Post Magazine: Living Color
Monday, May 22, 2006; 12:00 PM
Allen D. Carter is a big talent, admirers say, but his art hasn'tgarnered half the attention it deserves. That may be just the way Big Al likes it.
Mary Battiata, whose story about Carter and the local art world he inhabits appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine is online Monday, May 22, at Noon ET , to field questions and comments.
Mary Battiata is a Magazine staff writer.
Upper Marlboro, Md: Thank you so much for your cover story on local arts! We need more stories like these of the interesting characters that give life to our city.
Can we PLEASE have the name of the museum in North Carolina where Big Al Carter will be featured in an art show? We want to go see the show!
Mary Battiata: I know, I want to see it, too.
It is the Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum (sometimes known just as the Cameron), in Wilmington NC.
Rockville, Md: How much of Carter's income comes from selling his art? Also, how much would you estimate his collection is worth if sold?
Mary Battiata: The answers to those questions are,
1. Not the major part.
2. I have no idea.
3. Why do you ask?
Milton, Del: I don't really have a question for Big Al but I wanted to send my regards to him. In the 80's Big Al worked at DCART/WORKS during the summer, painting murals around DC with kids from the Mayors Summer Youth Employment Program. I think he did 3 of them and each of the finished murals were not only bold and exciting, he was a magical and wonderful influence on the youth who painted with him. He took bland walls in broken down neighborhoods and over the course of the summer turned them into a living statement of color. Big Al's murals were so terrific, and so is Al. I often wondered what happened to him and was so pleased with your article. I don't know if Big Al will remember me, but I remember him with much fondness.
Mary Battiata: I'll be printing this online colloquy out after we're done today and sending it to Al.
Mary Battiata: His murals are great, it's true. I've only seen them in photographs.
McLean, Va: Hi Mary,
Seeing Big Al on the cover of the magazine made me smile. I remember back in the late 70s and early 80s, when I used to work out at Thomas Jefferson Community Center in Arlington, Big Al would make regular appearances at the weight machines. The rest of us would struggle with 100-175 pounds on the overhead press machine. When it was his turn, Big Al would plug in the key at the bottom of the weight stack, take two or three huge "CHOO-CHOO-CHOO" Thomas the Tank Engine breaths, and proceed to lift the entire weight stack.
It wasn't Big Al's size or strength that made him so memorable. It was the size and force or his personality. I'm sure there are at least as many Big Al stories as there people who have known him.
I often thought about buying some of his art, but at that time I was in the same boat as Al: not much money. Seeing the pictures in the magazine and online made me think.....
I lost contact with him after I moved to Fairfax in the 80s. How would I contact Big Al? Through Langston?
Mary Battiata: Ha! That's a great story. One of his artist colleagues told me that Al was really fast on the basketball court and could stop on a dime. Surprising for a guy who is so Big.
Re contacting Al: Langston is one way to contact him, and you can also, for lack of a better idea, forward your contact info to me in care of the Post (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll send it on to him.
Washington DC: 1. Where is Mr. Carter's art on view in the Washington DC metro area?
2. Where in Washington DC metro area is his art for sale, as I am interested in purchasing a painting?
Mary Battiata: He's not exhibiting anywhere at the moment, but I know he's selling work. I don't know who's handling it for him. If you send me your contact info, I'd be happy to forward it on to him. That's how we handle all reader queries to people who appear in our stories.
Mary Battiata: Also, his longtime (now former) dealer Gail Enns, who ran the Anton Gallery here in DC for 20 years, has reopened her space in Northern California, near Monterey CA, and I think she may have some work. But I don't know for sure about that.
Washington, DC: I'd like to check out the museum show in North Carolina.
When is the show? Where is the museum? What's the name
of the museum? What are the hours that the museum is
Mary Battiata: The museum is the Louise Wells Cameron Museum, in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Washington, DC: This is a terrific view of a local DC area artist... but why are these profiles of our local visual artists so rare?
DC has one of the largest and most active art gallery scenes in the nation, and yet, I cannot recall the last time that I read about a local DC area artist.
Can we get more profiles like this one?
Mary Battiata: My colleague, Post art critic Paul Richard, sas that DC is a great city for paintings (i.e., masterpieces of all kinds, in all of our great museums), but not so great for painters (i.e., living painters.) Part of it is that we don't have as many of the dedicated, deep-pocketed collectors that New York does, and the ones we do tend to be more conservative in their tastes. So it's hard to make a living here as an artist.
Re coverage of the art and gallery scene: it's true, we tend to cover gallery shows, rather than the artists themselves.
Alexandria, Va: I met Big Al once at the Pearl on Telegraph Road before it moved to Skyline and like everyone I know who has met him, was immediately captivated by Big Al's personality - we talked briefly in the printing supplies and in line, and if I remember correctly he said he received his MFA at American (where I attend), and he is indeed well remembered by those in the department who were working when he was there.
So why no mention of this in the article? It seems relevant to point out that Big Al is indeed not an outsider in the formal or racial sense - something that remains somewhat ambiguous in the article, and indeed reinforced to an extent when anecdotes like the NC museum director's asking him somewhat hesitantly about William Blake or his eschewing of other DC art movements (with a predominantly African American slant - Sam Gilliam being mentioned as offshoot of the WCS because he's claimed as DC? Or black?)
Mary Battiata: Yes, I noticed the William Blake thing too, and that's why I put it in the piece, of course.
As far as I know, Al does not have an MFA from American, and I wasn't aware that he'd studied there. He does have an BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design, and an honorary masters degree from that school.
Washington, DC: As a person of color, I was happy and surprised to see a
cover story of an African American artist featured
prominently on the cover of your Sunday magazine. What I
find curious, however, is that the article seems to be
written from inside the cocoon of the white dominated art
world. Besides Leslie King-Hammond, how many key
African American art world power figures were interviewed
for this story? It seems to me that comments from African
American art collectors or commercial gallery owners
would have been key to a balanced story here.
curator and print expert Eric Denker, white man
former dealer Gail Enns, white woman
Mary Swift, rich white woman
Could we have gotten a quote from an African American
contemporary of Big Al's such as say Michael Platt or Sam
The Washington Post has written recently of a large
collection of powerful black business leaders in the many
articles about the ownership of the Nationals don't some
of the powerful black business leaders buy artwork by
Doyle Mitchell, Rodney Slater and Paxton Baker
Howard University president Patrick Swygert, Tony Lewis,
president of Verizon Washington, DC, a member of the DC
Chamber of Commerce's Governing Board, member of the
board of directors of the Greater Washington Board of
the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Federal City
Council, the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington
From a recent chat about the Nationals, I paste this:
Black people have been discriminated against not just in
D.C. but in this entire region. This has happened far more
systematically with far worse consequences than to any
This applies to the regional art world. There is cultural
apartheid in Washington DC and continually reporting
from inside the white box does not help
Re writing inside the white box: I mostly agree with you, though, that said, i should also say that I (and my editors) struggled hardest on this very point, and devoted long hours to trying to figure out what to say, and what the truth of the matter was and is. I think we got it mostly right.
But it is a complicated subject, and I don't think I can do it justice here. But i take your point, and take it seriously.
Re white on white on white:
I did contact a couple of prominent DC-area African American collectors, but they did not return my calls. I don't know why, but I had the sense that they were not eager to talk about race and art collecting and Al Carter and his work, perhaps because it is a difficult subject, and one where it is easy to be misunderstood, or misinterpreted.
Washington, DC: Yeah! A full length focus on a living artist in DC!!
We want more of this PLEASE!!
How much does the fact that the NC museum curator is
the sister-in-law of the editor of the Washington Post
magazine play into the existence of this article?
Mary Battiata: Some, in an oblique way. The director of the museum (editor's sister in law) was in town doing an early reconaissance of Al's work for her show, mentioned the amazing scene she'd seen at Al's house (wall to wall paintings) to her brother in law (my editor) who passed the idea along to me. I was looking for a story, we needed something for an art issue, I thought it sounded interesting, and we were off to the races.
Bethesda, Md: On the cover of the magazine there is an interesting subtitle to the article on Big Al ."What does the inexhaustible creativity of Big Al Carter say about fame, success and the meaning of art?"
while I've heard that newspapers have writers who just write headlines, I am frustrated because the article does not seem to answer this question .
So I would like to ask you Mary,
What does the inexhaustible creativity of Big Al Carter say about fame, success and the meaning of art?"
Mary Battiata: to me one of the most interesting things about Al is that he knew, has known all along, what he needed to survive as an artist, decided he could best get that thing here (as opposed to chasing around New York or anywhere else) and he stuck to his guns and stayed. In the face of pretty strong opinion from all corners that he should get out.
The other thing is just the old truth, that it's veryhard work to make art. It's joyous, a lot of the time. But it's hard.
Arlington, Va: I was so impressed that Big Al is teaching at Langston. I am really proud of Arlington for having a school like Langston. As your article says, it is a program for those kids that could not finish high school in a traditional way or timeframe, due to personal problems or family problems or other issues. In so many systems, these kids are left with a marginal program to get their degree. Arlington has thrown a lot of good resources at it, including a great new building and great faculty, like Big Al. It is cool to think of this artist who has chosen a different path working with kids that are on a different path.
Mary Battiata: I feel the same way.
The other really nice thing, for me, was getting to see, a little bit, the map of Arlington's longtime and still close-knit African American community. A lot of the teachers that Al works with at Langston and the other schools are people he's known, or are relatives of people he's known, since he was a kid. Known them, known their parents and grandparents. And that is really nice.
Washington, DC Brightwood: There are many DC artists like Al who do not wish to deal with the New York Art Scene. Thus, they remain relatively unknown to the art world.
It's a shame because he is a hidden treasure. His work is great.
Mary Battiata: The risk in staying, I guess, is that you can get blinkered. But going has plenty of perils, too.
The English writer Bruce Chatwin said it's always better to go than to stay, but I don't think that's true all the time. (I don't think he did either.)
Arlington, Va: Big Al was my art teacher in the adult(alternative)school in 1975. He was always very down to earth and extremely supportive even with non-artists such as myself....me and my sister who also attended Al's art class still talk about Al quite often and what an amazing artist Al is.He also had a mean ping pong serve and was quite a fishing angler as well.
I think Al probably likes his life style the way it is - maybe fame and fortune isn't for everybody.
Mary Battiata: Yes. That's what I concluded.
Anonymous: it's INFURIATING thru the whole article you keep referring
to some museum in North Carolina where Carter's work
will be featured in group show...
after searchingon the curators name you can dig up The
Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum
Ages 5-18 Admission$2.00
Children Under 5Free
First Sundays"Pay What You Can"
Monday - Tuesday
11am - 5pm
Friday11:00 am - 9:00 pm
WHY MUST A POST READER HAVE TO GO ON THE
INTERNET TO LOOK ALL THIS UP?? WHY ISN'T THIS
INCLUDED somewhere in the paper??
Mary Battiata: Sorry it made you furious.
Thanks for the link.
Dale City, Va: I grew up in Arlington,went to Oakridge, I would have loved to have met him while I lived in Arlington. How can I purchase a piece of work or commission a painting? I know Al doesnt want his work to be sold like products at a grocery store, but I want one.Plus, my workplace is looking to commission an articst to fill up empty space in our building, and perhaps we should pay him to do it.
Mary Battiata: Send me your contact info with the questions you ask below, and I'll make sure he gets the info.
Arlington, Va: I remember Big Al from the South Arlington neighborhood where we both grew up. I'm glad you featured him in this story. I too want to attend the show in North Carolina.When is the show?B. Barbee
Mary Battiata: see the museum's website (provided by a reader about two questions ago) ...
the show opened on Thursday down in Wilmington and I think it will be up for a while ...
Washington, DC: This sentence has me really curious
"A Washington curator doled out the wood to a dozen
local artists and commissioned them to create their own
pieces for a show."
WHO was that curator??
Mary Battiata: joshua taylor, I think
Arlington, Va.: I expect I'm not the only one asking this question. I am quite interested in purchasing one of Mr. Carter's paintings. No art dealer's commission! It seems that Mr. Carter might be a little ambivalent about selling, however. Since he is not interested in the sort of self-marketing required in today's art world, and he certainly doesn't like working with dealers, how can art buyers see his work, short of invading his privacy by looking him up and knocking on his door?
Mary Battiata: right, that is the big question -- can an artist be an artist and also deal with buying and selling.
anyhow, if you send your contact info to me, I'll forward it to Al, and then I guess he or someone who's helping him will get back in touch. ....
Washington, DC: Do you think that if the writer of this story was a person
of color that more African-American art collectors and
gallery owners would have opened up and contributed to
Mary Battiata: No, but I could be wrong. The truth is, I really don't know.
Upper Marlboro, Md.: People are commenting here that Al doesnt have fame & fortune...well he might not have fortune, but he has fame doesn't he? He's on the cover of the Washington Post Sunday magazine..he's in an art show in a museum in North Carolina...he's been in a museum show at the Smithsonian--if that isn't fame, I don't know what is
Mary Battiata: Right.
And he has fortune, too, in a way. He's doing his work, has people who care about him, etc.
Palmyra, Va: I am an artist (ceramist), 77 yrs of age, supervised and taught art for 30 yrs, and was attracted to your article on "Big Al". First, as an art teacher, Al was basically unprepared, he tried to impress you with use of art expressions as "negative space" and then his drawing ability. Their really was no art lesson. Telling teens to draw something is not instructive or helpful. As to his work: I admire his persistance and compulsion because that is what artists must possess. But his work is cartoonish and dirivitive and shows anger and stress more than the skills necessary for painting. Painting is very difficult and that is why great painting is rare. Big Al is over-rated in your piece both as an artist and teacher. You should leave him in peace and not make him what he isn't, a competent artist. As to teaching, he needs a good supervisor to quide him.
An alternative view. Thanks for writing.
Arlington, Va: Thank you so much for the cover story on Big Al.
I would have very much liked to have read more about his
influence on his students.
Mary Battiata: right. we only have so much space, but yes
Washington, DC: Thank you for this cover story on Big...his talents deserve
our attention. However, I have some issues with the
perspective of the story.
The article seems to paint a portrait of one kooky artist
who turns down gallery representation by the former
Anton gallery owner, now living in California. Well, it was
common knowledge on the street in DC, that the owner of
the Anton gallery grossly insulted a prominent member of
the fourth estate. After this insult, very few art reviews
were written about the shows at Anton gallery. The owner
of the Anton gallery complained about this treatment in
published letters to the editors of local press. But perhaps
if she had ever made an attempt to apologize or make
amends for her actions, she would have received the
reviews that she so desired.
With this information in mind, is Big Al Carter as Big of a
kook for not wanting this person to represent him?
The piece does not treat Al as a "kook," nor do I think of him that way.
As for his former dealer, in my interviews she struck me as someone who'd worked hard for Al and has maintained a good relationship with him, despite the fact that she no longer handles his work. Some of her colleagues described her as "a saint" for her interest in her artists.
Re the anecdote about the fourth estate, etc., the Post archive is full of reviews of shows at the Anton Gallery through the 80s and 90s. I think the gallery closed in '02, when its owner relocated to CA for family reasons.
Reston, Va: It's worth noting that the museum show in NC is all
African American artists. Why is it that curators seem to
have limits when dealing with African American art--that
is, they only seem to be able to show "with their kind"
"But being a Renaissance man, several curators say, may
not be a wise business move in an age when
contemporary art is a commodity and art investors can be
twitchy and afflicted with short attention spans"
This statement seems proof og the limited attention spans
of several curators.
the definition of a Renaissance man
is a person who excels in multiple fields, particularly in
both arts and sciences.
Is Al Carter really a Renaissance Man?
Just because an artist doesn't paint the same painting over
and over again to make a "brand" doesn't mean that artist
is a Renaissance man.
Mary Battiata: Well, all I can tell you is that the director of the NC museum is white, i have no idea of the race of the curator, and the whole point of that show, as I understood it, was to say with great thundering clarity that these artists have something important to say to the larger culture.
i take your point on the larger meaning of renaissance man. But it came to mind because Allen Carter has been so afflicted over the years by people who, he says, can't believe he can sculpt if he also paints, etc.
Arlington, Va.: Just curious: do you know if the basketball player Grant Hill owns any of Mr. Carter's work? Mr. Hill has an excellent, well-respected collection of art by African-American artists. If he doesn't know about Mr. Carter, maybe he'd like to.
Mary Battiata: That's interesting. I don't know if Mr Hill owns any of Al's work.
Washington, D.C.: The Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum web site says the Five American Artists show runs from May 19-September 17.
Mary Battiata: Oh, good. Thank you very much.
Washington, DC: Thank you for this excellent piece Mary! It really was the
BEST thing I read ini the paper yesterday. My whole family
read it and everyone was talking about it all day.
We'd love to read more of your take on culture in DC.
Is the visual arts your "beat" ?
Mary Battiata: Aw, thank you very much. You made my day. No kidding. thanks a lot.
No, the visual arts aren't my beat. I'm a generalist. You know. Renaissance Man.
Charlottesville, Va: Is there a separate criteria for artists that happen to be black? In fact, why isn't all art produced by Americans just called American art? Art has intrinsic values and is hung and appreciated on the basis of being acceptable and worthy as a work of art. Why do you have to announce or label the color of the artist? Are you trying to patronize both artist and readers?
Mary Battiata: The title of the NC show is "Five American Artists," for just that reason.
Alexandria, Va: As a followup to something I was hinting at in my earlier question and some of the subsequent comments regarding ethnicity and the realities of art commerce, I would say that while I may be inferring too much, that the issue of racial identity may play a part as well in why Big Al avoids commercial representation.
The commercial necessity of pigeonholing artists - not only formally but ideologically - can drive artists to avoid what might be more financially sensible career paths precisely because it perpetuates an image they don't want to project for fear it will override their work import on its own. Is Big Al African American? Yeah. Does his work address that? Sometimes. Is he making African American artwork? Nah. He's making Big Al art.
Mary Battiata: Right. I agree with you, I think, on most of that.
washingtonpost.com: Thanks to Mary Battiata and to all who participated.
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