Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

             
Matty, the first day we met
(image property of Kenneth Morford, please ask permission before use)                            
                The woman I had just spoken with, walked  to the end of the long corridor and stopped an elderly man coming from a side door. She placed her arm around his shoulder leaned into his ear, and pointed toward the entrance where I was standing. He smiled and nodded in my direction, and I acknowledged with a wave, even though I later learned he could not have seen me through the one way glass.
 But I didn't know, and so I kept smiling and waving  like a  nervous little boy. From where I stood, I could easily see a pantomime of conversation; I saw the moment Matt mouthed the question “Who?” to Carol’s  motioning toward me.
          And there it was, the face that I would draw and erase a hundred times before landing the perfect likeness, the one I lost long ago in my transient life. There he was, the same man I had seen speaking to Charles Karalt  about President Jimmy Carter’s emotional reaction to giving him the Medal of Honor.  There he was, Matt Urban.
  I can still see Matt  stuffing  his shirt  into his pants and straightening his narrow belt while making his way down the hall toward me.  His hand dove into his back pocket and pulled out a small comb. He threaded the dark piece of plastic quickly through his long hair, tucking the locks behind his ears with one hand while patting the side of his head with the other; ensuring every aspect of his hair was in place and "presentable" he would later confess.
           No one ever combed their hair for me. A habit from a time when men removed their hats inside a building, checked the fold of the back of the collar and brushed a hand across the mustache to make sure everything was in place. Feeling self-conscious I followed his role, and straightened up myself, running my hand over the top of my head; forgetting just for a moment I was bald.
"Mr. Urban, so nice to finally meet you. I've been a fan for a while and discovered we live in the same town."
"Nice to meet you too, you 're Ken?"
“Yes.”
"Well Ken, come into my office. Carol tells me you’re an artist. She mentioned you were interested in doing my portrait.”  I will never forget how he grabbed my sweaty palm with both hands, and treated me like an old pal he hadn't seen in years.  And so begins the first of many hundreds of memories I will finally share about my beloved Matty.
      I see the visage of my friend in one meaningful experience after another, and I am moved with gratitude for the decade I shared with him. 
 And now, this online sheet of paper begins to bring him back to life. Slowly and clearly the memories return.  And there he is, my dear and precious friend. There he is, just as new and fresh as the first day I saw him coming down the hallway of the Holland Civic Center in 1985.
Matt began pulling out the drawers to his metal filing cabinet. They were filled with different sized photographs, which he removed by the handfuls and placed on his desk.  We pored over each and every one, and on the back of each and every one, was a comment written in longhand from a noted celebrity or an anonymous friend.  There were plenty of  photographs for me to use as material for a good likeness, but I was overwhelmed by the casual appearance of famous people congratulating Matt.
 In one photograph, he is with the President in the white House. In an older picture, a barbecue with General Westmorland. Layered in between the pictures were hand signed letters from Gerald Ford, Ted Turner, and the widow of Omar Bradley.  I began to feel embarrassed for thinking I was important enough to even approach him.
Feeling a little ashamed,  I confessed to Matt , the portrait idea was just a ruse. I confessed how  really, I just wanted a way to get in the door; to meet Matt Urban because he was famous. For the first time, he laughed aloud, shook his head and said, “So, you just wanted to rub shoulders with the top brass?”
“Yeah, well, I wouldn't mind a promotion,” I said looking down at the floor. With a shared laugh, I realized this was the moment that kilned our friendship into something solid.  Matt made a confession of his own, and said no one really asks about things anymore. He mentioned how he had been offered money  a few years back to sell the rights to his story, but turned the offer down. He was concerned about being portrayed as someone more important than the men who fought beside him. Reaching into another cabinet drawer, Matty pulled out a manuscript, cleared a space , and set the thin document in the middle of his desk in front of me.
“I've been working on a book.” He said. 
 “In this book, I want to mention everyone who was there beside me. Sergeant Evans, Benny, Sebock, all my men. I especially want to talk about my parents who went to church every night and prayed for me; all the years in combat, each and every night-because they believed- I believed- I would survive.”
As our time together grew in length and texture, we maneuvered far away from the stacks of photographs and impressive correspondence on official government stationary.  My newly found friend had taken these images, one by one, and  pulled the threads from around the edges and allowed the very fabric of their presentation to drift  through an open window out into the streets.  I watched this man carefully unravel the celebration of his much deserved award. With a thorough pull on the tightest bind around an unimaginable remorse, he ascribed the true ownership of honor, “to every young man who died in my arms.”
“They should be wearing this medal Ken, not me.”  As Matt Urban spoke in the softest of words I had ever heard,  he held out a small slender box and opened the hinged lid. Inside was the very Medal of Honor he received from President Carter five years earlier. I didn't know whether to say something, or just keep quiet. I couldn't believe it. I did not ask to hold the sacred award.
Quietly, he leaned back in his chair and whispered the name of Billy Goodman. He turned to me and smiled, then  pointed with his chin toward the window as if he had just seen someone looking back through the thin layer of glass.  Matt Urban began telling me the story of his loss.
  I held my breath.
November 8th, 1942, Operation Torch, was his first exposure to the horrors of combat. He remembered the first hour, of the first day, and seeing his beloved friend decapitated.  He described being so overcome by an emotion he had never felt before; how he grabbed what was left of Lt. Goodman’s head and attempted to put it back on a still warm body. He tried to close off the escaping steam  rising from the neck on either side of his friend’s face.  Seemed a sensible thing in the midst of unquenchable fear- to bring him back to life, if there is yet life. 
  Long pauses  appeared  in between the flow of his conversation, like puddles forming beneath the seams of a broken eves trough. Each moment added weight and measure to the silence. They appeared to me, like drops of water, making those perfect circular ridges, radiating outward and forever until there is no where left to go. This was my cue to respect his hesitation; to fill this silence, with my own thoughts and wait for him to speak.
I no longer cared about the pictures and neither did Matt. We left his office of the Holland Civic center, and began running  side by side, M-1 in hand and vested grenades toward the Kasbah fortress. Gunfire is heard in the distance, but the bullets strafe the ground near by, “Snipers.” He warns, and we keep going.  “They’re Germans, right?” I ask.
“ No, French  Legionnaires,” Matt whispers.
“But I thought…”
“I’ll explain later.” he cautions, putting his finger to his lips. We are sprinting now.  Soon the bullets are just missing the ears. Matt is swatting at them like mosquitoes, and I am scared to death. Skimming pass the edge of my nose, a bullet finds its mark in the body of another man.
All these men died years before I was even born.
 I am feeling guilty for some strange reason.
Matt glances over at me, removes his helmet.  With worried eyes he says he needs to rest for just a minute. Without a word, he leaves me temporarily. He needs to help his men struggle through just one more hour, just one more minute.  I turn away from him , to see Carol putting the vinyl cover over her typewriter, and getting ready to leave for the day. I look back to see the gentle soldier has fallen asleep in his chair.
 I stare at him in wonder. He looks every bit the part of the legend I had heard he was. He is not really here; he is somewhere near Port Lyautey, getting the young men of the 9th division settled into their bivouac following a costly mission.
I waited beside him while he slept. I understood he was not taking anything away from me, but sweeping up the remnants of a long day and putting them away. Matty is leaning his head against the side of a canvas tent and listening to the quiet benediction of a summer rain.



Saturday, April 26, 2014

Matt Urban: The Last Good Day

                Matt Urban collapsed on my birthday in 1995, and lay in a coma for another week before he died. The last time I saw Matt alive, I was curled up next to his hospital bed, sleeping on those awful folding chairs. During the early morning hours of March 4th, while his wife and daughter left for a necessary breakfast, I quietly stroked his hair, and whispered in his ear how much he meant to me. 
                Visitors to the hospital were running back and forth from their cars throughout the entire night, shielding their heads from the rain with magazines or newspapers. Sometime during the dark hours, I could hear the unmistakable sound of ice typing out a rougher prose against the window. I turned to look at Matty one more time because I knew I could no longer stay awake. I was near the edge of consciousness, where all thoughts make perfect sense and questions give way to tacit understanding.
                As the sound of the storm grew stronger,  I pictured all those frantic souls running to the lobby  with soggy paper draped over the top of their heads. I thought to myself how much the rain must love these human faces- so very much more than puddles or cervices along abandoned roads and swelling creeks. How each and every storm will trick us into looking up with squinting eyes, just to gather more around the parts they seem to enjoy the most. Maybe the rain finds something in common with the place where tears are shed and want to feel something just as we do; maybe the storms want to be a part of us; to be anything other than the shapeless life they have outside of these human bodies.
             The endless traffic on the highway grew quiet as it should be. And I pictured the pavement being scrapped clean by a single piece of bread, making its way around  an empty plate, sopping up all the muddy gravy.
             When I awoke, Matty was still breathing.  I walked over to the window and turned the handle on the venetian blinds expecting to see something ugly and mean below.  But the daylight came, one match at a time, to each branch of sycamore and maple below covered in ice. Smoldering sweetly, tiny flames began to form, then perfectly- burning like the tips of candles on a hundred chandeliers.                              
Parked automobiles had been adorned and rounded off with the whitest  frosting of snow, and each and every newly fashioned dessert, waited beside a tall and shiny spoon, that only  hours before had been a parking meter.
Coming back into the room with tears in her eyes, his wife Jennie sighed, “Oh look Matty, this is all for you.”  
I drove home very slowly that morning,  and threw myself into bed the moment I made it through my door. It seemed only a short while before Jennie called to tell me Matty had passed away .
          I have kept so many memories to myself; stored away in a packaged deal with my own mortality. I owe my friend another version of a life well lived; to speak of an addendum to his story, the story of a  life  long after  the hedgerows of Normandy. And I will tell you, of this incredible friendship; I will tell you of this incredible man- in the coming weeks and months, but how do I begin and end a story such as this?  The story of Matt Urban, my great and enduring friend? I will try. I will try.

Painting by K. W. Morford. All rights Reserved.



You may find a copy of his book, which I illustrated, here:

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Christmas Pears

This was a gift to my wife for Christmas. The hardest part of the adventure was switching out a different canvas when she walked into the kitchen where I was painting; trying to make her think I was working on something else. She almost caught me once.

I have been avoiding a strong palette these days, and so I had to constantly ask my daughter for advice on the color. To me, the pears look like they were rubbed with pastels and set on a plate. Nothing blends in or fits together. Of course, I can always say my paintings are intentionally impressionistic, but then I would be lying. I think I make the fundamental error of most people who are color blind, by asking for help in seeing, because I am asking for information I can't possibly use. How can I really know what red is, if I have never known red?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Edible Paintings: Tomato


I found this in the attic, a painting I had done twenty years ago. I still love tomatoes.

"old pencil " drawings

Drawing by Ken Morford

Thrown Away

Lately, I have been drawing on paper that someone tossed away, and using what's left of pencils made fifty years ago. I am thinking in my mind, there are faces left in the remnants on that tablet, and something left unsaid in those old discarded pencils. Who are these faces, and what are they trying to say to me? I will listen.
Drawing on Old Paper by Ken Morford

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc, "Spill Life" painting

Crayon Drawing (and the model involved)


Working with Watercolor

Painting with watercolor is like painting with the light from the sun, what you leave out becomes the most important focus of the picture. Painting with watercolor is like writing on blank paper, what you do not say allows the reader to fill the empty places with their own words.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Drawing

There is no such thing as a line in real life, but the eyes and brain accept the long thin roll of carbon as though it were a common thing.
A common thing to see each each of us wrapped inside a soft black thread as we walk from our cars or sit on the back porch telling stories.
We look at a drawing and recognize faces, names; the shape of hats, elbows, and tired eyes and say, "that's him alright", or "you call that art?" For me, drawing is like fishing on a square white lake pulling out the endless shapes that live just beneath the surface.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Speed


He thought his life was too slow,
and so he believed smack was the answer. His friends would set him up for awhile, and he would return the favor, keeping each other suspended along the edge of precipice. "You need to get high like me" he said, but I told him when he is old, life will look different from the ground.
Just before he leaped, he promised to wave good-bye when he passed my window.
And now I stand above his grave, scraping away the snow and leaves, covering up a name only I remember.
Life will look different from the ground my friend, when you are old

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Experiment in Grey wash

Painting by Ken Morford

Rebecca, Unfinished

Rebecca
...quick paint sketch
as yet unfinished





Watercolor of blue brown and grey





De-painting

I painted the canvas with a solid color
then removed the paint with
a small piece of sandpaper
to create a portrait



Saturday, September 27, 2008

My favorite pencil is the one I found near an old abandoned school building last year. I think about the words it helped to write on a tablet of paper or the math problems solved . This same pencil was probably dropped because of recess, or going home and has been waiting there near the sidewalk for years. I picked it up and studied the teeth marks at the end where once there was an eraser and feel something much deeper. I took it home and drew the face of someone I had never met. Maybe this is the boy who lost the pencil, or maybe he is the one who never got the letter meant to be written, were it not for a lost pencil

Dresser

This picture of a friend was painted on the bottom press board of a dresser drawer. The piece of furniture had completely fallen apart and so I salvaged what I could to remember my friend's homelessness. He never had a permanent place to put his things and so he lives on the remnant of a bureau drawer.

From thin air




I stare at the blank canvas and a face
comes to me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008



An old plug

Time travel


I like to repair antique watches and sketch the timepiece while working.


I sketch the timepiece while I am working.

Friday, September 21, 2007

first stage of a portrait (acrylic 14 X 28)

First stage of a painting

Some quick paint sketches in Newton's Woods



Gabriel (acrylic 8 X10 & 18 X 20)



Gabriel

Mirror image acrylic 16 x 20



painting of a friend

about 10 years ago

Jamie (acrylic 8 x 10)


a quick paint sketch of my neice Jamie
when she was about ten

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Eucharist (accrylic 16"x 20")

Acrylic 11"x14" My best Friend


Painted with a very small brush to resemble a pencil drawing, then three washes of colour.





Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Woman in hat (acrylic 11"x14")


Palette portraits were the featured guests during a rare gallery showing in Kalamazoo several years ago. Most of the visitors appreciated the novelty of this new approach to representational art, but one inebriated gentleman referred to them as "the most disgusting vile pieces of crap" he had ever seen. So I said to him, "Look dad, no one asked you to drop by in the first place" Seriously, I adored my father-But the man who confronted me was in fact a well respected patron of the arts.
To an artist there is no such thing as a bad reputation; I only wished that he had written of his displeasure in the newspaper.