In the early 1940s, Lee Morais was just a boy, but he was an artist nonetheless. He was so engrossed by drawing at the time that his business-focused family worried about his preoccupation with crayons and took him to a psychologist.
Luckily, the psychologist understood and prescribed nothing more than for Morais’ parents to set him in front of the house and have him watch the clouds for an hour a day with the mission to see how many images he could find.
“It was saying, ‘encourage his imagination,’ ” Morais said, his legs crossed as he sat in a metal folding chair surrounded by the white-walled room of The Foundation Gallery on Royal Street. “Somehow that became a permission slip for me to become an artist.”
Fast-forward 70 years and Morais remains an artist. His exhibition, “The Gilded Edge,” is the first exhibit of Morais’ work since 1968.
“I’m a teacher,” Morais said. “I’m an artist, but I’m a teacher. And I love talking about art.” And after teaching art at Michigan State, the University of New Mexico, Towson State University and the University of Maryland where he taught for 25 years, he has become a talented and experienced arts educator.
Morais left New Orleans in 1958 and didn’t move back for almost 30 years. When he returned, he was unemployed for the longest stretch of his professional career. It was a tough period for Morais, but in Audubon Park he met someone who helped him find The Arts Council New Orleans. With ACNO’s help, Morais started the Central Arts Program, where he planted the seed of his current project — collages — during his lunch breaks.
But the works presently on the walls of The Foundation Gallery exist as much more than just collages.
Morais uses a small card to make a collage from materials he has lying around, then he blows up the created image at a printer in Lafayette and uses pastels to paint on the large image.
That’s still only the early stage of the completed piece. As the name of the exhibition suggests, the glimmering and golden edged frames of the images are just as important.
Morais makes those too, using scrapped frames from frame shops and distributors. The intricate, elegant and royal designs combine with familiar paintings of Napoleon, art brushes and other famous images, creating a surrealist juxtaposition that entrance you. Though the art rouses any passerby, the cost of their creation inspires those even slightly artistically inclined.
“Here’s why I like the collages and why I like the frames,” Morais said, leaning in close with his legs still crossed, “they’re free. I like the idea of making something out of nothing. Art supplies are so expensive. I buy a tube of paint now — cerulean blue — and it’s like I’m investing in the stock market.”
The show opened on Sept. 6 and was warmly received by the arts community.
“People were blown away by seeing it in this space,” gallery manager Alice McGillicuddy said from behind the showroom desk, waving her arm around the room. “The lights, seeing it against the white walls, the collection as a whole was definitely more powerful than what people had seen here previously.”
But this exhibition has a greater purpose. For every show, The Foundation Gallery partners with a local charity and the artist is allowed to take their pick. Morais chose to support Habitat for Humanity.
Through it all Morais remains humble, considering himself fortunate to even have his art shown and appreciated by a large audience. He can’t fathom letting his supporters down now.
“How lucky am I? At this point in my life for somebody to say, ‘do a dance.’ These people asked me to dance. This is the best I can do. This is the best work I can do. I’ve got to feel really good about ‘my dance.’ ”
The Gilded Edge: Work by Lee Morais
WHEN: Exhibit continues through Oct. 26
WHERE: The Foundation Gallery, 1109 Royal St.
INFO: (504) 568-0955