After finishing two years at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and receiving a B.F.A. from the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota in 1972, Theodore worked as a commercial artist for local advertising agencies. Fifteen years later he began pursuing interesting freelance design work including creating drawings for an archaeological survey company which greatly influenced him.
Theodore Morris first started researching Florida history in 1988. He joined Time Sifters Archaeology Society, a Sarasota Florida group that held monthly meetings and organized archaeological digs in the area. He met George Luer, a much respected archaeologist and earned how important it was to protect Indian sites from looters. In 1995, Luer and Theodore collaborated on a poster to benefit the Florida Anthropological Society. Theodore and Luer decided the design should include a few of the main tribes and a large line drawing of an Apalachee Bird Man Dancer. This was not an easy task because the history of Florida's first peoples have been distorted and misrepresented for hundreds of years. A book showing Timucua people in 1564, drawn by Jacques le Moyne and engraved by Theodore de Bry in 1595, portray the Timucua as European-looking people from the16th century. My research for the poster, at the local library, turned up very little information and no accurate images. There were some imaginary ones created by artists with no true knowledge of Florida's early tribes that were totally unusable for reference. So, with the assistance of archaeologist George Luer, Jeffrey Mitchem, Jerald Milanich, and other Florida archaeologists, Theodore finished the drawing. The poster of his drawing inspired him to do a full color paintings. His first painting was well received and its connection to Florida's past captivated him and he continues painting with oils making the past the present.
Serving as a combat medic in the historic Seventh Calvary in Vietnam in 1968, allows him to relate on a personal level to the incomprehensible deaths of native men, women, and children by European military conquest, disease, and slavery. Painting on canvas allows him to bring back these early native peoples whose images and lifestyles were grossly misrepresented for so long in history books and other chronicles of Florida’s early days. While he cannot change history and right the wrongs that drove these Indians into extinction, through his paintings he honors their memories and help set the record straight.
His writes about his approach:
1. First I decide on what to paint based on something I read or perhaps because of a discussion with an archaeologist.
2. I do some sketches to give me some ideas for the subject matter and composition.
3. To find the elements that will be included in the painting, research is required. I use photos from my library, computer searches, and archaeology books for tribal descriptions and artifact photos. I never collect artifacts since they belong to the people of Florida, not private collectors. Artifacts and European descriptions are how I determine the tribal culture in my paintings. Research, historical accuracy and believability are always central to my paintings. I've photographed hundreds of natural areas that encompass each tribal territory to insure that the background scenery of my painting is accurate. It's important to know which plants and animals are native and which have been brought in more recent times.
4. After setting my canvas on my easel, I use thinned burnt umber pigment to organize the painting with the use of lines and washes. At this point I can indicate how the lights and darks will be arranged.
5. After the background has been painted, I premix my four main flesh colors. These are painted wet on wet so the blending process will give me the most realistic effect. After the painting is dry, I go back and readjust the color values to highlight some areas and “push back” others. Lastly, I paint all the details in the foreground.
6. Now comes the most fun and challenging part for me; painting the artifacts and objects that will bring the Indian figure alive. All during the creative process, the painting directs me as to what details are next. The process of painting a portrait is made up of thousands of little decisions; adjusting details just a little changes the final look.
7. Spending hours with a painting, it becomes harder to “see” with an objective eye. The last stage is to let the painting sit for a while and see if it has captured my original vision. I always consider the new painting I'm working on as my best and feel it brings me a step closer to understanding these early tribes of Florida.