- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

Allen “Big Al” Carter is mounting his first local solo show in 10 years, and exuberant paintings of strongly outlined faces and figures surround him at Anton Gallery in the Dupont Circle area. The exhibit, “Stick to Your Ribs:

New Work by Allen D. Carter,” opened yesterday. It is his first show at Anton in 12 years.

People had wondered what Mr. Carter was up to. It turns out he was “playing” with sticks ice cream and Popsicle sticks, Tinkertoy parts and dowels, and such sticks as those picked up by children for recreational use.

“I wanted to go back to my childhood and just have fun,” Mr. Carter, 54, says with a chuckle. “I use sticks to make space and create mysticism.”

He has used unconventional materials before, such as thumbtacks, fabric stains, Day-Glo paints, crayons, charcoals, Magic Markers, acrylics, woods and enamels, but the sticks are the most unorthodox.

His art is more than jollity. Gaunt, heavily outlined faces with huge eyes grab the viewer. The artist plants outsized hands on figures in the larger works. Pain exudes from many of these images. The fear and fragmentation of life in cities for black Americans are there, as well as the intermittent humor and fun. No specific portraits appear, however. “I create out of my head,” he says.

Most of the heads and figures represent blacks. “Stick Tight” is one. A charged web of lines defines the faces, hands and cups of water of the man and woman. Mr. Carter says he evokes his father and mother in the painting.

He remembers that his mother would go along on his father’s fishing trips. Both were ministers at the Golden Church of Prophecy in Gainesville, Va., a Prince William County town about 30 miles from Washington. They raised him and his siblings in Arlington.

His father was the first to call him Big Al, and the name stuck (Mr. Carter says he weighed 400 pounds at one time). An art teacher for 20 years with the Arlington County public schools’ alternative programs, Mr. Carter makes murals with his often difficult students.

“I have a special gift from God, and I want to enrich young people. My aim is to use art to heal,” Mr. Carter says. His feelings about what he considers his God-bestowed talent dominate his paintings.

The artist usually works from memory. The haunting central figure in “Cobbs Island Maryland With Sticks Frame” is a composite of his fishermen buddies. As with “Stick Tight,” he first builds up the painting support with vertical and horizontal dowel sticks. He makes areas like the prominent hand seem three dimensional by layering sticks outward.

He then slashes in lines to stabilize the composition. “I think about lines constantly. I use them to control the areas. The thicknesses of the lines vary from my experiences in printmaking, such as etching,” he says.

The frontally placed man in “Cobbs Island” typifies the artist’s using, and reusing, similar images. The recurrent motif of a man’s face with averted eyes appears in the 15 works of the exhibit. The face reminds viewers at once of African masks; Georges Rouault’s strongly outlined, stained glass heads; graffiti art; and cartoon caricatures. Yet the whole works well. The heads show raw emotions of sadness mixed with anger and regret.

“Cobbs” also shows the artist’s brilliant color sense. Emerald greens, sunny yellows, vibrant reds and cobalt blues define the fishermen. The artist’s treatment of the frame made entirely of sticks intrigues, as well. He first painted the sticks black, then pulled shiny acrylic enamel over the darker hue.

Fellow Anton Gallery artist and Catholic University art professor Tom Nakashima taught Mr. Carter in the 1970s at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. “Then, as now, Al is one of the most driven and prolific artists I know. He says he gets headaches if he doesn’t do art,” Mr. Nakashima says. “He’s also very consistent. One can recognize his style from when he was a college freshman to his expressive mode of today.”

The professor once asked Mr. Carter to teach one of his Catholic University classes. “His drawing is quite amazing. He knocked off a 6-foot-high-by-4-foot-wide drawing for one of my classes once,” the professor recalls.

Although Mr. Carter’s work may look primitive, it’s carefully constructed. Drawing is at its heart, the use of sticks as 3-D elements is what’s new in this show. He made “Line Stick 2” smaller to make the sticks seem more plastic. He decorated ice-cream sticks and placed them vertically and diagonally for greater illusionism. To interest the viewer, he used red and silver thumbtacks around the frame.

“I always drew as a kid,” Mr. Carter recalls. He says teachers would beat his hands in school when he drew.

Some of the murals he has created include the 40-foot-long “Community” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Student Union with students. He also made “Hugs Are Better Than Drugs” in 1998 at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond commissioned him to create a mural at West 12th Street and Semmes Avenue in 1993. The museum also organized the “Big Al Carter: Paintings and Works on Paper” show in Richmond the same year.

Mr. Carter, who is separated from his wife, is enormously proud of his daughters, Flora, a graduate of Hampton University in Virginia and a computer specialist, and Cecilia, a student at Hampton. He says he loves to cook the many fish he catches for them.

“Tom,” a humorous work, completes the Anton exhibit. “Tom” has the typical large head and sleepy eyes of Mr. Carter’s work. The artist says he made the painting completely from horizontal sticks, then coated it with shiny paints. The eyes connect with the viewer to balance the strong directional thrust of the sticks.

The painter topped the head with a “crazylike hat.” He likes hats, especially baseball ones, and added a joking note with the tilted chapeau.

WHAT: “Stick to Your Ribs: New Work by Allen D. Carter”

WHERE: Anton Gallery, 2108 R St. NW

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, through March 8


PHONE: 202/328-0828

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