On a recent Monday afternoon, Conway artist Tim Morris was found standing in front of one of the great fireplaces in the Great Hall of the Arkansas governor’s mansion, specifically painting the mantel to look like stone.
The only giveaway that was made of wood – not marble – was to run your hand across it.
At the age of 84, Morris still does all the painting on his own, although he now has an assistant.
“I’m finally getting to the point where I need an assistant—not another painter—I don’t want another artist. I just want them to help me and be sensitive to what I’m doing. Someone said, ‘Why not?'” Would you hire another artist? And I said, “I don’t want to train someone to paint. It’s me.”
Morris taught art for 18 years at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway before retiring in 1989. Through his company Classique Expressions, he does commissioned artwork for clients across the country.
The public can view his work at the Governor’s Palace where he is a member of the Governor’s Palace Society. He first made art pieces while Governor Frank White was in office. His business grew exponentially under the administration of Governor Mike Huckabee when the Great Hall was constructed.
“Tim has always been one of the easiest people to work with on any project,” says former First Lady Janet Huckabee. “When I imagine Great Hall art, I simply had to express my thoughts and capture all my vision. Tim is talented, expressive, and real, and I am happy to call him my friend.”
But perhaps his biggest fan is current first lady Susan Hutchinson, who recommended a story about him.
“I am thrilled to be spotlighted as he is the uncommon artist behind the beauty, art, decoration and especially the execution of many Christmas scenes,” she says. “He translates my Christmas decor ideas into reality with brush strokes, pencil designs, and a creative mind.”
In the Great Hall, Morris’ work is reflected throughout – from the paintings and murals to the detailed work he did on the walls and ceiling.
“When I opened this room, it artistically opened up in my mind things that could be done to make it beautiful,” he says.
For example, Morris saw the speakers in the front of the room as “two big blank canvases to me.”
Susan Hutchinson says, “The gold foil he placed on the stately columns of Janet Huckabee’s Grand Hall is the finest touch of grandeur yet.”
Mike Huckabee says Morris is a “creative genius”.
“He’s talented in visual arts, music, design and decoration. It’s disgusting that one guy can do it all! He makes the rest of us look like zombies,” the former governor joked. “He is truly an artist and an exceptional visionary, but perhaps most importantly, a generous, humble, and caring human soul.”
For the last four Christmases, Morris has decorated the mansion with art, including a giant two-panel mural of Spafinaw Creek in northwest Arkansas where Asa Hutchinson took Susan on one of her dates.
Asa Hutchinson said he believes this trip caused his wife to fall in love with the state.
“The governor loved what he saw, the memories he had, and he shared that story at every event,” Morris says of the 2018 Christmas theme.
Morris worked on the painting in his studio in Conway. In the palace, art was cut in half and mounted on each side of the hall.
“It creates an amazing look when you come down the stairs. We usually do something for the columns that visually draws your attention to the painting,” says Morris. “That year, we put some trees that were spray painted white to look like snow. So we made this snow illusion. closer to you.”
He used a ladder and scaffolding to reach the heights he needed to paint the mural. “I probably wouldn’t do a lot of things on a ladder and scaffold because I can’t get up and down as much. But I usually have someone pull me and push me and hand things over.”
After this Christmas season, the Spavinaw Creek painting was removed, rolled up, and stored on the floor of Morris’ studio for several years. He now resides in the carriage house on the mansion property. A frame is being built so it can be hung on this Arkansas Traveler’s Morris board for this year’s holiday season. Trees and shrubs will be installed below, creating a “walk-in diorama effect”.
Last year, Susan Hutchinson requested a topic for the history of Santa Claus.
Morris and fellow artist Mary Lynn Nelson worked together to select images of Santa over the years and these were enlarged to billboard size by the Conway Sign Company. The walls were filled with Coca-Cola Santa Claus, Renaissance Santas, and more—eight in all.
“As an artist, I learn something every time I’m with him,” says Nelson. “He’s just such a nice guy and such a worker. He’s got a really great work ethic. We can work at the mansion and do whatever we have to do, and he might just leave there and go work a job he has in Little Rock.”
Nelson adds that Maurice is “fearless”, saying she saw him a few days earlier and he was on the scaffolding, working on a project at the mansion.
“It’s flat that has the energy,” she says. “Age definitely makes all our bones creak and all that, but he has the energy.”
A week at the beach
Maurice gets paid a small fee for his work, and the manor buys his supplies—but he says he doesn’t get rich from it. He makes his money through private clients. Earlier this fall, he spent a week in Seaside, Florida, working for a couple of Rogers. He had already decorated four of their homes in northwest Arkansas—two in Rogers and two in Beaver Lake.
He was commissioned to paint a painting of the exterior of their house and stayed in the guest room on the third floor, where he got up every morning looking out over the bay with nothing obstructing his view.
“They didn’t want me to do it from the pictures, so I had seven days to come and they’d take care of me, and I’d paint and then bring me home. I had a great time. It was great.”
The seven-day deadline “worried me when I started. But I’m quick when I get a project going. I’m slow to get started sometimes but usually work well under pressure.”
He was born in Tulare, California, and when he was in the fifth grade, his parents moved back to his mother’s home state of Texas. In the seventh grade, the family moved to Vernon, Texas, where he graduated from high school. His father was a house painter and his mother a housewife and waitress.
“I wasn’t a good student… I felt uncomfortable in school because I didn’t fit in as someone who got good grades. I wasn’t an athlete. I was just there,” he says.
In seventh grade, he took an art course and had the class make pieces for a fire prevention poster contest. His teacher, Mrs. Lovelady, encourages him to enter his drawing in the competition. won first place.
“It disturbed something inside of me that made me realize, hey, I do have a bit of value after all.”
He received an associate’s degree from a small college in Sacramento, California, and planned to go to the Chouinard Institute of Art in Los Angeles where he won a $500 scholarship. By then, he had met his wife, Jane, at Sacramento Central Church.
But he realized that the school had a liberal atmosphere, and he didn’t like working in psychedelic art.
“In retrospect, I can remember how I didn’t think I would fit in. Through some God-directed circumstances, I was transferred to Bob Jones University, where I received an outstanding academic and art education with a spiritual background.
“I am who I am today through the training and all the experiences I have been privileged to work with. I am so grateful for the choices I have made through God’s guidance.”
He and Jane continued dating at long distance for four years—mostly through letters—before they married, the day after Christmas 1959.
“I tell her, I have a letter asking me to marry you,” and she says, “I haven’t.” And I said, “You did, too.” One day, I’m going to pull it off and offer it to her.” They have two children – Tamara and Todd.
in the hole
After they married, Jane got a job in the administration building at Bob Jones, and Morris got his technical degree. For his Masters in Art Education, he built the sets for a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The sets were atop a 22-foot rotating disc representing the island where the sinking ship had washed up. Place the ship’s group in front of the orchestra pit.
He was assigned to work in Bob Jones University’s Department of Extraordinary Films – yes, unusual – where he worked on Sunday Prayer sets, an annual opera and films such as the Civil War movie “Red Runs the River.”
Once during his work, Morris fell 15 feet into the orchestra pit while trying to move a boulder. He broke his left elbow and knee. He ended up in a wheelchair. He and Jane lived on campus in a married couple’s dormitory, and the dining hall was a long walk away.
Here I am in the ugly 1935[-era] Wheelchair – it was wicker and long in the back. … Jane had to shove me into the dining room, up and down the sidewalk. Seems like a mile – maybe it wasn’t very far. She was happy when she was able to walk again.”
At some point, he and Gene decide to move back to Sacramento where he takes a job as a sign painter at a drugstore. About a year later, he got a job as a middle school art teacher where he taught for five years before transferring to a new high school in Rancho Cordova, California. In the summer, he painted murals for the California State Fair.
He had taught at The New School for about two years when he was asked back to Bob Jones to work on the 1971 film “Flame in the Wind” about the Spanish Inquisition.
Meanwhile, his junior high school principal enrolled at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville to work on his Ph.D. While there, the principal met the chair of the art department at State College of Arkansas (later the University of Central Arkansas) and recommended that Morris be hired.
“So I came to Conway to interview him and never left,” Morris says.
While at SCA/UCA, Morris received a grant from the Arkansas Arts Council to do a mural on the exterior wall of the Franklin Paint Store in Conway. He and some of his students created the mural, which depicts various works from the past. It was his first public art piece.
The mural is long gone – someone painted over it. “They didn’t even ask me… it hurt,” he says.
Another of his Conway murals, depicting a preacher with his son on his shoulders, a dog chasing a cat and a tree, was destroyed when someone hired some painters to “restorate” it. Morris happened to them while they were doing work.
“It was the ugliest thing,” he says of their work. “It made me so angry. I couldn’t believe someone would paint it.”
Maurice went to the shop where the mural was painted and asked the owner why he had not contacted the artist for restoration.
He said, “We didn’t know who he was.” And I said, “Well, here I am.” I got so nervous I could spit. They spoiled what was there.”
Susan Hutchinson says his work on the mansion will continue.
Saying that Morris’s touch is “all around us here,” the first lady recalls her husband’s oversized Arkansas Traveler plaques, which hang in the mansion’s lobby, and his design of a blown-glass Christmas ornament for the mansion’s 70th anniversary.
“His work has been and will continue to engender awe and pride in all corners who stare at his work for years to come,” she says.
So how long will Morris continue to work?
“As long as I can,” he says, smiling.
[• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP:]