Gordon Morez, my high school art teacher, died on June 13. In the mid 1960s, when I was a student at San Marcos High school, he gave me a key to his studio. It was on the Mesa, in the overgrown gardens of an old estate, in a building where religious books were once printed. It became a sanctuary for me. None of my hoodlum friends would dare go there to try to get me to join them in illegal activities—Morez used to be a cop.
He bought his old highway patrol car at auction when he quit being a cop to become an art teacher. He got into some trouble for reading Plato in that car when he was supposed to be looking for speeders: While getting his teaching credential at UCSB, he was fascinated by courses in philosophy and classics, and he would carry his books around with him to read when he could. I rode in that old patrol car with him to see art exhibits in L.A. He liked how well-built the car was and didn’t mind the hard vinyl seats.
By Courtesy Photo
Most of the time, I worked in his studio alone. Sometimes he was there, and sometimes his girlfriend at the time came and played classical music on the piano. He had a good stereo and a collection of records that I listened to, and that’s how I learned to like classical music. He never tried to teach me—it was just there, in the background while I painted, and it slowly revealed itself to me.
Morez also introduced me to ping-pong. He invited me to his home sometimes to have dinner with him and his sons. They had an old table on their patio outside, and we would play before and after eating. I bought a table when my boys were old enough to play, and that is something that we still enjoy doing together. Since his wife, Margaret, called to tell me he died, I have been thinking about all the things I learned from Morez and how fortunate I was to know him. I did not see him that much after I graduated from high school, and now I wish I had. Like when, after my father died, I started to think about all the things I never asked him.
Morez was born on October 16, 1923, in Chicago, Illinois, where he graduated from the venerable Lane Tech Public High School (more graduates with PhDs than any other high school in America). He passed tests to become an Air Corps Reserve Cadet, and in 1943, at age 18, he joined the service and attended flight training, aerial gunnery school, officer training, and navigation and bombardier school and rose to the rank of lieutenant. After discharge, he attended the University of Illinois until his first son was born. After his second son was born, he moved to Glendale and became a police officer and then passed the tests and training for the California Highway Patrol. He was stationed in Barstow, Lompoc, Malibu, and eventually Santa Barbara, where he attended UCSB while still an officer to realize his lifelong dream of becoming a teacher and having his summers free to spend with his sons. He did his student teaching at San Marcos High school, where he then taught art for 28 years. In 1989, he met Margaret, and they married in 1993.
Morez painted, but that was just one of his many interests, which included free-flight model airplanes that he built and flew. He liked to build things, and his paintings showed that. At the time I worked in his studio, he was painting yellow daisies and purple agapanthus. Not as pretty things, but as remarkable structures that existed in space, like propellers. I remember how he painted shadows to show how a daisy is slightly concave.
He taught me about the methods and materials of painting, and where to learn what he did not know. Most remarkably, he understood that I needed a place to paint, and he provided one for me. It was my first studio, and since then, I have always had one.
It was never my goal to teach, but I have taught at UCSB for more than 40 years now. There have been students that I have helped outside of the classroom, and when I can help someone do what they want to do, it gives me a sense of peace and pleasure that I believe Morez must have gotten from helping me and other students over the years.
I knew him as a remarkably alive and happy man. I think of him as someone who never lost his sense of wonder about the world. He enjoyed complex ideas in art and science, and simple pleasures like flying model airplanes, and meeting with friends in local diners and donut shops. The last time I saw him was when he invited me to lunch at The Habit on Milpas Street.