“Master of Light” is a film portrait of Morton’s pursuit of beauty beyond painting’s Eurocentric canon. “The full palette of colors needs to be represented,” Morton told USA Today in a 2019 interview. His paintings channel the exquisite complexity and mood of art history, while also giving it a needed contemporary makeover in his renderings of African American subjects in graphite, charcoal and oil.
The look and feel of the film, says Morton, was partly inspired by Barry Jenkins’ breakthrough 2016 film “Moonlight,” a love story centered on Black characters. “Master of Light” also pulls in tight to focus on the struggles and relationships that define Morton’s life; with his mother, his siblings and the deep undertow of his past. Bathed in a rich chiaroscuro of inky darkness and downy light, the film’s cinematography and nuance-inflected portrait of its Black subjects is inspired by Morton’s moody paintings.
The winner of the Grand Jury Award for documentary feature at SXSW, “Master of Light” was directed by Amsterdam-based Rosa Ruth Boesten with Morton in essence serving as a co-director. The film shows how Morton’s contemplation of the eternal was forged partly through 9 years and 6 months in a federal penitentiary on drug charges.
Those years gobbled up Morton’s twenties. But they also garnered him a precious resource: time.
It was, in essence, Morton’s college. His monastery. An escape and an inquisition. Prison was a deep dive into his psyche, his past and long folds of time, elongated like the pregnant moment in a Vermeer.
“The time to practice and perfect a successful routine and ritual are some of the greatest lessons I still carry with me today,” Morton says of his prison experience, speaking from his home and studio in Hapeville.
“It was the feeling of having been ensnared and trapped with no way to get out except by going within. This was my strategy. I chose to see a paradise instead of a prison, an opportunity brilliantly disguised as a setback.”
Though originally from Kansas City, when he was released from prison, Morton campaigned to relocate to Atlanta. A voracious consumer of art books and magazines (American Artist was a favorite), they stacked up to such an extent the prison deemed them a fire hazard. Through reading he learned to paint. It was also how he learned about Atlanta’s thriving arts scene.
He moved to Atlanta in 2013. But those years of confinement have made him anxious for knowledge and fresh experience. Morton traveled to New York to study at the Florence Academy of Art US and was the first African American student to graduate from that program. He’s since taken regular sojourns abroad, to Amsterdam and Florence, seven trips to Egypt. He’s taught painting classes at a studio in Castleberry Hill and at Serenbe’s Art Farm. Since moving to Atlanta, Morton has earned the support of a coterie of well-connected Atlanta art patrons.
His life, he says, has been a serendipitous series of encounters, like a hand guiding his fate, each allowing him to move to a new phase in his career, as when he found critical backing for “Master of Light” from Microsoft founder Paul Allen and sister Jody Allen’s now-defunct Vulcan Productions.
Morton is currently working on what he hopes will be a traveling exhibition of his paintings and moments that didn’t make the final cut of “Master of Light.” The exhibition will be a juxtaposition of his two passions for film and for art, for the ancient and the modern. “It is my belief that if a da Vinci or a Rembrandt walked the earth today, they’d be involved in filmmaking.”
“Master of Light”
8:30 p.m. April 28. $12. Carter Presidential Center lawn, 441 John Lewis Freedom Parkway NE, Atlanta. 404-352-4225, atlantafilmfestival.com.