Correction to This Article
An article in today's Magazine, which was printed in advance, incorrectly identified Deborah Velders, director of the Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, N.C., as a curator.

Living Color

By Mary Battiata
Sunday, May 21, 2006

"Yo! Put the phone up -- I said put that phone up!" Allen Carter is sitting in the front of his classroom and calling to the back, where a favorite student has a cell phone cemented to his ear. "You know you not supposed to have that thing on in here."

"But, Al," the boy says.

"No buts," Carter replies. "This is a time for art!"

The boy pulls the phone away from his blond dreadlocks. The classroom of Allen D. Carter, the artist otherwise known as Big Al, Al, or just plain Big, is now in session.

Carter sits behind a long wooden table littered with curls of drying clay, plastic wrap and the gray forms of several half-finished student works -- a fish, a gnome and two teddy bears.

A second student, Veronica, a quiet 19-year-old and a new mother, sits beside Carter, smoothing one of the teddy bear's sides with a wooden tool. The bear is for her daughter. Once the sculpting is finished, she will need to paint it before firing it in the kiln.

"Big," she says, "I heard that if you mix all the colors together, you get black. Is that true?"

"Nah, not really," Carter answers, and then raises his voice so the whole class can hear. This is an opportunity for a lesson about color theory, but, like most of the information and ideas Carter unleashes in his Arlington classroom, it will also contain a lesson about life and, along the way, a brush stroke of self-portrait.

"Listen up," he says. That all-colors-equal-black thing is a myth. The truth is, if you mix all the colors together, what you get is a kind of deep, rich brown. His color, he adds. "Look, look," he says: "People ask me: 'What are you? Who are you? Are you black, are you white, are you Indian? Are you a printer, are you a painter? What are you?' And I say: 'I'm a burnt-umber man. I'm the burnt-umber artist.'" At this, Carter emits a huge, window-rattling groan of a laugh. His students, by mid-semester accustomed to this kind of eruption, look simultaneously impressed and inspired by this sound. Burnt umber. The color from the crayon box. Exactly.

This description, with its skillful sidestepping of the question of racial identity -- is a kind of statement of mission. In 30 years, Carter has produced housefuls of paintings, prints and sculpture but has resisted the conventional corridors of success in order to go his own way, to the frustration of his former dealer, his collectors and other admirers. Despite this, he is not unknown. The Corcoran Gallery of Art has two Allen Carters in its collection. In 1985, he was nominated by a Washington curator to the Sao Paolo Biennial, a large and prestigious international art show.

For 25 years, he has shown his art as far away as Richmond, Georgia and the Carolinas, but never in New York City, the great, career-making capital of the American art world. Instead, to make ends meet, he has taught art for more than two decades in Arlington County public schools. Monday through Friday, he shuttles among three centers for continuing education (one a renovated former funeral home), working with students who fell between the cracks in regular high school and want a second chance at a high school diploma. He starts teaching at 8 a.m., quits at about 3:30, drives home for an egg sandwich or some Chinese takeout, naps if he can, and then descends to his basement studio, where his second workday begins. With his jazz or blues records and CDs playing, and sometimes taking breaks to play along on cornet, he works -- sketching, painting, carving and etching. Very often he stays up all night, then showers, drives to school at about 6 a.m. and, once there, naps in the driver's seat of his Ford van until the school day begins.

He is a particular type of Washington artist, someone who was understood by peers to have the promise to make it in New York, but who for one reason or another -- temperament, taste, fear, arrogance or some combination -- decided to stay here and fashion a different, quieter career and life. Now, on the eve of another regional show -- in Wilmington, N.C., where he will be part of an exhibition of five African American artists, including master painter and collage maker Romare Bearden -- Carter, 58, is busy sifting through decades of work.

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