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For Morgan Curl of Oxford, art has always come naturally

06/17/2016 11:14AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Morgan Curl, 17, has always shown a precocious gift for art.

Gallery: Artist Morgan Curl [8 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

When Morgan Curl was in kindergarten, her mother, Lisa, went to her school open house. The young students had been asked to draw their house.

“I walked in and the teacher said, 'Oh, I bet you can pick out your daughter's drawing,'” Lisa Curl recalled, smiling. “I started looking at the pictures hanging there and thought, 'Oh my God.' Morgan's was three-dimensional, it had people with arms and hands. I thought, 'Wow, you mean all kids don't draw like this?'”

Today, at 17, Morgan consistently draws a crowd when she exhibits her pencil portraits at the Oxford Arts Alliance Student Art Show. The amount of detail, the sophisticated use of light and shadow, the way Curl can catch a personality in her work – all point to an artist of enormous gifts.

This portrait of the model Twiggy was exhibited at this year's Student Art Show in Oxford.

 But Curl, who just finished her junior year at Oxford High School, said drawing has always come naturally to her. She's never had formal lessons beyond classroom instruction in school art classes. And her drawing often has to take a back seat to her swimming. She gets up at 4:30 a.m. to drive herself to Delaware for swim practice, then back to school, then more swim practice. She often gets home at 7:30 p.m., and then must complete homework. There's not a lot of extra time for drawing. “I think this year, I've only drawn about six things,” she said.

“On my mom's side of the family, most of my aunts and uncles are artistic,” Curl said, showing a pen-and-ink farm drawing by her uncle Frank. “I'm always learning new ways to do things. I like realism, not so much Picasso. I don't get abstract that much. I like drawing faces.”

Curl went to Mary Mother of the Redeemer for kindergarten and first grade in Montgomery County, then Sacred Heart School from grades 2 to 5, and then Oxford schools. All along, her artwork has been well above that of her peers. “I've always been close to my art teachers,” Morgan said. “I just kind of doodle. There are a lot of doodles in my notes from school.”

A middle-school art teacher, Mrs. Muehlmatt, “was the first teacher who saw something extraordinary in her, and encouraged her to pursue art,” Lisa said of her daughter. Morgan also credited her high school art teacher, Valerie Hill, with encouraging her art, and making sure Morgan could skip a prerequisite art class and continue her drawing in school.

“I've always thought she was talented, but there was no other point of reference for me,” Lisa said. “I don't have other kids. My family tends to be a bit creative. The art gene missed me entirely, but I worked overseas and would visit the museums and cathedrals. And Morgan would be right there with me, taking it all in.”

During a trip to Disney World's Hollywood Studios when she was 9, Morgan was so fascinated by the room where Disney animators teach visitors to draw cartoon characters “that when she was done, she wanted to go back in,” Lisa said. “We spent the better part of a full afternoon going back again and again until there weren't any more characters to draw. And we came back the next day.”

To create her portraits, “I do a grid first,” Morgan said, “so then I can focus on the boxes. I grid the outline first – eyes, lips, nose – then I add shading. I like the control pencil has, and the detail you can get from it. I started working with charcoal this year,” she added, showing two detailed drawings of cats that she did “just for fun.”

For her senior project next year, Morgan is planning a portfolio of drawings of women of different ethnicities. She laid out what she called “doodles” on notebook paper of some early ideas, and they already looked like nearly completed drawings.

Morgan has gotten some requests from friends and family members to do portraits – and even some offers to buy her work – but so far she hasn't sold any. Her latest portrait, of the 1960s model Twiggy, “took longer than it should have,” Morgan said with a sigh. “For two months I didn't work on it at all, though. That sweater,” she said ruefully of the detailed stitching in the shoulder area of the portrait. “It's repetitive, so it was painful. But it was already started, so I couldn't erase it. The whole drawing took about five months.”

Lisa added, “At the last exhibit in Oxford, I was a proud parent. I was watching how people would look at the Twiggy picture, step up and examine it. One guy was asking his wife, 'Do you think that's real? How do they do that?' Hey, even I still don't know how she does it,” Lisa added, laughing. “It's magic.”

With a college decision coming next year, Morgan said she hopes to continue swimming “and minor in art of some sort,” she said. “I like math a lot, too, so maybe some combination of engineering and art.”

“Given the right inspiration in a college with an incredible art program, she might be inspired by the teachers,” Lisa said. “She doesn't know what she doesn't know, and it's hard to figure that out in high school. I have an office job, and I know she's not that person. She won't be able to work in an office. I don't think she'll truly be happy in life unless she can use the creative part of her brain.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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