Describing Tim Morris as an artist is painting him with broad strokes, and that’s the way he likes it.
Morris, 76, sat in the ballroom of the Conway Senior Wellness and Activity Center’s new location, holding a slim paintbrush in his right hand, brushing and dabbing imaginary paint on the table as he talked.
A retired University of Central Arkansas art professor, Morris was taking a break from painting a mural in the former event-center lobby last week as employees and delivery people whizzed around getting ready for the senior center’s grand opening.
“It evolved into an Arkansas landscape and indoor courtyard,” Morris said of his work as he looked at the walls.
Morris is known to many of his fellow Conway residents as the guy who painted Toad Suck Square.
It was his idea 33 years ago to paint the Toad Suck Daze logo at Front and Oak streets in downtown Conway. He served on the original committee when the festival was held on the Arkansas River.
“I said, ‘What about let’s do a painting in the middle of the street?’ I painted it for 26 years,” he said, often enlisting help from UCA students.
“I’d crawl around there and lean over and paint it. There are ways to do it right. Even though it was on the street, I wanted it to look like a nice graphic design. I think they’re carrying it on well,” he said.
“One year [the street department] blacktopped it, and we totally lost it,” he said. Morris said he was driving through downtown Conway and realized, gulp, “It’s gone.”
“In Conway, so many people say, ‘Oh, I know you — you paint the toad. I don’t deny that, and I don’t want to lose that connection, but I’m more than a toad painter,” Morris said, laughing softly. “You don’t want to carry around a portfolio all the time; I’m not that kind of person.”
Morris also painted the first two murals that appeared on buildings in downtown Conway, he said.
The first was through an Arkansas Arts Council grant. Morris said some buildings had been torn down, so he painted facades from old stores on the exposed side of a Front Street building. At that time, it was a hardware and paint store, later it was Marty Sikes Photography studio and, most recently, a clothing store, which has closed.
“The was my first claim to fame,” he said.
That first mural has been painted over with Toad Suck Daze scenes. The other mural is still visible on a wall by a parking lot at Main and Chestnut streets.
“It’s fading. I wish they’d ask for it to be restored,” he said.
Morris’ beginnings as an artist developed in Vernon, Texas, where he grew up. His mother was a housekeeper and a waitress, he said; his father was a house painter. When Morris was in high school, he helped his dad paint houses.
“I told my dad I didn’t want to work hard like he did, so I picked up small brushes,” he said.
In seventh grade, Morris won a fire-prevention poster contest. “That kind of kick-started it,” he said of his interest in painting.
Morris said he didn’t do as well academically as he wanted in high school, and he wasn’t the jock, but he found his niche in painting.
“I began to blossom and have a personality,” he said. “I became the artist of our school. I did murals in the library and in English class and sets for the plays.”
He went to a junior college in Sacramento, California, then Bob Jones University in South Carolina, where he got a bachelor’s degree in art education and earned a master’s in the same area.
He stayed on for two years as a graduate assistant and was art director for the Unusual Films Department — yes, that’s what it was called — and worked on three feature-length Christian films.
“I was art director, makeup artist, set designer. I got some wonderful training, and all that translates here,” he said, pointing to the mural in the lobby.
Katheryn Stenholm, the director, “was just a fabulous woman,” he said.
“Working on sets, they had to look good up close, and they had to look good at a distance. It was just fabulous training.”
The movies were Flame in the Wind, Red Runs the River and Sheffey.
“I got to go to NBC and New York, and I went to Hollywood and met with Bud Westmore, the makeup artist, learning the techniques of doing prosthetics,” Morris said. “I got to be on the set when they were filming New York, New York with Liza Minnelli. I saw her in the makeup room when he was working on her.”
While Morris was teaching junior high, he spent seven summers working as a mural painter for the California State Fair.
“The man I worked for had accounts in cities in 16 California counties,” he said. Morris painted 15-foot to 20-foot stretch canvases, “like window displays, but in this big building,” he said.
His principal at the public school met UCA Art Department Chairman Jerry Poole while they were working on their doctorates at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Morris was asked to come to Conway for an interview.
“They sort of hired me on the spot,” he said.
He came to UCA in 1971, after his second film at Bob Jones University, and took a leave of absence after four years at UCA to go back to South Carolina to work on Sheffey. He retired from UCA after 18 years.
“I love all my years of teaching, even in junior high,” he said.
“What I tell people is, I can teach people to draw, to a point, but if you have a built-in ability, if you have sensitivity — that’s part of your makeup — you’ll go further,” he said.
“One of the main things I tell people when they’re wanting to paint or draw is develop your perceptive awareness, which means pay attention.
“One of the stories I love to remember about my own son is when I was dragging him across campus as a little kid. … We’d look at the clouds. I’d say, ‘Man, look at that.’ We had fun thinking about what the clouds looked like, or just how beautiful they were.”
At his home, Morris painted clouds on his bedroom ceiling and has painted furniture. Through his company, Classique Expressions, he paints murals, furniture, walls, floors and more for clients locally and nationwide.
His style isn’t black and white.
“I’m sort of an impressionist in the sense that I mix my colors while painting. You mix them on the canvas or on the surface, … and I’m realism in the sense that I want it to look like what it is, for people to recognize it — not necessarily camera perfect,” he said.
He had a framed photo of a friend’s miniature Doberman pinscher sitting near the floor in the Conway Senior Wellness and Activity Center lobby, and he has painted the dog into the scene.
“The dog’s not finished, but everyone’s enjoying it because it looks enough like a dog,” he said.
He showed a photo on his cellphone of the real dog standing by the painted dog, his nose slightly in the air, head turned, as if posing.
“I need to add some birds,” he said, back in the lobby and looking at his work.
It’s the details that matter. Even if others don’t notice, he will.
He will also paint the walls in the hallway — through double doors from the lobby — to look like plaster. He will create a mural of a fountain, “so when you look through there, it will tie all together,” he said.
Nancy Rowell, fiscal administrator for the senior center, said she marvels at Morris.
“The thing that’s so fun about watching him work … he starts with this concept, and he paints painstakingly for two days, and then he paints over it,” she said.
“It evolves slowly. There’s no telling how many hours he’s worked. He’s the last one to leave; he’s down here at 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock at night,” Rowell said.
Morris said he doesn’t always paint over his work — but he wasn’t happy with the boulders.
He said he still loves to talk about what he does, so he sometimes teaches workshops.
“I’m still fascinated myself by how shapes and colors and texture and things like that look,” he said.
“A sweet little lady came in to work in the kitchen (in the senior center), and she watched me and said, ‘You like what you do, don’t you? I do, too.’”
Morris said his next project is in a large home near Fayetteville, where he has been hired to paint a 10-foot by 6-foot Gothic-style cabinet over the fireplace.
“It’s going to be interesting to work on,” he said. “They want it to look like this old cabinet out of this church.”
Morris will paint a large wooden balcony in the home, too.
Someone once asked him what he specializes in, and “that threw me,” he said.
“One thing I think that I am is an overall artist rather than pigeonholed into one aspect,” he said. “I was an art educator, so I had to know a little bit about everything. I prided myself that I could hold myself in all these areas. I could throw a pot if I needed to.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.