Eddie Mormon stands in front of his studio — the open carport of a North Lake Charles home. (Donna Price / American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, June 16, 2014 12:15 PMVera Mormon, mother of local artist Eddie Morman, couldn’t keep her son in enough brown paper bags when he was growing up. “He drew on everything from the time he was 4 years old,” she said.
The Indian Chief tablets she bought his brothers lasted for weeks. Not Eddie’s. The first Christmas gift that he ever asked for was water colors. He even drew and painted on the wall against his lower bunk.
When Eddie ignored his mother’s warning that artwork on the walls wouldn’t be tolerated, Vera threw away his materials. But Eddie’s grandmother told her to give them back. “I remember her saying, there’s no telling what that boy will become,” Vera recalled.
In junior high, Eddie rode his bike to the bus station to draw and sell portraits. In high school, his first painting got statewide recognition. Vera still has it.
Today Mormon’s vivid impressionist style is known throughout the U.S. and especially in Louisiana, Colorado and Texas.
Abita Springs Brewery displays and sells his work. A Colorado Springs hotel and restaurant feature his paintings. New Orleans folks buy his work like hot beignets. He’s featured in a short sketch, along with other artists, on Louisiana Public Broadcasting
Mormon has sold paintings for as much as $25,000.
But he gives away his work, too. “Some people are givers and some are takers. “I’m a giver,” Mormon said. That generosity and particularly his trusting nature are a concern to family and friends.
People who know him may not be surprised that his studio is as unconventional as he is.
Mormon paints during the early morning hours under a carport in North Lake Charles. “This is where I raised my three daughters,” he said. But he doesn’t live there now. He never repaired the damage from a fire. Home is around the corner.
His ex-wife, friend and fan, Monica, said, “He’ll have to tear that house down one day, but he’ll probably keep the carport,” she said, laughing amicably. He’s tried working in other places, but he likes the carport the best.
A thin layer of dust covers most of the items under the carport. There’s a table scattered with oyster shells, a couple of old phone books and lids from recently used tubes of oil paint. These are fresh. There’s no dust.
“They say I’m crazy because I get up at 4 a.m. and come here, pray and paint, but I’ve got to be under power of the divine God. Time stops when I paint,” he said.
Sometimes Mormon can be hard to follow in a conversation, like he’s racing ahead to answer the question he wants you to ask, rather than the one being posed. But this one thing he makes clear: He believes his gift is from God. Mormon doesn’t seem to operate with the same priorities as most people. He inserts references to God, humility and kindness into the conversation whenever he can.
“Sometimes the elements are against me.” He was talking about the weather conditions under the carport.
But Mormon has overcome more than the wind and rain. For one thing, he’s colorblind. If Mormon is commissioned to paint a house that the owner expects will match the color of the house, Monica marks the sketch for him.
Mormon paints quickly. He describes it like this: “One, two, buckle my shoe. The painting is finished.” He describes the whole process as something mysterious even to him.
Monica said that one reason he’s fast is because he doesn’t have the luxury of returning to his painting later on. He may not be able to match a color that he mixed the day before because of his colorblindness.
Mormon is incredibly fast, even when he’s working with a Sharpie. He can sketch a person in three minutes and the line drawing will have the same arresting qualities as his painting. He is a master at capturing the essence of a person or other subject matter.
Jefferson Dollars for Scholars CEO Lisa Conescu said that she and Mormon have had some preliminary discussions about renovating the Lake Charles house, but there is no timeline. Mormon has been donating to the group that helps provide art education opportunities for public school students in Jefferson parish for the last 12 years.
Conescu calls Mormon “an incredible living southern artist.”
He made his living as a longshoreman like his father before him. He signs his prints as “Rock” Eddie Mormon. The “Rock” is in memory of his father. “My father could pick up 600 pounds. He was a boxer,” Mormon said. “My grandmother moved here to protect him because he almost beat a white man to death.” Mormon said that when he lost his father, he lost his best friend.
Mormon still moves like a longshoreman. At his carport studio as he moves a large canvas, he declines help. He’s got a certain way of doing things.
His career on the docks came to a close after 25 years. “I felt something push me out of the way and then a three-ton load fell on my heel and crushed it. My head had been in that very spot seconds before. They thought I’d never walk again. I call it divine intervention. I’ve had a lot of things like that happen to me, a lot of times when I felt like God was helping me.”
The injury gave Mormon time to heal — and to paint. “Everything happens for a reason,” he said.
When asked how many paintings he’s created since that time, Mormon answered, “Four thousand.”
Under the carport studio is a 2003 blue Honda that matches the blue smear of paint on the side of Mormon’s nose, his blue shirt and his blue shorts. The car is missing the front right fender. It’s a traveling gallery of sorts from which Mormon displays and sells his work. That’s how he got his start.
On the day of the interview, he pops the trunk to reveal a painting of a French Quarter style streetlight. It’s almost dry.
Mormon uses oils only. “Oil paint never loses its luster,” he said. He applies it heavily, carving it onto the canvas with a palette knife, leaving rich ridges and valleys. The texture of Mormon’s painting is as much a part of his appeal as the bold, primitive impressions.
But Monica offers the best description of why his work is so powerful and popular: “He paints from the soul. He puts a piece of himself into each painting. That’s why it’s so disappointing when people take advantage of him.”
The morning of the interview Mormon has finished, among other pieces, an oversized canvas too large for his trunk. “I’ll deliver it in a rented Penske truck,” he said.
It is a Texas scene. The state flag is featured. The foreground is a field of blue bonnets and Indian paintbrush. In the background is the Houston skyline.
The painting was commissioned by Kathleen Hayes who lives in Houston now. Hayes saw Mormon’s work for the first time in a downtown Lake Charles gallery when she worked for Merril Lynch here.
When the new Merrill Lynch offices were built, Hayes looked for local art to hang on the walls. (That’s the company’s policy.)
The first artist she displayed needed her pieces for a New Orleans show. Hayes asked Mormon for some paintings and suggested he put prices on them.
“Wouldn’t you know it, someone bought a painting off the wall. Suddenly it became very cool to own an Eddie Mormon,” she said.
One morning Mormon brought Hayes a painting of a bumble bee. He told her that he had awakened during the night with her on his mind. He didn’t know why that image came to him. As soon as he got up, he put the bumble bee down on canvas.
Hayes was tickled. She told Mormon that she loved bumblebees and had clothing and other items that featured bees.
“I told him, oh don’t you see, Eddie, the bumble bee isn’t supposed to be able to fly, but it doesn’t know that, so it flies anyway. That’s you and me Eddie. That’s you and me.”