May 9th, 1945–May 31st, 2017
An elder who walked among many worlds left us on May 31st, 2017 – Morgan (to the art world) a.k.a. Sir Nagrom Monceaux (to the leather community) passed away recently leaving behind family, friends, and a huge body of internationally acclaimed artwork.
Born Morgan Monceaux in Louisiana on May 9th, 1945, he was drafted by the Navy and served in Vietnam. Before the war he had extensive training as a singer and dancer and also studied theology. Nagrom was a self-taught painter – putting to use some paints he’d found while homeless in the Bronx launched his career as a very accomplished “American Artist” as he called himself. He bounced around the Northeast for years, including some time in Rhode Island, before he moved to Baltimore.
In 2002 Nagrom competed in the American Leatherman Contest. He didn’t win. He asked Judy Tallwing McCarthy, head judge, why? Judy said it was “because of his distance, he wasn’t approachable.” He did make his mark on the contest by very generously donating lots of his artwork that when auctioned raised almost $30,000 for the winner’s travel funds!
The friendship with Judy continued until his death. When Nagrom moved to Baltimore he purchased the childhood home of Cab Calaway for $3,000 and a painting. He said that Baltimore “resonated for him.” After many late-night phone calls, Nagrom asked Judy to visit Baltimore. He said that he hadn’t worked in over a year and thought if she visited “they could paint together.” And they did.
That collaboration turned out to be very good for both painters. Judy went on to say that “Nagrom, Morgan Monceaux is one of the reasons my art is showing at the American Visionary Art Museum and his pushing my work forward is why I still live in Baltimore.” “I lived in his house (a.k.a. the Taj Mahal) for six years and never was so focused on my work and it was because of my friend Nagrom.”
Morgan created much of his art in the form of series. In an interview from 2007 he said he “liked being able to tell a story. It’s a way of putting history in a format so you can read it.” His first, “George to George,” was a portrait of every president from George Washington to (then) George Bush. The collection was featured in a 1992 New Yorker article and at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. His portraits of Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, and B.B. King are included in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The gallery broke tradition when they purchased his work. He was the first artist who didn’t have a subject sit with him when doing his portrait.
He had other series including “From a Black Leatherman’s Journal, “Divas,”
“Red and Black,” and “Miss America.” Two series of paintings became books – Jazz, My Music, My People and My Heroes, My People. My Heroes features portraits of African-American and Native-American heroes like Pocahontas and Clara Brown. Not only was Morgan able to “capture the independent spirits, who chose or were forced to strike out for new territory,” each portrait is accompanied by interesting biographical information.
“He put his soul into his artwork,” says Kip Davison, Nagrom’s leatherboy of 17 years. “He was very connected to a higher power but didn’t talk about it – he painted it.”
Nagrom was also a skilled entertainer. He often had large, formal parties where everyone dressed up to honor his elaborate themes and menus. He would even rearrange the art filling the walls of his Baltimore row house so it looked like a new place every time you visited.
Nagrom was a friend and mentor to many. Janet Holmanahart, longtime faithful friend and confidante, and Nagrom would often sit quietly in the park, or his large garden, enjoying their inexpensive “bubbly.”
“Nagrom was an instrument,” she said. “He gave me the opportunity to practice unconditional love.”
Another thing Nagrom gave Janet was a love for pralines. When Janet visited New Orleans, she was asked to bring back a very expensive box of pralines. They would eat them together and laugh when others didn’t want one.
Nagrom lived the life of a “starving artist.” When working he often wouldn’t eat or sleep for days. “You could count the layers of his person in his art,” said Janet.
Everyone I spoke to about Nagrom/Morgan said that he was a very private man, he was careful of who he kept around him, he loved hard, and that he could be fussy, or as Kip said, “he could be a diva.” Rock Jocelyn, a friend from of Nagrom’s from his Rhode Island days, described Nagrom, as a “man of honor, word, and deed.” He was “fiercely loving.”
Judy Tallwing McCarthy said that Nagrom hoped his home would become a museum of his art after his death. Michelle Talibah, his agent and founder of New Door Creative, promised Morgan that she would organize a large show of his work. To find out more about the show, visit Newdoorcreative.com. There will be a memorial gathering on Sunday, July 16th at 3 p.m. at New Door Creative.
I want to thank everyone who talked about Nagrom with me. The stories and memories were touching and inspiring. Those people include Kip Davison, Judy Tallwing McCarthy, Rock Jocelyn, Janet Holmanahart, and Michelle Talibah, his agent and founder of New Door Creative where Morgan has shown much of his work.
Rest In Peace Nagrom. Thank you for leaving so much of your heart and soul on the planet.
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