An Interview with Charles

Conducted by Tony Elam, Master of Ceremonies, at ConSortium, Houston TX, June 30, 2001

Part 1 - Schooling & Background

Tony:  Did anything in your childhood help contribute to or influence your pursuit of art as a career?  If so, elaborate.

Charles:   As with many artists, I have no memory of starting to draw. It wasn’t really a choice I made. My mother says that as a baby I would draw on the walls with a red crayon, always red, before I could walk. I’d sit and scribble until I got caught, sometimes spanked though it didn’t stop me. My mother would then clean the walls with Stanley cleaner. The smell of Stanley cleaner is one of my first vivid memories. Anyway, this went on until Mom got tired of cleaning the walls and made sure I always had access to paper.

I didn’t think much about drawing until the first grade when I would sell drawings to schoolmates for a nickel. My first sale was a picture of a boat.

When I was a kid, drawing was seen as a waste of time by adults so I really didn’t get any help with it until the sixth grade, when a history teacher I had for an hour a day did everything she could to make excuses for me to draw and would often give me little lessons after school; most of them I still remember.

I’m really stubborn and I guess as much as anything, what kept me drawing when other kids stopped was that most adults I knew tried so hard to stop me. I was punished far more often than applauded for drawing as a kid, well into high school, though there it began to turn. By the time I was in high school, if I wasn’t at school, playing drums in the band or running around in the woods, I was drawing.

I first thought seriously about art as a career the day my band director said I had to choose between art and band. Within seconds, I was out the door.


Tony: When did you really recognize that you had artistic talent and decide to pursue its development?

Charles: By the time I was eight, I KNEW I was an artist (probably before that) and as time went by I looked for teachers wherever I could find ‘em. Working at a rug distributor at 15 a guy taught me a lot about drawing faces, some of which I still use. My high school art teacher left me alone to draw, he didn’t help, but I had an hour a day when I could draw without fear of punishment.


Tony: What schooling did you pursue (college, art classes/instruction, etc.) to enhance your artistic talents?

Charles: After high school, I had planned to go to New York to find schooling there, but got talked into college instead. After college, I had my degree, but still didn’t feel I had learned much if anything about how to draw and paint. Tracing was what was offered, the realists wanted you to trace, the abstract guys wanted you to … I dunno… think about painting. Once, I painted a burro walking up a hill and was told it was too illustrative. Whadda ya do?

Stubborn me, of course, refused to trace and thought the abstract guys used too many drugs.

After years of struggling in the dark, I finally went to New York, and found the National Academy of Design and Art Student’s League. It was at these schools that I learned what I do now.


Tony: Would you care to comment on the effectiveness of the art classes and instruction you have obtained?  Pros, cons, limitations, needs, etc.

Charles: I have never met any working artist that got much of anything about art technique from college; I include myself in that group. No one can teach art. What can be taught are the basics of materials, how to use them, some simple exercises of how to see beyond the details, to see with the mind’s eye. And some basic principles of the visual language that apply to all media, regardless of style or direction. None of this was ever presented to me in college. I was asked to find my own way (so why am I paying you?) without the corrupting influence of technique. Though when I finally saw a faculty show in my senior year show I saw red. They knew nothing I wanted.

Ah, but then I found artists not produced by “higher education” at the schools in New York and on the subway trip after my first class I realized that during the first three hours I spent with a teacher at National Academy, I had received more information about painting than in my entire college career. 

They say that those who can’t, teach. Well if you can’t do it you sure as shootin’ can’t teach it, particularly art. Art teachers should produce art, this keeps them developing as artists, which can only enhance their ability to teach. I think that at all colleges or any other schools that offer fine art classes, the teacher’s work should either be on display or access to slides of said work available. This way the students know up front whether the teacher has any understanding of what they propose to espouse. Also if a teacher only paints templated designs of pure primary colors, and the student wants to study the figure, that teacher may not be the one for you.


Tony: What role does the study of art and art history play in better educating and preparing an artist?   How does this make you better, if at all?

Charles: There is this notion that art is supposed to be totally original, totally the artist’s invention from top to bottom, like art is magic, or some kind of religion; and that’s bull! When you study dance, you learn to move like your teacher to begin understanding movement and your own body. Then, gaining understanding, eventually some dancers become choreographers and create their own vision of dance. In music, you learn others’ music until you develop the ability and confidence and hopefully the inspiration to make your own compositions. So it is with art. Finding artists you respect who are willing to advise you and critique your work is invaluable. Try to understand what they do and why, then chew on it awhile, try to get in their head to seek knowledge. Then decide what about it you need for your art and keep it for a while as you pursue advice from other artists.

Remember, art is a developing process, the more understanding of how paint works or how design can create movement, the more possibilities are available to the artist. Most artists I know continue to study other artists to see if they can gain even one more bit of understanding to apply to their art. From just prior to the Renaissance, through to now, an unbroken line of development which each succeeding generation builds on and alters; through study of past masters and the advice from living artists, art students (which I remain) can develop and continue the line towards the future.


Continue to Part 2...His Art and Process