64 Parishes

William Lee Moreland

William Moreland played a significant role in advancing the evolution of contemporary art in Louisiana's Acadiana region.

William Lee Moreland

Courtesy of Ogden Museum of Southern Art

VIII (one of five panels). Moreland, William (Artist)

William Moreland established an influential career in Louisiana as an artist, professor of art, and arts administrator at Southwestern University (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). Active at the university from 1955 to 1986, and the early chairman of its art department, Moreland played a significant role, along with a faculty that included Elemore Morgan Jr., in advancing the evolution of contemporary art in Acadiana.

During the 1950s, in addition to his interest in figurative, religious, and symbolic subject matter, Moreland painted the natural environment of his state, including the Atchafalaya Basin, discovering abstract possibilities in the wilderness for his art. He later explained this interest, as well as the unique perspectives he discovered while traveling in automobiles. “The elevated highway with its railing cut off my vision with a clean line at the bottom and the trees seemed to line up on either side of the road…[and] passing by with some speed the landscape seemed to unfold like a scroll, with each view for a moment in the frame of the car window.” He recognized, over time, that this view from a speeding car passing over the watery Louisiana environment by way of an elevated highway was a inspirational revelation.

Moreland was born in New Orleans on August 25, 1927. His parents, Charles Frederick Moreland (a professor at Louisiana State University) and Hilda Martinez Moreland, raised him in Baton Rouge. Moreland was strongly influenced by Catholicism, including its rituals and symbols, and graduated from Catholic High School in Baton Rouge in 1944. As a student, he watched the noted Catholic monk and artist Dom Gregory de Wit paint a religious mural in a Baton Rouge church. de Wit became a mentor to the young Moreland, teaching him the basics of art and inspiring him to create his own religious imagery that continued through Moreland’s college years.

Moreland enrolled in the fine art program at LSU, studying under Caroline Durieux, Conrad Albrizio, and other prominent Louisiana artists. During his undergraduate years at LSU, he was commissioned to paint religious works for churches and chapels in New Orleans; Mobile, Alabama; and Pasadena, Texas, while his professors exposed him to the new aesthetic visions, techniques, and styles evident in the larger American art world. Inspired by the pine forests of central and northern Louisiana, Moreland completed an important early landscape painting, Louisiana Pines (1947), which suggested his later interest in painting the complex environment of Louisiana. Moreland completed an MFA program at LSU in 1950 and then accepted a teaching fellowship in geography and anthropology for the 1951-52 academic year.

The course of Moreland’s career changed in 1955, when he left LSU to accept a teaching position in the department of art at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL), beginning a storied career in Lafayette. In 1957, not long after he arrived, the department of art became the department of art and architecture, and Moreland was appointed chair of fine arts and art education. That same year he met his future wife, Muriel Kinnaird, who joined the school’s staff to coordinate and teach dance courses. During Moreland’s tenure, the department of art and architecture evolved into the School of Art and Architecture in 1964. In response to the growing prestige of the school, a new building was constructed on the campus in 1977, named Fletcher Hall.

While Moreland enjoyed a growing reputation as a teacher and arts administrator at USL, he exhibited his paintings in national gallery and museum exhibitions, enjoying success in New York City and other national venues. In the early 1960s, he reduced these gallery activities, feeling his art needed to evolve in new ways. Accordingly, he began to explore the natural world around him, including the familiar Louisiana landscape. A major work, First Triptych, was created at this time, using the landscape as a focus, incorporating the spiritually charged nature of religious iconography in the triptych format. This began a period of new artistic activity, including experimentation with framing and compositional formats, establishing new directions for Moreland’s art during the 1960s and 1970s.

Moreland established a notable faculty at USL during these years, including Robert Russett, John Walker, John Geldersma, Elemore Morgan Jr., Calvin Harlan, Herman Mhire, Robert Wiggs, Tom Secrest, Fred Daspit, and Alan Jones. Moreland remained at USL until he retired in 1986, when he and his wife moved to a home and studio near the Warehouse Arts District in New Orleans. They traveled extensively during these years, and Moreland created few new paintings until around 1994, when he entered a period of newly energized production.

On a driving trip in Colorado, while examining a canyon wall near Boulder, he experienced another inspirational epiphany, one that drew him back to painting natural imagery. “It now all fit together!” he said of this new direction in his art. “The triptych had roots in my early love for religious imagery … it was all grounded in my personal experience in a car on the road, year after year, view after view. No more figures, no more geometric intrusions. I would try to do a landscape with that unity, that oneness I’d longed to get at for such a time. Two natural landscapes [Louisiana and the West] had become my spirit brothers.” Since then, he has created a significant body of new paintings, many installed in handmade frames created by John Richard, who works in collaboration with Moreland.

In 2003, Moreland’s paintings were featured in the grand opening of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. In 2004, he was the subject of a major retrospective exhibition, William Moreland: Between Psyche and Sight, A Fifty Year Retrospective, at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum on the campus of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. In 2008, he was the focus an exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Southern Masters: William Moreland, showcasing works from the museum’s Mary Lee Eggart Collection of Moreland’s art.