by Tamra Testerman | June 6, 2022 Updated June 9, 2022
J. Chris Morel at Chimayo Trading
When the violet-red fire clouds of the Calf Canyon–Hermits Peak blaze were perilously close to Sipapu, the air thick with ashy smoke, Taos painter and musician J. Chris Morel prepared to evacuate — grabbing photographs of his three children, guitars and canvases of unfinished work, frames and a favorite easel. He loaded everything he could in a trailer and scattered the valuables among friends for safekeeping — it would be days before he could know if his home and studio survived the ordeal.
“Fire is the power of mother earth reclaiming her space. I was terrified but immediately began thinking about a makeshift studio, a metal shed somewhere so I could continue to paint.” Morel stayed in a casita on the property of his friend, Taos artist Walt Gonske, for a few days to wait out the fire and figure out his next move
Joseph Christopher Morel was born in the late 1950s in a bucolic enclave of Maryland. His father, an x-ray technician, recognized his son’s artistic abilities and supplied the budding artist with sheets of the yellow paper used to separate the x-ray film and later pencil, brushes and paint. The rugged Appalachian mountains and lush green farmlands offered the young artist landscapes that would become a lifelong passion and put him on the road to Taos.
Morel studied art at Towson University in the Baltimore area and later worked as a graphic artist, becoming the art director at a Washington, D.C.-based printing company. In the mid-1980s, Morel moved to Austin to work with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as a staff illustrator. He continued to hone his painting skills at home, exploring a range of mediums: watercolor, airbrush, oil, acrylic and pencil.
Morel eventually pursued a full-time career as a painter, working first as a watercolorist, a brief dabble in acrylic, then moving to oils as his medium of choice. “The paintings I was drawn to early on were done in oil. I like the richness of the medium.
He moved with his family to Taos in 1994 and opened the Morel Gallery next to the Historic St. Francisco de Asís Church in Ranchos de Taos and began painting plein air. “The southwest is where painters go. The landscapes have drama and scale, intense light and shadows, it is magical and atmospheric — you must paint outside and pay your dues as a painter and learn how to interpret the landscape and see color. No photograph can replace painting from life. The challenge is to render that juniper in the spring snow or the late afternoon shadows. It’s easy to go to the ‘money spots’ like the Gorge Bridge, which I love to paint. The challenge is to stay open to anything. The bend in a tree and exactly how the light plays. The question then becomes how can I render that in a way that is convincing and in the process learn something? On a good day, there is a rhythm and you move through the issues and problem solve. I like to get a jump on the day so I try to start early.”
Fellow Taos artist and friend Walt Gonske said he’s seen much growth in Morel over the last decade and admires his skills. “He’s got a lot going for him.”
Morel’s work is in private collections in the United States and abroad. He’s won awards in regional shows and is written about in editions of Plein Air Magazine, Southwest Art, Western Art and Architecture, Western Art Collector, Art and Antiques. International Artist, Taos Magazine, North Light Publications Art Instruction Books, Art Journey New Mexico’s coffee-table book “Fine Art Connoisseur “and the Santa Fean, New Mexico Magazine.”
You can discover an impressive collection of Morel’s work at Chimayo Trading Del Norte owned by Gabriel and Alicia Abrums. The gallery is next to San Francisco de Asís Mission Church, a historic and architecturally significant building on the main plaza of Ranchos de Taos. For details, visit chimayotrading.com or drop by the gallery.