The late artist continues to nourish creative community

By Amanda Koehn

John Carlson | Photo / Chad Cochran

The reflections on grief, emotional detail and introspection chronicled in the art of John W. Carlson are forever etched into the Northeast Ohio artistic community. 

Standing out in the local creative scene, he stunned with his rare combination of skill, personal depth and his approachable, compassionate nature. 

When Carlson, 66, died of an abdominal aneurysm on Dec. 20, 2020, he left behind a world inside his studio and beyond. Piles of sketchbooks, a fledgling art movement and new, vibrant paintings were among the aspects of his life and practice that continue to invoke powerful emotions. 

Now, those close to him are ensuring his legacy of creating art that delved deep into feelings and self-discovery – and helped others develop more moving and personal work – will remain prominent both locally and beyond. 

“I think John’s life is an example of how we can be together as artists in this community, in our friendships with each other, in how we engage with each other, and in how we invite and nurture and nourish each other’s work,” says M. Carmen Lane, a friend of Carlson’s and local artist, writer and director of ATNSC: Center for Healing & Creative Leadership. “I think that’s the potential for John’s legacy, if we invite that in.”

An Ashtabula native, Carlson became well-known in his hometown as a skilled painter and musician during his early life and career. Working a day job as a “trash man” – the term he preferred, Lane says –  intimately influenced his artistic lens. 

“He said he got his MFA on a garbage truck,” Lane says. “… But his relationships were physical and kinesthetic, and connected by having a shared experience of picking up objects from people’s lives, tracking what people threw away, what people held onto, how people cared for things.”

“Dark Was The Night” (2019) by John W. Carlson. Oil, charcoal and fabric on canvas. | Photo / John W. Carlson Studio

After retiring in 2005, Carlson pursued art with his newly free time. He moved to Cleveland. And in 2013, he got a studio in the ArtCraft Building. Next door was the Cleveland Print Room and its executive director, Shari Wilkins, who became his friend and later his partner. 

When he passed away – the same year he first showed some of his most striking, vivid work – they resided in Lakewood.

“I would say he was always really pleased with what he was doing at the time he was doing it,” Wilkins says of her partner. “He was working, he was happy and he was trying to pull everything together for the show or the series that he was doing. But I would say the most meaningful work that I think he has done has been in the last two to three years because I think it has a lot to do with his personal growth.” 

In full color

Carlson’s presence in the creative community in Cleveland, both showing interest in other artists’ work and welcoming critiques of his own, was part of the reason Hilary D. Gent wanted her HEDGE Gallery to represent him. And, she says her friend was “extremely productive as an artist.” 

“I also noticed it was much more personal than some of the other artists I had shown in the past,” she says, adding his work is deeply psychological.

Gent points to Carlson’s artistic progression over the years she worked with him. Earlier on from around 2013 to 2016, his work took on a mostly black, white and gray neutral palette. “His body of work over those three years I thought was absolutely beautiful,” she says.

“The Afternoon” (2015) by John W. Carlson. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 30 × 40 inches. | Photo / John W. Carlson Studio

Then, she started seeing more color in his work, culminating with the “Blues” exhibition that first showed at HEDGE in the 78th Street Studios in Cleveland in early 2020. “Blues” explores Carlson’s personal and spiritual connection to blues music, and reflects his decade-long journey grieving the death of his son, Ryan. 

“The last show we had together, it almost makes me cry to say that, but it was extremely powerful because it was in full color,” Gent says. “I don’t know that it would have been as powerful a body of work had it not been. John was weeding through personal trauma on an emotional level, and his work was going through that process with him. I think when he was really able to come face-to-face with his own personal grief and also identify with others’ grief, the full color really came out.”

The path to the exhibit and Carlson’s self-discovery included a drive to Nebraska to see the house where Ryan passed away due to a drug overdose. He also visited the Mississippi Delta Region to experience the place where blues music was born. “I had to smell the river, I had to hear those insects and smell the dirt, and feel the humidity to really put myself in that place,” he said during a gallery talk March 5, 2020. “… And goddamn, it was hot.”

The series is bright, soulful and pained. Incorporating materials like Mississippi cotton and gingham on a woman’s dress, it transports viewers to a specific time and place, but a feeling all one’s own. The piece “Nebraska,” created in 2020, consists of three canvases on top of one another, connected to prairie grass at the top. It reflects on how visiting Nebraska changed him and signified the end of the blues journey.  

“Griot” (2019) by John W. Carlson. Oil and charcoal on canvas. | Photo / John W. Carlson Studio

“I went through 10 years of that blackness and I came out there,” he said during the artist talk, referring to the top canvas painted mostly white.

Lane, a confidant to Carlson during his creation of the exhibit, says blues music was a “container John used to mediate his grieving process.” 

“The Blues series is particular, it’s distinctive in his practice. It really represents I think a place in his process where he integrated all of his kinds of experience and practice and love into that series,” Lane says. 

Wilkins adds, “His Blues series is a favorite of mine. It is complete, beautiful and haunting.”

American Emotionalism

In 2015, Wilkins and Carlson developed a joint show, “Destruction of Form,” which led to discussions about their shared value that their art have an emotional impact on both the creators and the viewers who interact with it. 

“We were curious how it would be to make artwork that would elicit responses that kind of covered the whole span of the human emotional landscape,” says Wilkins, a photographer. “Then, not labeling the emotions positive or negative. A lot of it was based on kind of examining the intensity of the emotions.”

Slowly, the American Emotionalism movement founded by the pair took hold. Carlson detailed its tenets in a hand-written manifesto, which explains that art should be profound and passionate, eliciting emotions and feelings in the viewer – some of which they may never have experienced before. Also, work should aim to build a “better society instead of solely entertaining the viewer.” 

“Most essential is the ‘depth of sensation’ that the artist delivers to the audience (viewers),” he wrote.

Although the movement started in 2016, Wilkins says its formation was organic and they didn’t necessarily recruit artists to it at the time. American Emotionalism has progressed over the years though, with five artists now loosely affiliated with it. Looking forward, Wilkins says the movement is an important part of Carlson’s legacy and she plans to further it.

Shari Wilkins and John W. Carlson. | Photo / Aimee Tapajna McNamee

Continuing Carlson

Two notes penned by Carlson sit on Gent’s desk – one encouraging and congratulating her on her business’ 10 years, and a handmade Christmas card he sent her just before he passed away. 

A friend to many, his humor and compassion brought out the best in his friends and colleagues. 

“John is probably one of the most open people that I’ve ever met in my life because he has a curiosity that is both poetic and filled with humor,” Lane says.

To help preserve and promote Carlson’s work, HEDGE, along with Wilkins, is fundraising to archive his art. Gent and the gallery have also begun the cataloging process, which entails photographing his many pieces – with the help of photographer Aireonna McCall – writing the corresponding title, year, measurements and materials used, and noting exhibits the pieces were shown in and any owners.

“These are all very important details, especially if John’s work ends up in any museum or other significant collections,” Gent says.

The cataloging process also serves a more immediate interest: a Carlson retrospective is to show at HEDGE and ARTneo, also within the 78th Street Studios building, in early 2022. 

The Massillon Museum is also planning a retrospective in 2023, which Wilkins says will be in the main part of the museum and afford a large amount of space. The American Emotionalism movement will be a theme for that exhibit.  

“Nebraska” (2020) by John W. Carlson. Oil, sticks, prairie grass and newsprint on canvas. | Photo / John W. Carlson Studio

Carlson’s legacy also continues through the three organs he donated upon his death, Wilkins explains.

“I would say that’s John – completely,” she says, adding she received a letter from one of the recipients. “These three people now lived because he gave them his organs.” 

Carlson will also be remembered through the music he played, which he passed along to family and friends. He also taught art, including at the Cleveland Print Room and BAYarts. When he passed away, an outpouring of support came to Wilkins from former students, she says. 

Wilkins also estimates Carlson may have been the most photographed artist in Cleveland. He was often surrounded by photographers at the Print Room – and his naturally cool look didn’t hurt in terms of others wanting to capture him via portrait. To that end, she hopes to display some of those photos in an upcoming exhibit, too. 

John W. Carlson plays music for Shari Wilkin’s grandson, Silver Cairo Severovich. | Photo / Shari Wilkins

Enlivening artistic practice

The news of Carlson’s death locally also allowed people to share both what they loved about his work as well as reflect on his life story and commitment to his artistic practice, Lane says. Because Carlson was so present within his work, it in itself invites viewers to ask questions about what it means to be a feeling human and to be in relationship with others in the community. How can local artists truly see one another and foster each other’s work? 

To that end, in honor of Carlson, Lane renamed ATNSC’s Carlson/Brantley Residency for socially engaged artists, writers and change agents. A la Carlson, the fellowship gives residents an opportunity to develop themselves with resources provided by ATNSC, an artist-run urban gathering space in the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood to facilitate healing and creative leadership. 

“If you were to go to his studio today, right now, you would know how alive it feels inside of it,” Lane says. “… Many artists have been denied the ability to have a practice, or have denied themselves the possibility and potentiality of having a practice. I wanted to name this residency in honor of someone who deliberately and intentionally created that for themselves, and to support that for myself and others.”

The themes of loss, spirituality, self-reflection and tension that mark Carlson’s style aren’t foreign to many, especially over this past year of isolation and tragedy amid the pandemic. His meditations on the self and the world around him continue to impact onlookers when many are seeking a sense of peace, or looking to sit with one’s grief and painful experiences in the rare way that he found during his final stretch of life.  

“John is reflective in a way that shows how much interwork he has not just become aware of, but was able to integrate and make peace with in his life,” Lane says. “I think that’s an important quality to understand about John is that he did the human work of being human – not just as an artist, but in the totality of what it means to be human. So although his death was unexpected and disrupted so many people’s lives who were connected to him, in reflection, I cannot say he didn’t complete himself.” 

To learn more about the GoFundMe account to preserve Carlson’s work,