The man and his art
C.L. Morehead's Athens home is a museum in itself, filled with art collections that will eventually belong to UGA
Athens entrepreneur C.L. Morehead once asked his friend and mentor, the late artist Lamar Dodd, if he should "take some art lessons” from him. The answer from the founding director of the University of Georgia art program was blunt.
"He told me, ‘You stick to the flowers; I’ll stick to the paintings,’” says Morehead, who tells the story with the dry, self-deprecating humor typical of the south Georgia farm country outside Fitzgerald where he grew up.
Morehead, who turned 79 in April, planned to become a farmer himself. Instead, he has spent most of his life making money, collecting art and giving both away to good causes.
Over the past 18 years, he has assembled the largest known collection of Dodd’s work: nearly 700 oil paintings, watercolors and drawings appraised at $8.5 million. Most are displayed in his 14,000 square foot home, where he gives tours to UGA’s visiting dignitaries and often puts them up for the night.
He hosts banquets for the Georgia Museum of Art, the Red Cross and other worthy causes, and loans out paintings to museums, such as those in Fitzgerald, Dublin, Highland and Macon.
The Dodd collection, along with other treasures he has acquired, will eventually go to the Georgia Museum of Art, says Tom Landrum, UGA’s senior vice president for external affairs and chief fundraiser. In the early 1990s, Morehead donated $1 million in cash to jump-start fundraising for the university’s performing and visual arts complex.
"At that time, it was a rare event to get $1 million in cash as a gift from an individual,” Landrum says. Morehead’s donations to the museum, including a wing named in his honor, now top $10 million.
"That puts him in a special category,” Landrum says. "There are fewer than 10 individual donors in the history of the University of Georgia who have contributed that much.”
Morehead, a soft-spoken, self-effacing man, left home in the early 1950s to study horticulture at UGA, intending to go back to farming after graduation. Instead, he took a job with Van Cleeves Flowers in downtown Athens and found the work suited him, combining his love of plants and flowers with his artistic eye, hard work ethic and flair for business.
Eight years later, with just $5,000, he opened his own wholesale-retail greenhouse business, Flowers Inc., in Athens and built it into a major enterprise. He sold another offshoot, Flowers Inc. Balloons, to his co-owners after the company grew into one of the world’s largest balloon distributorships.
His friendship with Lamar Dodd, for whom the UGA School of Art now is named, blossomed after Morehead had known the family casually for 30 years.
"I did their flowers,” he says, explaining that he arranged flowers for Dodd’s home and art exhibits.
In 1990, Morehead was considering purchasing a Salvador Dali painting and took it to Dodd for advice.
"He told me the chances were about 80 percent it was a fake,” Morehead says. "Then he said, ‘Why don’t you acquire some of my works?’”
But when Morehead called the next morning to ask about buying a painting, Dodd told him, with a mischievous glint in his eye: "You don’t buy my paintings; you acquire them.”
Annie Laurie Dodd says that response was typical of her late husband.
"Lamar didn’t just sell his paintings to anybody,” she says. "He often told people they weren’t finished because he didn’t want to sell them.”
Morehead wasn’t deterred. He began visiting Dodd’s studio and going through stacks and stacks of paintings.
"He’d say, ‘I like that one,’ and ‘I love that one’ and of course any artist would be flattered by that,” Annie Laurie Dodd says. "Then C.L. started coming every day as a friend and would just sit and talk to Lamar. Actually, Lamar did most of the talking. It was really sweet to see them together. Lamar took C.L. in as a son he never had.”
Dodd gave Morehead his first painting, an abstract oil in reds and purples. After that, Morehead began acquiring Dodd’s works as fast as the artist would let them go. "I was buying two or three a week for awhile,” he says.
He tells of the time he spotted a doodle that Dodd had tossed in the trash. "I told him, ‘Lamar, I’d like to have that,’ and he gave it to me,” Morehead says.
The doodle was appraised at $1,500, says Morehead, a multimillionaire who is still tickled over a bargain.
Annie Laurie Dodd says her husband began calling in paintings for the Morehead collection that he’d loaned to university colleagues and others through the years, including former President Jimmy Carter. There was some consternation, she says, as Dodd reclaimed works that had hung in faculty offices for 25 years or more. "People thought they were theirs.”
With Dodd’s encouragement, Morehead began collecting works by other artists. He has a roomful of paintings by Jim Dean of Washington, D.C., who founded the NASA Art Program and recruited some of the best-known American artists—Norman Rockwell, Jamie Wyeth, Robert Rauschenberg and Dodd—to record the early days of space flight. He acquired works by Frank Ruzicka that might otherwise have been lost, Annie Laurie Dodd says. Ruzicka headed UGA’s art department after Dodd retired. "Frank destroyed a lot of his paintings before he died,” she says.
Every room in Morehead’s home is a showcase for paintings, sculptures, Meissen ceramic vases, pre-Columbian art, sterling silver repousse—hammered metal—and fine china.
Among the 95 or so Oriental rugs is a carpet valued at $55,000 woven in Istanbul of golden threads on silk. "Supposedly it was made for the former Shah of Iran,” says Morehead, who gets a kick out of displaying price tags on the various pieces.
He recently bought a 2,000-piece collection of African art from Alma Henderson of Athens, who, with her late husband, spent years in Cameroon as a missionary. It includes jewelry, furniture, shields, weapons, photographs, combs and weavings, along with rare elephant masks, worth about $10,000 each, and other masks covered with skin and hair, some of it possibly human.
But the Dodd collection is closest to Morehead’s heart. It spans the artist’s long and prolific career that ended with his death in 1996, the day before his 87th birthday. The collection includes the first painting Dodd ever signed, done at age 13, and another finished three weeks before his death. Morehead knows the story behind each painting—when it was done, why Dodd chose a particular topic or medium, and where it had been before joining his collection.
He also has Dodd memorabilia: his palette and paints, his awards and citations, his three honorary doctoral degrees as well as natural things the artist accumulated, like geodes, rocks and coral.
"Lamar taught me to see beauty in simple things,” Morehead says.
Annie Laurie Dodd, who often helps Morehead with tours, describes him as a shy, gentle man pushed into the limelight by her late husband.
"Lamar made him talk to a lot of folks he probably didn’t want to talk to,” she says. "C.L. got to know a lot of people because of Lamar.”
Morehead and Dodd traveled the world together and spent time at the art colony on Monhegan Island, Maine, where they rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as Andy Warhol and Jamie and Andrew Wyeth.
The two spent quieter time together on Morehead’s south Georgia farm, catching catfish and discussing art and world events.
Morehead never married but he informally adopted four now-grown children he considers his own. When young people from his part of south Georgia come to Athens, he finds them jobs at Flowers Inc. or hires them to help at his home. They polish silver, assist with tours and badger him to ride his stationary bike every day.
He retains his lifelong habit of hard work. He rises early to go to his greenhouse and arranges and sells flowers every Saturday at J&J Flea Market north of town. He attends formal university functions, and is a regular at UGA football and women’s basketball games.
Andy Landers, who coaches the women’s basketball team, calls him an ideal friend and fan.
"We’ve had a little tradition going on for years,” Landers says. "After the half time when I come back to my seat for the game to commence, he’s standing right there behind my chair. We shake hands, he says ‘Good luck,’ and he goes back to his seat. He doesn’t offer coaching suggestions or critiques; he’s just there to support you. He’s the most polite person I’ve ever met.”
William Eiland, who directs the Georgia Museum of Art, calls Morehead’s ongoing contributions to the museum extraordinary.
"His generosity is the stuff of which legends are made,” Eiland says. "He’s given money, flowers and good counsel. He’s been there like a rock through hard times. Sometimes I don’t know what the museum would do without C.L. He’s that important.”
Lamar Dodd first won acclaim as a regional, or American Scene, artist who painted realistic scenes of the rural South during the early 20th century: cotton picking, river baptisms, small-town life. But he didn’t limit himself, says Martha Severens, curator of the Greenville Museum of Art in South Carolina, which specializes in Southern artists.
Dodd was willing to tackle the trends of his time by experimenting with many different styles, including what she called his “lyrical abstractions” of space flight, open-heart surgery and O.J. Simpson’s black glove.
She and others credit Dodd with building UGA’s art school into an internationally known institution. Severens says few universities had major art schools when Dodd took over the art department in 1938. “He certainly put UGA on the map,” she says.
Lamar Dodd School of Art: www.art.uga.edu