Feature

The Worlds of Sarah McRae Morton

A classically trained palette reinterprets the past.

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The painted images have a wind-raked quality to them, the colors saturated and vibrant, yet colors of the earth. Figures appear and then fade into the canvas—realism with an overlay of impressionism. The compositions are often dreamlike, surreal in their juxtaposition, yet in that studied, north-light tradition of the Dutch masters.
Everything is haunting, yet familiar.

This private/public world on canvas, created by Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts-trained Sarah McRae Morton, is at once familiar and comforting, provocative and unsettling.

“I draw inspiration from this landscape and history as much as the setting of my upbringing,” says the Lancaster County artist. “I am often reminded—best said by William Faulkner—that ‘The past is never dead. It is not even past.’”

“Sarah’s paintings have an Old World feel to them, yet with a modern twist,” says Rebecca Moore, manager of Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, as she examines five of Morton’s yet-unframed paintings tilted against a back wall of the gallery on a quiet weekday afternoon. Some images are sharp, while others fade away. Motion lines whip across canvases.

“It’s abstracted realism in a way,” Moore says. “The motions of the brush strokes seem to give the paintings a certain energy.”

Morton is the latest in a line of local, or locally trained, painters Somerville Manning represents. In most cases, they are artists with one foot planted firmly in realism, and the other daringly searching for less-solid ground—the Wyeths (of course), along with Francis Di Fronzo, Bo Bartlett, Peter Sculthorpe, Greg and Jon Mort, and Jon Redmond, among others. Morton’s medium-sized paintings at Somerville Manning range in price between $4,400 and $5,300.

For all of the ethereal qualities of Morton’s works, the artist herself seems to have a strong, confident sense of self. Born in Boston of parents from the coal fields of southern West Virginia, she and her family relocated to Lancaster County in the late 1980s. 

Her father, Harvard-educated Dr. D. Holmes Morton, is well-known, a somewhat late-bloomer who grew into a noted research physician. His research into genetic diseases of Amish and Mennonite children led him and his wife Caroline to found a children’s clinic in rural Strasburg that changed the lives of many young people for the better. His work won him the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1993, and in awarding Morton a “genius grant” in 2006, the MacArthur Foundation aptly called him “a unique amalgam of country doctor and research physician.”

I draw inspiration from this landscape and history as much as the setting of my upbringing.

Young Sarah loved the countryside around Strasburg and began painting the Amish children and their farm-based landscapes at an early age. She also developed strong ties to her siblings. “My brother and sister and I are perpetually exchanging ideas,” she says. “We three have had something of a lifelong collaboration. Their paths have given mine spurs and curves and astounding scenery.” Her sister, Mary, is a science writer and an explorer and brother, Paul, is a musician.

“A Jacket Fastened with Crow’s Eyes.”
“A Jacket Fastened with Crow’s Eyes.”

Morton says she never really decided to become a painter; it just happened. “I have always painted,” she says, “and at some point people started referring to me as that. My mother was a painter, as was my father’s mother.”

After high school, Morton attended PAFA and the University of Pennsylvania. A travel fellowship took her to Sweden, then to Rome, painting and studying with painters along the way. Later, she returned to the U.S. and to West Virginia’s coal country, where her parents grew up, painting and gathering oral histories of the region. Eventually, she returned to Amish country to continue work in her studio and in the field.

Morton was traveling in Europe in 2008 when, she says, “I met a gentleman named Nikolas. My first impression upon seeing him was that his face looked like a Käthe Kollwitz portrait—one of her early drawings, before the years of war rendered them so solemn. It happened that he was bound for Germany to study medicine. We went together.”

Although she returns regularly to Pennsylvania, she has lived in Germany since 2010.

sarah3“In Cologne, I work in a building that had survived the bombings of World War II,” Morton corresponds in a long-distance interview. “My studio there is unlike the barn loft in Lancaster. It is more monastic. There are different reminders of layers of human history: mosaic floors of a Roman Villa nearby, beautifully intricate and intact, visible through a plate of Plexiglas in the floor of a jazz club. The filters on the sunlight are different in Northern Europe, and there are all the sounds of life on a cobbled street.”

Her influences have been varied—a combination of people, places and things. 

“When I first laid eyes on the paintings of the Baroque era, their light was familiar,” she says. “It was [the same light as] the kerosene lanterns that cast deafeningly black shadows and set ablaze the jewel colored clothes and mint walls in Amish houses.”

During her studies in Rome, she got to see art in the Vatican and fell in love with the 17th-century painter Caravaggio. “When I first saw Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion on the Way to Damascus,’ I saw not a horse that bucked a saint, but the pearly glare off the ribs of a carriage pony in her stall at night in Pennsylvania,” she says. “I realized that when I look at art, my compass points home.” 

But the places in her family’s history, especially West Virginia, have also been strong subject influences. “Over the last few years I have been working on paintings related to the history of my family over the course of 300 years,” Morton says, “which tells a greater story of the Europeans who made arduous journeys to the U.S., traveling to find work, resources, or a sense of belonging.”

“A Horse Named Pilgrim.”
“A Horse Named Pilgrim.”

As part of this, certain histories have particularly interested her. She says, “A few whose stories resonate with me have become my repeated subjects – including an outlaw of the range wars who was killed by Billy the Kid, a woman who lived as a captive of Native Americans, a trapper who traversed the West before Lewis and Clark, a British aristocrat who was banished from his country, graphite miners, coal miners, an orphan of the civil war who became a coal mine operator during the industrial revolution.” 

McRae ties these together in surprising manners, both in her paintings and in her thoughts.

“In Lancaster, there is a metronome of iron horseshoes on pavement, occasionally drowned by the engines of tourist traffic, crickets at night,” Morton says. “Fields unfurl to the north, where the light that’s good for painting spills from. The view is, I think, one the finest and most-telling in Lancaster County.”

At times, Morton pauses to wonder how the Pennsylvania countryside might have influenced the painters who influenced her. “I wish my favorite painters could have seen it,” she muses. “Monet would have stayed to paint it in all seasons. 

To learn more, visit mcraemorton.com.