Sunday, November 21, 2010

Portrait of the Artist as a Vet: Tom Morganti

Most people know Tom Morganti as a vet so attuned to the animals he treats, a client once dubbed him “James Herriot.” He does everything he can for his patients, even once bringing a young cat with a prolapsed rectum home with him the night before her surgery so that he could monitor her. And he’s probably one of the few vets who writes sympathy notes when one of those patients doesn’t make it.

But his work at the Avon Veterinary Clinic in Avon, Connecticut is only part of his story. Morganti is also an artist, painting landscapes, some portraits, and, yes, even an occasional animal study. “I don’t have any formal training,” he admits, “so everything I learned about painting, I learned trial-and-error.” He likes abstract art – has even done some abstract paintings – but sees himself as being “more of an impressionist. I’ve always been an admirer of Van Gogh…in all his phases…[and] one of my dreams is to go to Amsterdam and the Van Gogh Museum.”

He can’t think of a time when he didn’t draw, Morganti says. In fact, he still recalls receiving a copy of The Big Book of Animals from his godmother when he was 4 or 5 and trying to draw the animals in the black-and-white photographs. That, he maintains, is what  “led to everything else.” It’s in the blood, though: his mother, Lois Morganti, was a trained artist, and he remembers “her getting a canvas out and me painting alongside her once. And I got so frustrated, I just gave up.” His voice is ruefully amused. “I was probably 11 or 12. I can still remember the painting – I wish I still had it, it was the first painting I ever did. It was a still life…a pumpkin and something else, like a vase of flowers. It was too much for me – painting was beyond me at that point.”

He didn’t attempt another painting until he was at the University of Connecticut. He sold that painting to the dorm’s cook for $10, and he hasn’t “stopped since.” Since then, he has done some commissions and even illustrated a couple of children’s books for friends: the books didn’t go anywhere, but he takes it all in his philosophical stride. He shows his paintings at the Durham fair every year, and one of his works, "The Black Madonna of Montserrat," was just selected for the New Britain Museum of American Art members' show. He  has also done shows at McLean’s, a local convalescent home and assisted-living facility: in fact, the only one-man show that he has done so far was at McLean’s. The response was “good,” Morganti says, and he sold a couple of paintings.  But his own take on this is a little different than you might expect: “Selling them is hard because you know you’re never gonna see them again. Give them away, you may not see them, but at least you have a chance, basically. Like children that move away….” He laughs. “It’s gone. It’s a one-time thing.”

Perhaps a good part of that attitude stems from the fact that painting is something that he does mostly for his own satisfaction -- a reflection of his soul, as he puts it. It’s not that he isn’t tempted to make it a full-time calling, simply that he appreciates how difficult doing so would be. So he tends to view his art – for the moment, at least – as “a form of therapy…a way of de-stressing, of creating something outside of your work place.” And yet, as he sees it, there is a connection to his work as a vet. “There’s an art side of medicine,” Morganti reflects. “They’re both a combination of left brain and right brain. Not everything is cut and dried, and when you get results of tests back, you have to look at the patient. So that colors your opinion of where you have to go with a case, but it’s really much like art. It unfolds with time…especially when your patients can’t tell you what’s wrong.”

Morganti chuckles, then grows more serious as he gets back to talking about the creative process. “Things unfold as time goes on. So you may have an idea in your head what your final product is going to look like, and as you go, it changes. And you see things that work better….It’s almost like a birthing process: you don’t know what you’re going to end up with when you start out.”

The conversation periodically comes back Lois Morganti, who died in 2007 of lung cancer. Both his sons, Alex and James, have inherited her artistic ability, he says: Alex, the oldest, has even come up with a kids’ book that is “built like a Jacob’[s ladder – it folds out one way, and then it folds out the other way. It’s actually a pretty cool idea.” He's encouraging his son to start looking for a publisher for it.

He himself has found his own way of bringing his mother into his art. The mural-like landscape that he’s currently working on is actually a do-over of a painting of her sons that she was working on towards the end. “She got about a third of the way through and then couldn’t do anymore,” Morganti recalls. “When she died, one of the things she asked me to do was to use that canvas. She said, ‘You either finish it or paint it over.’ So I got some primer and painted it over.” It was, he adds, just too hard for him to try to finish the painting as she’d intended, "so I got some primer and painted it over."

That having been said, Morganti did, he admits, manage to finish a smaller piece of hers…well, almost the way she would’ve. He describes it as a “very primitive” painting of five or six men pushing a boat out into the ocean. “I turned the fishermen into saints, and I put Jesus or somebody standing at the stern. And, in the distance, there’s a sea monster coming out” – Morganti has trouble controlling his laughter at this point – “of the water with lightning bolts. And I thought, ‘Yeah, this is one that Mom would’ve liked.’”