to Willola, which is why his detailed drawing of a crab and gumbo dinner holds a prominent place in this show.
"He called this one 'Wilolla's Favorite Meal,' ” says curator Randell Henry. "It was the last meal his wife ordered in the hospital before she died."
Her struggle and death changed Thomas' life and the way he approached his art.
"She was on the seventh floor, and I would walk out on the balcony while she slept and watch the people walking on the street," Thomas says. "Then I started walking along the streets and sketching what I saw."
Thomas is best known for his paintings and sculptures, but a set of Prismacolor pencils gave him more mobility with this project. He could work anywhere.
And he did.
"After I'd sketch people on the street, I'd come back and fill everything in with the color pencils," Thomas says. "And the more I worked with them, the more I learned. Prismacolor is the name brand of the pencils, but there's also a Prismacolor overlay method you can apply to it."
That's when several colors can be applied in one spot, then blended, with the color on the bottom ultimately coming to the surface.
The show features New Orleans scenes, as well as people and places in Alexandria, where Thomas has lived, taught and created during the bulk of his career. He also maintained a house near Metro Airport in Baton Rouge until recently.
And though Thomas was born in New Orleans, the city now has a different meaning for him.
"When I was with my wife at Tulane Medical Center, I looked across the road where Charity Hospital stood," he says. "I was born on the seventh floor of that hospital, and my wife died across the street at Tulane. I thought about that, and I thought about how she taught me patience."
Thomas applies that patience to his work, looking at it with a new sensibility. He admits he's more easily moved to tears these days, but he's OK with that.
He wants his tears to be joyful. Yes, his drawings depict life, which isn't always pretty, but they are not mournful.
And there is much joy to be found in the drawings of a woman's baptism in Thomas' Alexandria church.
He thinks his wife would prefer this, too. After all, he talks to her about it.
"I visit the cemetery, and I talk to my wife," Thomas says. "I have friends who say I shouldn't, because it would only make things worse. But I'm 82 now, and I don't listen to them. I'm OK with it, and I think she would be, too."
'New Orleans Stroll'
A Morris Taft Thomas exhibit
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. Through March 8.
WHERE: Southern University Visual Arts Gallery, Frank Hayden Hall
ADMISSION/INFO: Free. (225) 771-4103