On the loss of Kenn Morgan, by Heather Gring
Tuesday, June 2, 2020
I’m still trying to wrap my head and my heart around the loss of Buffalo’s own Kenn Morgan, who passed away June 1st, 2020. You might not know his name, but if you’ve ever been to more than one art opening in Buffalo, you’ve seen Kenn. The man with the big glasses and suspenders and pins all over his hat. The man with the camera in his hands (and maybe another in his bag), always photographing something and someone.
I guess I first met Kenn around 2005 or 2006, when I was an undergrad Art History student at Buffalo State and started exploring the local gallery scene. While I didn’t know him at this time, I knew he was a staple of the arts community. He was everywhere! After 3 years in Canada, when I moved back to Buffalo in 2013, seeing Kenn at art openings and events was an incredibly comforting reminder that I was home. Seeing him, as if no time had passed, reminded me that I knew this place and the important parts had not changed. Kenn still had his cameras in his hands, and he was there for any conversation you wanted to have.
When I joined the board of Locust Street Art in 2016, I was lucky enough to get to know other sides of Kenn, to listen to him talk about his love of black & white photography, of teaching, of his love of the Fruit Belt. One of my favorite projects of Kenn’s at LSA was the Fruit Belt Houses series. In the mid-1990’s, Kenn worked with LSA photography students on a photo series of houses of the Fruit Belt. This collection of architectural photographs remains one of few sources of documentation of the Fruit Belt at that time. With the rapid change that has happened in the Fruit Belt the last 10+ years, these images are even more vital to understand Buffalo’s history and development.
Molly Bethel told me that she first met Kenn in the 1980’s, when he brought his daughters to MollyOlga for art classes. In 1987, he became the black & white photography instructor. The darkroom at Locust Street was his world for decades. He was still teaching darkroom photography as recently as fall of 2019. He was so proud of the darkroom, so at ease in there. You could just see it in his body language, that LSA was his home, and had been for so long. Over thirty years after he first brought his kids to MollyOlga, his family was still always with him at LSA—his daughter and grandchildren are as constant fixtures at LSA as he.
Some of you may know this, but the transition from MollyOlga to Locust Street Art as it is today was challenging at many points. There were times where Kenn was the link between the past of MollyOlga and the future of LSA. Without his support during the years of transition, we would have lost a crucial part of our past that we could have never recovered. Because of his trust and involvement, I feel that Locust Street Art was better able to stay true to our roots as we explored where we wanted to go. He kept LSA grounded, and we needed that.
Kenn really did love to take the time to talk. No matter what your background or perspective, he always engaged. He always tried to connect. I loved to come by LSA on Saturdays and see him upstairs, "holding court" with folks who would come by just to sit and talk with him about photography and art. Every week, somebody different. The vibe he created was kind of like an early 20th century salon, but in a building full of children engaged in art instruction. I love thinking of Kenn waxing intellectual and profane about art, while in the background kids THUMP-THUMP-THUMP the air out of their clay, squeal in the halls, and run into the room to show him what they made.
In 2017, we hosted a video game night in the Front Yard of the Burchfield Penney, where people could play video games projected against the building. Kenn came by—if Kenn’s there, you know it’s going to be fun. He played a painting game, and wrote, “SMILE...[YOU'RE] ALWAYS ON CAMERA”. He was so proud of himself, smirking and laughing. I found myself caught in the double meaning of it...that Kenn always catches you on camera, but so do many entities bigger than Kenn, and much less love-able. And don't get me wrong, Kenn had some less love-able traits--many of which he would acknowledge himself. But he had such a good heart, and it really shone through in all that he did.
I interviewed Kenn for the Living Legacy Project at the Burchfield Penney in 2018. It was a fun interview, full of laughter and stories. I remember that Kenn didn’t consider himself a “capital-A-Artist”, but rather viewed himself as a documentation and skilled technician. I think I gave him a little bit of push back against this notion, but I can’t quite remember...and at the moment, I’m not ready to listen to the un-edited interview just yet. Regardless of the interview, Kenn knew I consider him to be an artist. His photography was highly skilled and nuanced, creating images which were straight-forward and yet encouraging one to linger on the details and tones of each image. His ability to draw people out, and create moments of authentic connection is artistry. His tongue-in-cheek pins and statements could change the whole way one viewed an environment or situation. Kenn’s actions and photographic works made our world more rich and faceted. For me, that makes Kenn Morgan an artist, and one we are now so much poorer without.
Archivist, Burchfield Penney Art Center
Board Member, Locust Street Art