Each morning, Arlene Burke-Morgan and her husband, Clarence Morgan, prayed together. They drove along the river together, drank coffee together.
Then the couple, both artists, worked side-by-side in their studio.
“There was no physical barrier separating us,” Clarence said. While they worked independently, similarities appeared within their artwork, as if in conversation. “Decade after decade after decade, there’s a seamless connection that happens,” he said.
Arlene, a prolific artist who painted “circles of light” as a reflection of her deep faith, died in the couple’s Minneapolis home on Dec. 16, days after their 47th wedding anniversary. She was 67.
Born in Philadelphia, Arlene grew up playing the piano, guitar, violin and viola. While studying at the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, she met Clarence, who remembers her wearing military fatigues and a big Afro. “She looked of the moment, of the ’70s,” he said. He also recalled her drawing skills: “I was overwhelmed by her artistic talent.”
The pair married a year later, in 1970. Clarence taught at East Carolina University in North Carolina, where Arlene earned a master’s degree in 1989. The pair moved to Minnesota in 1992, taking teaching positions in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota.
Arlene’s sculptures and drawings earned her exhibitions, a place in the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection and praise in the newspaper.
In 1997, she won a $12,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation. In a review of the show featuring six McKnight Artists, Star Tribune art critic Mary Abbe described Burke-Morgan’s 15-foot-tall, multipanel drawing depicting members of her family.
“Their quiltlike arrangement reflects her early training in textiles and demonstrates her superb graphic sense,” Abbe wrote.
“The eyes staring implacably from the drawing give the illusion that it compresses a crowd and centuries of history into one epic image.”
Arlene didn’t seek out honors or awards, however. Her artist statement rejected artists’ usual listings of exhibits and grants as “vanity.” Her later work, as shown in 2007 at the Gage Family Gallery at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, focused on what she called “circles of light” — colorful, overlapping ovular shapes.
Her new works “mesmerized me,” said Robert Cozzolino, curator of paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “They burst with life and energy and, while abstract, felt connected to cells and to the stars.”
Visiting Arlene in the studio earlier this year, Cozzolino found her to be “open and generous.” They spoke about growth, gardening and the cosmos.
Arlene and Clarence raised three children: sons Nairobi Morgan and Aswan Morgan and daughter Nyeema Morgan-Cloud. The couple attended church together and traveled together. “We were so like-minded that sometimes, I think there wasn’t a need to verbally say things,” Clarence said.
In a TPT video, part of the Minnesota Original series, Arlene and Clarence talked about working side by side.
“It’s part of growing together,” she said. “When we show together, you can see there’s a separation, but then you can see there’s an underlying tone or tie that binds us together.”
Clarence is now digging through her side of their studio, studying her Bible, her journals. “She’s still teaching us in many ways,” he said.
In addition to her husband and their three children, Arlene’s survivors include her youngest sister, Adele Burke, and two grandchildren.
Services will be held 10 a.m. Jan. 12 at Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park.