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August 5, 2002

Portrait of the artist

By Eric Rangus

More than two decades after his retirement, Morris Tager, chair of the microbiology department from 1951–78, still looks in on the department he once led.

A portrait of him does, anyway.

Centered on one wall of the departmental conference room on the third floor of the Rollins Research Center is a painting of Tager that was commissioned upon the completion of his 25-plus years as chair. The man who painted the portrait, Lamar Bryant, works just down the hall in the microbiology lab.

A senior lab technician, Bryant painted his first picture when he was 5 years old. That painting—of a school bus—won him first prize in a community-sponsored art contest in his then-home of West Palm Beach, Fla. He beat out some children twice his age.

In the years since, Bryant has produced hundreds of paintings—some of which hang in some very impressive homes—and he is now embarking in a new direction with a new style he says is unique in the art world. That journey will begin next week with a show right here at Emory.

Bryant’s work as an artist first came to the attention of his department in the summer of 1978. He finished second in a national medical art competition, sponsored by the American Medical Student Association, for his illustration, “Nail Invasion.” Bryant earned $150, a plaque and some new fans.

After graduating from Paine College in Augusta with a biology degree (he painted portraits to help pay the bills), Bryant worked for a year as a medical illustrator at Georgia State University. He then joined the Emory microbiology lab in 1977.

While word of Bryant’s artistic proficiency got around campus—resulting in a few requests for portraits—he hadn’t painted anyone in his own department. Following the AMSA art competition (and after having his photo published in the Campus Report, precursor to Emory Report), departmental leaders signed him up to paint a portrait of the retiring director.

“That’s when the commissions started rolling in,” Bryant says.

When Tager saw his portrait, he loved it. It soon became a permanent part of the department.

Bryant estimates he has painted more than 600 portraits. Some are of Emory leaders, like Bob Ethridge, vice president for Equal Opportunity Programs. Others are friends from the medical school, like microbiology Professor Linda Gooding and John Thompson, professor of obstetrics/gynecology emeritus.

Outside Emory, his subjects are nothing short of impressive. Bryant did a portrait of Maynard Jackson while he was serving as Atlanta’s first African American mayor, and 10 years ago boxer Evander Holyfield commissioned a Bryant portrait that now hangs in the former heavyweight champion’s multimillion-dollar mansion.

Bryant uses a very realistic style in much of his work. The details are so lifelike that, from a distance of only about 15 feet, his paintings can resemble photographs. Despite that proficiency, he longed to try something different.

“About 10 years ago, I decided that if I could just paint the most beautiful painting I’d ever done in this style—the realist style—I would try another one,” Bryant says.

Bryant completed that “most beautiful painting” in 1998. Its title is “Shades of Beauty and Peaches, Too.” A print of the work, which features three former Emory students and was painted using a campus background, hangs not only in the microbiology main office but in several other offices on campus. The original, which Bryant keeps, is being considered for display at Hartsfield International Airport.

With the completion of that painting, Bryant decided the time had come to test himself stylistically. He tried several genres, but didn’t feel moved by what he was doing. But one interrupted evening changed everything.

About two-and-a-half years ago, Bryant awoke in the middle of the night. In the blackness he saw images. Different objects in the room. Silhouettes only.

“That’s when it clicked,” he says. “Shadism. Taking one image—one color—and shading that color into a three-dimensional form.”

“Shadism” (pronounced with a long a) is a term Bryant invented. It’s not abstract, but it is far from the realistic style Bryant has used throughout his career. Bryant chose sports as his subject matter because of its inherent motion. The figure pictured on his current work,“The Fumble,” is a scene from a football game.

Bryant is very guarded about his latest work, which no one has seen. The showing at Emory will be the first time the piece has ventured outside his studio.

From Sept. 2–6, the painting will be on display in the Rollins Building’s third-floor common area next to the elevator. From there it will begin a tour of several Atlanta-area art galleries, and Bryant is negotiating with other galleries around the country to show the work.

Bryant hopes the community comes out and supports him. While his new painting isn’t for sale, Bryant says he is looking forward to taking commissions for future shadism pieces. The client would pick the sport, size and color, then Bryant would do the rest.

Art is not the only outlet for Bryant’s creativity. Three months from now, Bryant expects to finish the manuscript of his first book, The Real Truth. A devout Christian, Bryant’s book is a commentary on Biblical teachings in a multitude of areas: Justice, sin, forgiveness and predestination are just a few of the things Bryant explores.

Bryant, who has studied the Bible all his life, was motivated to write The Real Truth after watching Christian-themed television shows, listening to Christian radio programming and finding that the dialogue in the popular culture and his personal thoughts were often on different pages.

“I want to put my interpretation of my belief out there for the world to see and to know,” Bryant says. As yet, there isn’t a timetable for the book’s release. Bryant has met with publishers and is negotiating a deal.

But Bryant’s writing career is merely a hobby compared with his other vocations. “In another five years, I might just retire and [paint] full time,” Bryant says. “It’s what I love.”

Not that leaving the University would be easy. With more than 25 years as an Emory employee under his belt, Bryant’s ties to the University are pretty strong. His son, Lamar Jr., graduated summa cum laude from Emory College in 1998 with a degree in psychology. Daughter Nekeya will start nursing school in 2003.

Both are artists, as well. Lamar Jr.—a painter like his father—had a one-man show on campus his freshman year. Nekeya, who works primarily in colored pencil, will probably follow suit when she becomes a student.

None of the Bryants have had formal art training, but there is no question that the talent and work ethic (Bryant paints about 30 hours a week) is there.

“It’s a gift from God,” Lamar Sr. says.