Jeanne Smith Morgan draws parallels between the social issues Goya critiqued in his <em>Caprichos</em> and contemporary political and social issues facing our country today.
Richie DeMaria

It was 1958 when Morgan received a full scholarship to attend Otis College of Art and Design, and two detours changed her life forever. The first was en route to a civil rights gathering hosted by anti-Stalinist socialist revolutionaries in Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles just north of Compton. She got lost trying to find the meeting house and instead stumbled upon a marvelous sculpture. “God help us, it was fabulous, unbelievable,” she said of the Watts Towers, a then barely known set of steel spires that rise mind-bogglingly above the neighborhood, spangled with mosaic and glass and made by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia.

She hadn’t heard of it; the art world hadn’t heard of it. “I climbed the towers, and it changed my life. I was morphed into someone whose life was devoted to this massive inspiration,” she said. With the help of fellow students and faculty, she went on to found the Watts Towers Committee, a preservationist society dedicated to keeping Rodia’s work alive, setting the framework for a life dedicated to championing artwork and fighting injustice.

The second moment came in the Otis College library. “I found this hot book on Goya,” she recounted of Goya’s Caprichos, a collection of prints by the artist Francisco Goya rendered in 1797 and 1798. She wanted it, but it was due back to the library: So she made her own. Every day, she drew a freehand drawing based on the etching of the day. “I had a copy of the Caprichos in my voice. I was singing Goya’s song.”

“That was a long time ago,” she added. She held onto the sketches so she could always have her own copy. Now, we readers can see Goya through her eyes.

Morgan found in Goya an incredibly insightful, intuitive, imaginative artist — Goya the Prophet, she calls him. “Goya knew what it was all about. In the Catholic inquisition, he saw all the evil of a society that wanted everyone to live under the power of ‘witchcraft,’ burning women at the stake,” she said of his critiques of the Spanish Inquisition, with its multi-century religious terror of stake-burnings, tortures, and raids in the name of Christianity. She commends his “marvelous discernment of metaphysics, hypocrisy, lies, falsehoods, greed, and theft, the brutality of the courts of the laws. He wasn’t interested in his subjective feelings. He wanted his felt sense of life to talk about not himself, but anybody else.”

She draws parallels between Goya and Rodia, the molding master behind the Watts Towers. “They’re wired together and covered with mortar and a thousand yards of mosaic he picked up from the city and the sea. With his environment, he created his message to the world,” she said. “In the same way, Goya selected from his city’s thoughts and people the mosaic he used to transmit his truth.”

What’s more, she sees in Goya an artist sensitively attuned to the inner lives of women. “About 25 percent of the etchings deal with women’s situation in life,” Morgan said. “He knew the private intimate problems of women’s lives and is sometimes critical but mostly sympathetic.” In his time, arranged marriages were common, and women had little say in their choice of husband.

Morgan’s own artistry took its time to see publication, in part because of the generational challenges of being an artistic, married woman in her time. “Back then, you didn’t just get a divorce, say ‘fuck you,’ and walk away,” she said. “You suffered.”

She credits “good luck and friends with a full-board digital set-up” for the eventual publication of her work, but gave a special acknowledgement and gratitude to Chaucer’s Books founder Mahri Kerley, who assisted in giving her book a shelf life.

The publication of her work is a dream come true, and a testament to her strength, patience, and resilience. She continues her work with the Watts Towers, plans to launch a wholesale paper-goods business called California Bravo, and remains a passionately political civil rights activist. “We need to organize something called the Grey Panthers,” she said. “People like us are kicked to the curb, but we’ve lived long enough to have some wisdom float up to the surface of the pool.”

An Interpretation of Goya’s Caprichos: With 80 Interpretive Line Drawings and Captions in Original Antique Spanish and English is available at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State Street.


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