CLEVELAND, Ohio — On the first floor of Cleveland’s ArtCraft building, all the tools of an artist — cans of paint, jars of used brushes, canvases and sketchpads — are placed on the floor and tables in a long studio. Wooden shelves hold up decades’ worth of work: paintings, sketches, drawings and photographs.
That work was left behind when John W. Carlson suddenly died on Dec. 20, 2020, due to an abdominal aneurysm. He was 66.
The art in Carlson’s studio reflects the Cleveland artist’s whole life in images of joy, laughter, grief and pain.
Early landscape paintings of Carlson’s hometown of Ashtabula are filed away with some of his more recent work, including paintings in his acclaimed “Blues” series. Hanging on the studio’s walls are striking self-portraits, along with paintings of his partner, Shari Wilkins, her daughter Helen Severovich and her grandson Silver Severovich.
A large painting shows a dying woman surrounded by family — a depiction of Carlson’s mother’s last moments. Sketches and paintings of a father and son embracing appear in various formats around the room: Carlson and his son Ryan, who died of a drug overdose a decade ago.
Small sketches, as tiny as a handprint, are stacked on tables. Others take up more space — a painting titled “1,000 Miles From Nowhere” fills an entire back wall, transforming it into a landscape with a single path headed past a muddy field of tufted cotton stems affixed to the canvas.
In his notes, Carlson wrote about his artwork extensively. Wilkins shared one of his notes: “Ultimately my intention is to make viewers aware of their existence and how they fit into the collective experience that is life, where they came from, why they’re here and what it means to be human.”
Among his finished masterpieces are also Carlson’s unfinished pieces. An almost-completed painting of a young boy with a cat on his shoulder, bits of dried orange peel taped to the base. A portrait of a friend. Sketches, used to plan future designs.
The artist had accelerated in recent years, putting out new work often and developing new styles under his and Wilkins’ “American Emotionalism” art movement.
He wasn’t finished. He had just found his stride.
“There are a lot of stories yet to be told through his work, and there’s a lot of it,” said Alex Coon, the executive director of the Massillon Museum and friend of Carlson’s. “We had our eyes on John, we knew he was headed for bigger and better things and that his artwork could resonate, beyond Northeast Ohio. It really has a universal communication about it.”
Coon and the Massillon Museum team purchased a piece by Carlson following his solo show in the space in 2017. “Visitation” is now in the institution’s permanent collection. The museum is also planning for a show dedicated to Carlson’s work and American Emotionalism slated for 2023.
Carlson garnered attention around the country. In 2019, his work was featured in a nationally juried exhibit in New York City. The Erie Art Museum holds Carlson’s work in its permanent collection. In 2018, he earned the Best in Show award at “The New Now” by Artists Archive of the Western Reserve and won Best in Show at the 2019 Ohio Annual at the Zanesville Museum.
Locally, the artist was a respected fixture in Cleveland’s art scene.
He developed his own style over the years, pursuing a passion he’d held since growing up in Ashtabula — one of six brothers in his family. Besides one year at Cleveland’s now-defunct Cooper School of Art, Carlson never had any formal training; instead, he said he “got his BFA being a garbageman” for a few years, according to Wilkins.
Through his work and his personality, Carlson ultimately made an impression on many of the artists he met.
“I thought he was very good and I thought he was also getting better, and I wish he had had more time,” said Douglas Utter, an artist and friend of Carlson’s. “He was very fond of my art. I am very flattered that he was. I grew to be very fond of him and his work as well.”
Among Carlson’s unfinished pieces is a portrait of Utter that Carlson had been working on, as a part of a portrait exchange project run by Scott Kraynak.
Carlson was a friend, a mentor and a collaborator to many members of Cleveland’s artist community. Some artists got to know him through his classes taught at BayArts and local community centers. Others first knew Carlson from his studio.
“The painter next to the Print Room”
Wilkins first met Carlson in 2013 as the director of the Cleveland Print Room, when she found a home for the organization in the ArtCraft building, located at 2550 Superior Avenue. At the time, Wilkins was kicking off the nonprofit organization which hosts exhibitions and offers educational programs and affordable darkroom access for local photographers. Soon after, Carlson rented out a studio space next door, just a few steps away.
At first, Wilkins knew the artist as “the painter next to the Print Room.”
Carlson often attended Cleveland Print Room shows and invited guests into his studio afterward. Soon, Wilkins and Carlson became friends and collaborators, creating their first project together in 2015. It was a combination of Wilkins’ photographs and Carlson’s paintings titled “Destruction of Form.”
That same year, the two started dating. In 2019 the pair had a commitment ceremony in honor of their relationship. (“After having some marriages between us, we liked this idea more,” Wilkins said.)
The partners continued to collaborate, and in 2016 developed “American Emotionalism” to describe their approach to artwork: profound, passionate, emotive. In a manifesto that Carlson wrote to outline the movement, he said he hoped that their work could “elicit emotions and feelings in the viewer, some of which they may have never experienced before.”
Wilkins and Carlson were fond of traveling, meeting new friends in new cities, states and countries. Always interested in stories, Wilkins said that Carlson had a knack for listening to others’ tales and empathizing with experiences of loss.
“He believed that life experiences informed your view of the world,” Wilkins said. “He had his experience, which was his life, and that’s what informs the way he created his work, and the way in which he lived, and also the way in which he celebrated what mattered to him. He called the space that he inhabited ‘the moments between minutes.’”
Carlson aimed to fill those moments with memories. He and Wilkins often went on adventures, kayaking in the Scottish highlands and hopping in the car to go on road trips in the American South.
Last year, Wilkins and Carlson traveled to Nebraska to see the house where Carlson’s son Ryan died.
The trip, Wilkins said, helped Carlson manage his grief. That grief is tangible, profound in Carlson’s work produced in the last decade of his life.
Healing with the blues
One of Carlson’s most accomplished exhibitions, “Blues,” opened at Hedge Gallery in early 2020. The series of paintings was inspired by the painful history of blues music and its connections to slavery in America. The collection features vignettes of African American figures singing the blues, laying in a field, floating on a raft. It also incorporates song drawings, where Carlson scribbled abstract shapes inspired directly by one blues song.
Nestled in the collection is a self-portrait, a black-and-white painting of Carlson’s face, in an agonized expression. “My Grief” was created in 2010 — the same year that Ryan died.
The entire “Blues” project was inspired by Carlson’s son’s death. To get through the pain, he connected with blues music, crafting artwork around the genre.
In an artist statement for the exhibition, Carlson wrote: “Blues music allowed me to grieve the death of my son in a very personal way. Through this music I felt I was given permission to moan and weep but also to embrace this burden and finally lay it down… The Blues is that place in the soul and space in the heart where the stories of survival, love, loss, joy and desperation come from. In a sense, that is where the subject matter and dialogue in this most recent work has been derived.”
Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye, photographer and collaborator of Carlson’s, put together written content for the exhibition. He and Carlson first connected over their love of music, often listening to Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis CDs in Carlson’s studio, with Carlson occasionally breaking out his guitar to perform a bit of music himself. (He had played the guitar since he was 17 years old and performed in some past rock bands, Wilkins said.)
Carlson performed blues guitar at an artist talk for his “Blues” painting exhibition with singer Kerry Davis, weaving together his music and painting talents in one space.
Roye remembered a conversation with Carlson, about Ryan and blues music: “He said, ‘When I looked around when I listened to the music, the pain I saw reflected the pain inside me. Nothing else in the world did, nothing at all… It looked like my son. That’s why when I started to draw or paint my son, it came out as blues.’”
Roye, who focuses his work on presenting American Black culture in authentic ways, said he respected and understood Carlson’s inclusion of Black Americans in his work. The two often had conversations about race and current events.
“John’s work always balanced the Black consciousness with looking at the world with human eyes, not just Blackness,” Roye said. “Our collaboration, our friendship, was born out of a mutual respect for how we see the world, how we view the world, and how we live in it.”
As Carlson continued to paint, he became more interested in creating socially engaged art, Wilkins noted. His work gradually took on more political meaning, connecting with current events.
“He was trying to be more, leave more, add more, give more,” Roye said.
Keeping a legacy intact
Carlson’s loved ones are ensuring that his paintings are shown for years to come.
Wilkins aims to keep his story going, preserving his artwork and cataloging it for future shows. She already has three shows scheduled for Carlson’s work. Art by Wilkins, Carlson and Roye is on display in a virtual exhibition by Fava Gallery through March 28. Hedge plans to showcase Carlson’s work in 2022, and the Massillon Museum will do the same in 2023. Wilkins also wants to publish a book to showcase Carlson’s paintings.
A GoFundMe, set up by Hedge Gallery owner Hilary Gent and Wilkins, will raise money to ensure Carlson’s artwork will be preserved and recognized. Donations to the fundraiser can be made at gofundme.com/f/help-preserve-john-w-carlsons-artistic-legacy.
“It’s really important to get his work out there,” Wilkins said. “There’s so much of it and so much of it, I think, is amazing.”
Though Carlson’s life was cut short, his art will continue to have an impact in one of the most fundamental ways: making us feel.
The artist said it best in his own journal entry:
“My interest lies in the use of the figure as a conveyor of emotional experiences… I hope the individual will develop, interpret, and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience. Time, emotion and the archaeology of a painting. The layers of our experience. Seeing with emotion.”
Credit: Source link