Artist Larry Morse says literacy plays a ‘poignant’ role in Black history

Larry Morse remembers watching Martin Luther King Jr. speak outdoors on a Long Island street in 1964.

Morse was a teenager and part of a small crowd listening to remarks by the civil rights icon. “As he was summing up, he looked right in my eyes and said, ‘I’m doing this work for you,’” recalled Morse, who is Black.

Four years later, Morse was serving in an Army aviation unit in South Vietnam. He heard “a celebration” and “sounds of cheering.” White GIs from the American South in his unit were reacting to news that King had been assassinated.

That moment was “devastating,” said Morse, creating “a schism” that negatively impacted morale in a military unit that needed to work closely together to survive a war.

Morse isn’t someone who talks a lot about racial issues but his “Black Men Reading” series of paintings makes a statement through his art.

The idea came to him while regularly riding the New York City subway to the taxi cab terminal where he works as a driver. He always reads on the subway and notices other men of color who do the same.

“It’s not something you see all the time so when I see another Black guy reading, I have a sense of having something in common and wonder what is motivating them,” Morse said.

About nine months ago he started painting the “Black Men Reading” series, based on photos he took of willing subjects. Black Lives Matter came to the forefront soon after when George Floyd, a Black man, was killed during an arrest with four white police officers.

“I ask myself what my response was to Black Lives Matter and, in a sort of a fatherly way, it’s that Black men should read,” Morse said.

He noted the subject of Black people and literacy has “a poignant history,” as slaves were prohibited by law from being taught to read and write.

An avid reader, he believes a Black man reading in public has “significance” and wants it to be a more common sight. “Why isn’t everyone reading?” asked Morse, adding he feels the same way about exercising the right to vote.

The “Black Men Reading” paintings are part of the “Diverse Perspectives” exhibit on display through Oct. 15 at the Easton Public Library, 691 Morehouse Road. The exhibit also includes collages and marbled paper by Morse’s companion Ellen Tresselt.

Dolly Curtis, who coordinates the library shows, said Morse’s paintings are timely and thought-provoking. “We all need to open up and learn more about the Black experience,” she said.

This is the first time Morse and Tresselt have done an art show together. “It’s an affirmation that dreams can come true,” Morse said.

Adults recognized Morse’s artistic abilities while growing up, including an art teacher who became a mentor. “Someone discovered giving me a pencil and paper would occupy me,” he said.

A standout athlete as a youth who set high-jumping records, he attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan after his military service. That’s where he and Tresselt became acquaintanced. After school they had no contact for 34 years, meeting again in 2011 through social media. They’ve been a couple ever since.

“We have so much in common,” Tresselt said, “but our art is very different. I think we complement each other.”

Morse, who does sculpture in addition to painting, lives in New York City but spends weekends with Tresselt in Danbury. His work has been shown at galleries, art associations and government buildings in Connecticut and Manhattan.

He was a New York City public school art teacher for many years. He also played music professionally as a jazz and rock drummer.

All along, he was creating art and hoping someday to find a market for it. Common painting subjects are New York City landscapes, racing scenes, portraits, colorful geometric shapes and unusual stick figures.

The paintings often are quite large. “In my head, art is large,” Morse said. He’s committed to his art. “I do it every day no matter whether I want to or not,” he said. “It’s just fulfilling to me.”

Tresselt grew up in Redding in a creative household — her parents were children’s book authors — and was encouraged artistically as a child. She’s been making collages since an early age.

The 1969 Joel Barlow High School graduate became a longtime Danbury teacher, introducing students to paper marbling, an ancient art that involves creating intricate designs on a surface that resembles marble.

She eventually produced marbled paper for other artists, art stores, picture framers and invitation makers. “Marbling has been a real portal for me,” she said.

One new shared activity for Tresselt and Morse is exploring abandoned railroad tracks, often walking for miles in Connecticut and nearby New York state. “We’re hooked,” she said. “We walk almost every weekend.”

Morse, thinking back to that moment with Martin Luther King on Long Island, said it had a special impact on him. It’s one reason he became a teacher and why he strives to reach his full potential.

“As an adult, Martin Luther King resides somewhere in my psyche,” he said.