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,

Lead image: A still from Robert C. Banks Jr.'s "Epic Stillness" and "Woman #9" by John W. Carlson.

HEDGE Gallery’s “Don’t Be Still” stirs emotions, spurs conversation about gender inequality

By Michael C. Butz

After watching several minutes of Robert C. Banks Jr.’s haunting film “Epic Stillness,” which depicts a woman nightmarishly contorting her body while donning a restrictive, eyeless white hood, on the far wall, one will turn around to face the rest of “Don’t Be Still,” HEDGE Gallery’s current exhibition.

John W. Carlson’s striking figurative paintings, capturing that same woman and about a dozen others wearing a little black dress and that same white hood, all motionless but expressing fear, despair and defenselessness through posture and positioning, will be looking back.

In that instant, surrounded by portrayals of anguish and pain, viewers will almost certainly realize they’re surrounded by such women — survivors of psychological or physical abuse and sufferers of institutionalized gender bias, many of whom mask their torment — in real life, too.

As one absorbs the totality of the artwork, personal questions will arise: Who in my life is affected by this? Do I fully understand the scope of this issue? What can I do? What can we do? Where should we start?

That dynamic represents just one powerful moment in an exhibition filled with them. The show is meant to evoke emotional reactions — and it shouldn’t be missed. “Don’t Be Still” is on view through April 27 at HEDGE Gallery, inside 78th Street Studios in Cleveland. An artist talk is scheduled for April 12 at the gallery.

A still from Robert C. Banks Jr.'s "Epic Stillness."

A still from Robert C. Banks Jr.’s “Epic Stillness.”

“Don’t Be Still” doesn’t seek definitive answers those questions, nor can it offer any solutions, but it certainly sparks conversation. The dialogue begins between Banks’ films, of which there are several, and Carlson’s oil paintings. Their interplay is palpable, clearly communicating the artists’ dissatisfaction with the status quo of misogyny.

The films are absent of color and jittery in nature, gritty effects that set the tone for the entire show. They require time to process and offer slightly different experiences depending on whether the viewer is watching up close or from across the gallery. Their cryptic nature and the models’ distressed gestures draw in the viewer, and in engaging with the films, viewers are rewarded with Banks’ masterful storytelling.

Carlson, ever adept at capturing the human condition in his artwork, is on top of his game in this show. Each work — black, white and gray with pink and red highlights — captures a moment of impact. Some are physical, like a last-second attempt to fend off an attacker or falling to the ground. Others are cognitive, like cowering in a corner when succumbing to defeat or holding one’s head in disbelief after coming to a painful realization.

The models are the same in Carlson’s paintings and Banks’ films, a dynamic that offers viewers a fuller perspective. In Carlson’s “Woman #3,” a model, Kai, is shown on the ground with her head lowered in defeat. In Banks’ film, the struggle that leads up to and follows that moment for Kai can be seen. Taking in the bigger picture challenges viewers to do the same in their day-to-day lives, when all too often, snap decisions are made during fleeting interactions.

The conversation continues via the female models depicted in the paintings and films, many of whom wrote impact statements about participating in “Don’t Be Still.” They’re posted next to the Carlson painting that represents them, lending female voices to a show about gender inequality largely produced by two men.

Carlson_Woman#4 "Woman #4" by John W. Carlson

“Woman #4” by John W. Carlson

Next to “Woman #5,” the model wrote, “I did not balk at putting the bag on my head, but neither John nor Robert know I am claustrophobic. When we took a break, I left, vomited, returned. I put the bag back on my head.” Her account suggests not only that she believed in the artists and the project, but more importantly, it offers viewers a glimpse into the type of physical and psychological pain endured by women subjected to abuse.

Serving to punctuate the conversation is a plaster cast of the suffocating white hood by Nico Pico Train.

Worn by the models in the films and paintings, the hood (akin to something a Medieval executioner’s target might wear) represents suppression — of voices, views or most anything else women endure on a day-to-day basis. The cast, however, isn’t worn or shown on anyone’s head, symbolic of the hood — and those hardships — being lifted. To suggest such suppression should be a thing of the past, the piece is titled “Relic.”

In addition to conversation, action is incorporated into “Don’t Be Still.” Ten percent of all proceeds from artwork sold at the show will be donated to the Douglas MacArthur Girls Leadership Academy, which is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. The academy aims to provide a rigorous academic program tailored to the way girls learn best as well as hold them accountable to high behavioral expectations designed to make them future leaders, according to its website.

Though “Don’t Be Still” was in the works for about two years — well before sexual harassment scandals in politics, journalism and entertainment started grabbing headlines — it unmistakably adds to the ongoing national dialogue spurred by the #MeToo movement. But it does more than that, too.

Where daily news reports fall short, this exhibition succeeds in personalizing these matters. It communicates complexities, adds nuance, and should spur some level of involvement. Whereas viewers are helpless to assist or aid the women in the artwork that surrounds them in the gallery, such is not the case in real life. In other words, whatever form it takes, don’t be still. CV

On View

WHAT: “Don’t Be Still”

WHO: Robert C. Banks Jr. and John W. Carlson

WHERE: HEDGE Gallery, 1300 W. 78th St., Suite 200, Cleveland

WHEN: Through April 27: the gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and on Third Friday (April 20) until 9 p.m.

PROGRAMMING: “Artist Talk with John Carlson and Robert Banks,” 6 to 7:30 p.m. April 12 at HEDGE Gallery

MORE: Read more about Carlson from a 2016 issue of Canvas.

Lead image: A still from Robert C. Banks Jr.’s “Epic Stillness” and “Woman #9” by John W. Carlson.

John W. Carlson holds his palette self-portrait standing inside his ArtCraft Building studio.

John W. Carlson’s art unveils a uniquely gestural and gripping world

Story by Carlo Wolff
Photography by Michael C. Butz

Carlson’s workspace, including some of his monoprints hanging on the wall.

Carlson’s workspace, including some of his monoprints hanging on the wall.

The walls of John W. Carlson’s studio in the ArtCraft Building in Cleveland pulse with life. There are pictures of folks Carlson has extracted from the media. Some canvases depict people he knows, his vigorous artistry transforming them into images more emblematic than realistic. There are haunting blacks-and-whites; there’s color, too, as Carlson emerges into happiness.

There’s a painting in progress in his central work area, its background orange, its foreground four women; one, skirted where the others wear pants, stands off to the side. It evokes a shattered Greek chorus. It strikes memorable, sadly provocative poses. It’s both recessive and in your face; that’s Carlson’s dynamic.

“I think of it as the definition of haiku, which is sudden awareness of beauty by the meeting of opposite or incongruous terms,” he says of his art. “It’s achieved through gesture,” he adds, sculpting the air with his hands.

“I’m all about the gesture, and I think within the gesture there’s an emotional component. One viewer might look at it as a dangerous gesture and take the emotional content with that, whereas another person might see it as a more benign gesture and respond to it with a different emotion.”

Carlson talks of “striking a match,” of “breaking a space” in his head. He aims to interrupt the viewer’s flow, demanding a new kind of engagement. Perhaps that’s why his paintings, dominated by the human shape, pop so strongly despite a purposeful lack of definition. They have the immediacy of a news bulletin, leaving interpretation up to the viewer.

“I don’t want them to walk away in the standard three seconds; I’d like them to be able to experience an emotion they may never have,” he says.

Carlson throttles the viewer through recontextualization, plundering what he sees on the street and what he screens and reads for images to embed in his paintings. It’s up to the viewer to answer the questions of identity and emotion that he raises.

He points to a painting called “In the Afternoon.” The man looks as if he has fallen off a bed or been abandoned on the street. His head has no facial features, a regular in Carlson’s work. Is he resting or dead? The somber, black-and-white painting suggests that “ambiguity” could be Carlson’s middle name.

“One of my collectors referred to one of my works as ‘beautifully disturbing,’ and that’s a loaded comment. I loved it,” Carlson says.

“To be disturbed doesn’t have to be, ‘Oh, I saw a baby on the railroad tracks.’ It doesn’t have to be this bad thing,” he continues. “A lot of words take on connotations more heavily toward one side than the other; like my poet friend said, ‘If I had to say the one word that encapsulates your work, I’d say tension.’ Ugliness can be beautiful, and tension isn’t always Excedrin headache No. 52. Tension keeps the viewer engaged.”

Garbage and guitars

“In the Afternoon,” 30x40 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

“In the Afternoon,” 30×40 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

The second oldest of five brothers, Carlson is the son of a former millwright at General Motors and a stay-at-home mother. His parents always encouraged his artistic ambitions, and small books about classical painters that a priest brought to the Carlson home in Ashtabula kindled young Carlson’s artistic flame.

“There was one on El Greco, one on Fra Angelico, Raphael,” he recalls. “I just pored over those books, visually memorized the paintings in them. They just had a huge (impact), like the striking of the match of me really wanting to make things like that. I don’t know how else to explain the significance, the joy I got from those books.”

Carlson, who cites influences such as Egon Schiele and Franz Kline, began his artistic career by studying a book on how to draw horses, creating work that drew on equestrian art by the French masters Edgar Degas and Theodore Gericault.

Carlson inhaled art daily in Catholic schools in Ashtabula, and then spent a year and a half studying at the long-defunct Cooper School of Art in Cleveland.

Meanwhile, as he pursued his gritty, figurative muse, he worked at jobs that allowed him to provide for his family.

“The lion’s share of my working career was working for the city of Ashtabula, first off as a garbage man, a job I thoroughly enjoyed,” he says. “I loved knowing where every street in the city was, I loved knowing that Mrs. Smith would always put a couple of bottles of beer next to the can for us.”

The camaraderie was great; so was coming across the occasional treasure, like old 78-rpm records. But in the mid-’80s, tired of having to bend over every five or six yards, Carlson went to work in the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Life was tricky for a man balancing domestic responsibilities with boundless creative drive. Turns out painting isn’t Carlson’s only artistic talent. He’s a rock ’n’ roller.

Between 1976 and 1987, Carlson, who looks like he stepped off a new wave album cover, played guitar in bands such as Wildlife, The F-100s, Bridgestreet and the Execs; the last even recorded an EP at Kirk Yano’s After Hours Studios.

Carlson did no painting during that span, though he designed some band posters. He still picks up the guitar every day. But he never made the leap to a musical career because that “would have required me to quit my job,” he says.

“I knew in my heart of hearts if you really want to be like the bands you want to emulate, you have to go on the road and put all your energies into it. You don’t do that with a 9-to-5 job.”

Or while you’re raising a family, including two boys from the second of his three marriages. One, Ryan, lost his life to drugs five years ago. Ryan was 26. “My Grief,” a powerful oil-and-charcoal self-portrait he produced two years ago that now rests atop a bookcase in his studio, attests to the depth of Carlson’s sadness.

Art had to wait until it was all he had – and wanted – to do.

That time came in 2005, when having earned enough to retire early, Carlson embarked on his second, profoundly artistic career.

Contemporary Carlson

“Little One,” 36x28 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

“Little One,” 36×28 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

Today, the 61-year-old Carlson lives in Lakewood, and one of his works – a charcoal drawing entitled “Viewpoint” – lives at the Erie Art Museum as part of its permanent collection.

Several works are at home in his studio. “Car,” an oil painting of a round-shouldered 1940s automobile, looks like it’s about to be consumed by fire. “Rescue” depicts a girl, hair wild and expression despairing, pushing through a kind of yellow storm. With full frontal foreground and suggestive background, Carlson’s paintings, which sell for $250 to $4,500, grip. That’s his intent.

Works in progress are at the heart of his studio space. There’s also a kind of anteroom with a sofa where this jazz lover with the rock ’n’ roll hair can groove to Yusef Lateef, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.

Carlson reserves the long, narrow part of his Cleveland workplace for scores of paintings he’s made in the past decade-plus, slotted into bins against the wall. They speak to his prolificacy, work ethic and a love of art.

“John was the first nonphotographic/fine art artist who has exhibited at the Print Room,” says Shari Wilkins, owner of the Cleveland Print Room, a workshop and exhibition space dedicated to analog photography that neighbors Carlson’s studio in the ArtCraft Building. “I liked John’s work from the start because of its ability to evoke emotion along with an expression of cinematic quality that I appreciate.”

Carlson’s work, interwoven with Wilkins’ vernacular photography (or “found photography”) was displayed in the Print Room’s “Destruction of Form” show in July 2015. Those works also were on view earlier this year at BAYarts in Bay Village, at which Carlson teaches art courses.

Carlson also teaches at Valley Art Center, and recently opened the doors to his studio for a public tour, suggesting he’s as welcoming to artistic newcomers as fellow artists in Cleveland were to him when he emigrated from Ashtabula.

“I felt welcomed when I first arrived here 10 years ago. I mean, warmly welcomed,” he says. “It was time to be a little fish in a big pond. I was a big deal in Ashtabula, as far as that goes. They picked one of my pieces to be the cover of the Ashtabula County Visitors’ Guide.”

Now, Carlson eyes an even bigger pond: New York City.

In late March, one of his drawings, “Struggle,” was on view at Trygve Lie Gallery in NYC. It was part of the 2016 #TwitterArtExhibit, a show involving various artists and mixed media that showcases postcard art and benefits Foster Pride’s “Handmade” Program, which supports the creativity of young women in foster care.

Carlson uses such Big Apple opportunities to network. He considers a full-on New York showing of his work – as yet unrealized – the ultimate goal.

“That’s the holy grail.” CV

On view

“Point of View,” featuring new works by John W. Carlson, Sarah Curry, Brian Mouhlas and Douglas Max Utter, will be on view from July 15 through Sept. 16 at HEDGE Gallery, which represents Carlson, at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland. A solo Carlson show is scheduled for May 2017 at the Massillon Museum of Art.

 Lead image: John W. Carlson holds his palette self-portrait standing inside his ArtCraft Building studio.