Love, loss and the keeping of secrets infuse Moorman’s ethereal family portraits

Opening Reception: The Watercolors of Tara Moorman: Letters to My Ancestors and Uncharted Waters: The Fine Art of Watercolor

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art — Thursday, June 1 at 5 p.m.

When you step into the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art’s second floor gallery filled with Tara Moorman’s watercolors, the first thing you might notice is that these paintings seem to emanate light. What might be less obvious is that the paintings are themselves emanations from the past.

The exhibit, which officially opens with a Thursday, June 1 reception at the museum, is called Letters to My Ancestors — but it might be more accurately titled Conversations with My Ancestors. The artist will tell you, somewhat reluctantly but wholly in earnest, that she is in contact with many of the subjects in these paintings.

Anna and her Girls. — Tara Moorman

“It’s something I’ve been interested in all my life … I have an ability to feel the presence of people who have passed on,” Moorman tells me as we look at her work together in the gallery.

She’s aware that many folks might find that hard to believe. In fact, she used to find it hard to believe, too, wondering if she was imagining or inventing the experiences she was having. “But I’m not that good at making stuff up,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh.

Moorman believes that anyone could have the sorts of conversations she has with her ancestors if they make space for the quiet and listen.

“When I finally got that as humanity we’re all connected … it makes sense that we have access to each other’s energy if they want to share it with you.”

The series — 22 paintings featuring members of her family from her mother’s side going back to the mid-1800s — is grounded in old family photographs. The paintings blend faithful reproductions of the photographs (though illuminated in a way photos of that age simply could not be) with other elements that enhance or, in some cases, obscure the original details.

The initial spark for these paintings was ignited after her mother’s death. One evening, she was the last person left after a long day of sorting and cleaning. She was on her way out when she felt a tap on her shoulder — a tap she believes was a signal from her grandmother Olive. She went back inside and found a couple of small Bibles in her mother’s bedroom. Later, at home, she was looking at one of the Bibles when a photograph depicting Olive and her little brother Johnnie fell out.

Moorman says, of the moment she felt Olive’s presence at her mother’s house, “I think she tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘I saved that for over 100 years. You better go get that.’”

That photograph is the oldest one she used and is the basis for a painting titled, appropriately enough, “Hidden Treasures.”

That wasn’t her only contact with Olive. Once, her grandmother woke her up to explain the circumstances that had led to a certain photograph. She recalled being unhappy that her sisters had stopped by and insisted on posing for a photo while there was work to be done.

“She told me, ‘It was like my sisters don’t really see me.’ And that’s why they’re sort of unfinished in this painting.” Two figures in the painting, one of which is Olive, are, to borrow from the language of photography, out of focus.

Moorman also shares the story of a family secret involving her great-great-grandfather and his illegitimate child. She wanted to know the full story of her ancestor’s decision to leave his son behind, and she hoped he would be willing to share it with her. She felt like she was making a connection while working on a painting of him. The painting, part of the exhibit, is called “One Handsome Devil.”

One Handsome Devil. — Tara Moorman

“There’s something that happens when you stare at a person. You develop a great love and affection for them,” Moorman says. She told her great-great-grandfather, “I love you and I want to connect with you. If you want to connect with me let me know.” She was awakened in the night a few night’s running, and eventually got the message that he was trying to reach out to her. “I laid out my journal, a light — and had it happen.”

There was no great revelation about why her forefather had done the things he’d done. “It was just human stuff. ‘If I’d known better, I would have done better,’ he said.”

These stories have been collected in a book that accompanies the exhibit and will be available by the June 1 reception. Some of the stories are drawn from Moorman’s own memory of when she and her contemporaries appear in the paintings. The rest, she says, “are what I would refer to as a channeling.”

And what of the light that shines out from each painting? Moorman describes it as a sort of blending of technique and the auras of her subjects.

“I’m interested in the light, a sort of spiritual light that comes from within the painting,” she says.

Watercolors allow her to layer the paint in way that brings the light to the fore even when it starts in the background.

“The background becomes the foundation of light for the rest of the painting,” she explains. Starting with background until she has a wash of colors, she paints the light before she paints the figures and other physical objects. “I had to be real careful that I didn’t cover up that light entirely.”

The care she is able to take may have its source in her pre-painting ritual. As part of her process, Moorman explains, she takes a few minutes to meditate, to thank God and to thank her ancestors. “And then I just ask to be led.”

A juried art show which included one of the paintings in the series led to this solo exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, a longtime goal of Moorman’s

“I love this museum and I have since the day it was being built. I’ve always wanted to exhibit here. I thought it would happen, but I didn’t know how it would happen,” she says.

It happened after CRMA Associate Curator Kate Kunau visited Moorman’s studio to see more of her work. After the visit, Kunau called the artist to ask: “Could you do 19 or 20 of those and show them in a couple of years?”

Moorman’s reply was succinct: “Hell, yes.”

While these paintings are of Moorman’s family, she believes some universal experiences — love, loss and the keeping of secrets — are present in the work.

“I hope that people will recognize something of their own family in these paintings,” she tells me.

She also has a bit of practical advice: “I would tell people to save their family photos. You never know when somebody will want to paint them.”

Letters to My Ancestors will be at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art through August 27.