Information concerning the life of Morris B. Newman is scant, available only from a few audio tapes of casual conversations and from Lee Garrett’s personal recollections, beginning with their first meeting in 1977 to Newman’s death three years later, at the age of ninety-nine. However brief, there is still enough in this “archive” to amply demonstrate that Morris Newman was, by any standards, a remarkable man, whose story would hardly be credible even in the most imaginative novel.
According to all accounts, Newman was born in 1883 in Ethiopia. A “falasheh,” or black decedent of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, he claimed to have been a rabbi, a medical doctor, a world traveler and adventurer which included a stay in Haiti where he practiced voodoo, an artist, although untrained, with international exposure. Furthermore, Newman maintained that he read, wrote, and spoke twenty-eight languages and every dialect. Newman believed in reincarnation. He said that every one hundred years or so he had been reborn, for a total of 33,906 times thus far. This number was tattooed on his left shoulder. Thus it makes perfect sense that to him extraterrestrial life was a fact; he asserted that he was himself from another planet, but that all of existence was, ultimately, the gift of God Almighty. Newman was also a confirmed positive thinker, who was fond of stating that “Life can be beautiful,” a cliché that was often followed by the qualifier, “but only if you make it beautiful.” In this regard, he believed that all individuals were fully responsible for the realization of their destinies. This and, for him the only true purpose in being put on earth, could be reached only through constantly striving-for monetary success or personal fame-to arrive at an understanding of one’s “true self.” Those who did not actively engaged in ongoing process of seeking one’s true self were not actually living, but were, according to Newman, squandering the precious gift of life God gave them, and thus existing in a state of sin.
Garrett first saw Morris Newman’s paintings in the 1977 Governor’s Senior Citizen’s Art Exhibition at the State House in Columbus. The two became good friends, and in the following short time left to him, Newman assumed the role of a kind of spiritual advisor and mentor to his young acquaintance. Newman’s paintings clearly reflect his incredible life. They are in essence the work of a visionary. His landscapes, often entitled New Flowers – the translation of “Addis Ababa,” Newman’s native city of Ethiopia – do not seek to capture nature as it stands before us, but to fashion vistas of hills, trees, water, and flowers as symbols of rejuvenation; to suggest the never-ending cycle of life and death Newman proclaimed was his own situation-perhaps the eternal “New Man?” Land of the Zulus includes astronomical symbols of the eternal round, and the two “portraits,” anthropomorphized hills perhaps alluding to the inseparability of humanity and nature may, in fact, according to Garrett, by those of himself and Newman. If Lee Garrett is a spokesman for contemporary society in action, Newman’s paintings seem to address transcendent states of the human condition. Of course one cannot exist without the other.
GARY SCHWINDLER, PhD, 1986