In the art world, provenance is the whole ball of wax. Proving the origins of a piece can be the difference in its position in a museum or its price at auction.
That issue beats at the heart of legal matters between a Mobile artist and some of his counterparts in America’s western reaches. The fallout has resulted in threats of legal action and returned art works.
On the Gulf
According to his bio page on the Russell Fink Gallery website, native Mobilian William C. Morris has always dabbled in art, through his days as an engineer and as a home builder. He claimed quick success in middle age, not long after he picked up the brush.
Morris also said his design was chosen as the 1984 Federal Duck Stamp. His own website mentions him being given the opportunity to personally present to Pope Benedict and that his portrait of Mother Teresa is now in the Vatican collection. Morris ran a gallery on Hillcrest, raised his level of local notoriety and taught classes.
His work “Dusk on the Delta” won Best In Show at a 2011 exhibit at the Mobile Museum of Art entitled “Celebrating Our Maritime Heritage: A Coastal Holiday.” He claimed to have finished it just before the show.
“The work by William Morris is astounding,” Museum curator Donan Klooz told the Press-Register in a Dec. 15, 2011 article. “I had to look very closely, as it seemed to be a digital print. He just makes the most acute decisions about representing light. The skill of his brush caused me to think the work was Photoshopped. Very precise edges. … The way he has created those reflections goes beyond what I am familiar with in terms of using a paintbrush.”
But another Mobilian traveling west, and a following correspondence, would alter Morris’ reputation.
“I received an email from an artist that lived in (Mobile) and had an experience with this particular gentleman and had also traveled a lot,” Western artist Tom Saubert told Lagniappe. “This person had seen a couple of the paintings in Jackson Hole in a gallery and suddenly they were in a show in Alabama and the names had been changed, the signatures.”
Saubert said the Mobilian sent him photos of the paintings on the Gulf Coast. Saubert recognized some of his style and those of acquaintances.
“So I contacted them and started the whole process and found out there were five to seven of his paintings where the signature had been changed and he was hanging them as his own,” Saubert said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was just such a stunning thing, and it’s still hard to believe.”
When Saubert searched records at Mountain Trails Gallery in Jackson, Wyo., he found the proof of Morris’ purchases. His estimate was Morris spent $12,000 on Saubert’s three works, and close to $20,000 on all five. He also postulated that prints could be sold for as much as $600 apiece.
Saubert said some of the copies were gicleé – prints on canvas – that had been repainted and the signature changed. On others, he said the signature was merely removed from the original and Morris’ name added. After Saubert’s attorney contacted Morris, Morris sent the paintings and copies back to Saubert.
“I got to see five of the paintings he did that with, and one of mine, a big one he had won some awards for,” Saubert said. “He hadn’t changed it at all. All he’d done is just change the signature. It’s still sitting in my studio with the signature of Mr. Morris. Another one of mine, he did some more painting, which I thought he kind of hurt it.”
Photographs supplied to Lagniappe show Morris entries that won Best in Show in the 2011 Mobile Art Association Show and the Watercolor and Graphic Arts Society’s Shared Expressions show. They also appear to be copies of works by Saubert and Bruce Greene of Clifton, Texas, respectively.
Oakland, Cal. artist Karen Frey is another who claims Morris copied her work without authorization.
“Yes, one of my paintings was plagiarized by the infamous William Morris,” Frey wrote to Lagniappe in email. “However, he did alter a background slightly.” She postulated Morris had seen her work in a magazine.
The artists grouped together and sought legal counsel. Action wouldn’t be cheap, running close to $10,000 by Saubert’s recollection to file for copyright infringement.
“Artists don’t typically make a lot of money, so it’s hard for them to stand and defend when this type of action happens,” Montana attorney Brian C. Tanko told Lagniappe. “When we investigated the possibility of litigation, it just became cost prohibitive. I said, ‘Well, let’s try this. Let’s at least let him know that we know this is what we’re demanding and if we don’t get what we want, we’re going to the press and we’re going to expose this.’”
The letter to Morris dated May 4, 2012 minces no words. As of publication, Tanko had no express permission from two artists in the action to use their names in this story, only Saubert and Paul Kay of Wyoming are named. The other artists’ names have been omitted.
“We have been informed by Mr. Saubert and Mr. Kay that you reprinted the artwork mentioned above through Renaissance Imaging in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and then resold the paintings as your own for profit or entered them in art shows as your own for your own personal gain,” the letter reads. “As I am sure you are well aware, you are plagiarizing Mr. Saubert’s, and (redacted) paintings.
“The unauthorized copying and distribution of the aforementioned artwork, as your own and without the expressed permission of Mr. Saubert and Mr. Kay constitutes copyright infringement in violation of Title 17 U.S. Code, Section 106(a) of the Copyright Act of 1976.”
The letter demanded Morris “CEASE AND DESIST” such actions and return not only the originals but any copies. He had 30 days for compliance.
“He basically just said, ‘Gee, I don’t know how this could have happened’ and gave the same old BS kind of thing,” Saubert said. “My few paintings I got back (from Morris), it’s so obvious the signature has been sanded off and he had painted over them and signed them.”
“He was conciliatory right off the bat,” Tanko said. “He just basically folded.”
When a Lagniappe reporter recently asked Morris whether he recalled the letter from Tanko, he grew defensive. He claimed ignorance of the letter and the particulars of the case.
“You know, I’ve never been charged with plagiarism, OK? And if an article like this comes in, you know, I would just, you know, take what actions I needed to take,” Morris said. “I assume the article, I mean what you’re implying is, is I was charged with plagiarism.”
Morris has not been charged with plagiarism, but he did return paintings and copies to the artists involved in sending him the cease and desist letter. Morris refused any further comment.
The allegations against Morris have floated through the arts community since 2012, but not everyone has given them much weight.
“Bill Morris had several paintings in (my) gallery,” Tracy Host said in email. “I was contacted by an individual asking that I remove one painting on the basis of copyright infringement. I don’t recall the title of the exact piece. Given that I was not presented with any legal proof that the forgery allegation was true, I did not feel compelled to remove the painting.”
Bill Morris closed his gallery — Morris Gallery —in West Mobile. He currently teaches at Alabama Art Supply in west Mobile.
“There’s always a substantial amount of confusion about copy plagiarism and so forth in the art world. I don’t really have knowledge of those details,” store owner Ken Webster said. He claimed to have known Morris 25 years and said his previous property closed because of its rental status.
“Considering his skill level, (the allegations) sound highly unlikely. I mean he might have looked at some work they’d (done), and done some things similar to what he had seen but you go through any art book anywhere and you can find all kinds of ideas that you might use.”
Webster made quick note of Morris’ stamp accolades. “He has credentials,” he said.
Have more artists come forward? Not at this time.
“I’m sure that there were other artists he changed signatures on, at least two that I contacted and one of them was teaching in China and just didn’t have the time and obviously the location was a hindrance to him doing anything and the other was a gal … does a lot of cattle paintings and longhorns and different things like that,” Saubert said. “She didn’t want to pursue it. She didn’t think there would be any use and nothing would happen to him and he’d get his hand slapped and keep right on doing it.”
In Montana, Saubert is still shell shocked. It’s raised his paranoia.
“You kind of feel like you’ve been raped. It’s a violation I’d never experienced before,” Saubert said. “I got a call last year from a guy with a museum in Georgia. Morris was looking to get in there and he was looking into the possibility that this guy wasn’t what he said he was. We’re all so busy doing our own creative work, and it’s a huge distraction to have to deal with something like that.”
A cat produced by California artist Karen Frey (left) as it appeared in Artist Magazine. To the right, a Bill Morris product.
At left, Montana artist Tom Saubert’s “Dreams of Sacred Otter,” purchased by Bill Morris at Mountain Trails Gallery. At right, Bill Morris stands to the right of his prize-winning work.
At left, Montana artist Tom Saubert’s “Passing Rain,” purchased by Bill Morris at a Wyoming gallery. At right, A Bill Morris painting at Southern Art and Framing.