This is a story about a breed that is practically non-existent in this transient area -- the Washington native. Actually, an Arlington native, a hometown kid who learned his skills in the Arlington Public Schools, and stayed to make good.
The native son is a preacher's kid ("my daddy was a minister, and now my momma's a minister, too"). A maroon-jacketed, knit-capped, incredible hulk named Allen Carter.
At Langston Clay School in Arlington, where he teaches an art class for high school dropouts, the kids call him Big Al and say bluntly and with affection, "He's crazy."
It's easy to get that impression. Carter's classroom, for instance, is a four-square mix of unfinished ceramics, graphic displays, Picasso prints and, in a corner, an inexplicable pink ceramic arm that juts an accusing finger toward Carter.
One day recently, Carter stood in front of a blackboard plastered with chalk dust, explaining the art of animation.
He erased a small patch of blackboard, quickly filled it in with what looked like a tree, and said, "Most kids in a high school art class would put a hole there (on goes a circle) and darken it in. But if a squirrel jumps up in there, what will happen?"
The students, working on their own cartoons, gave the tree a mildly puzzled glance. Carter answered the question with vehemence:
"He would kill hisself. He would actually kill hisself, because it's so dark in there! So you do . . . what?
"Anybody," he commanded, glancing around the room.
"Shade it," one student suggested.
"Right," responded Carter, as the hole was transformed under his hand.
"Hey, Big Al!" another student shouted. "Do you sleep with your hat on?"
"I love hats, man!" said an unoffended Carter. "I got hundreds of hats at home. I love hats!"
Later, standing in his living room, a visitor understands what he means. We have been talking with a man who decorates his walls with hats. What's more, we have been talking with a man who decorates his walls with gas masks.
In the Carter house, the decorations fit in perfectly -- among multitudes of oil paintings, felt-tipped sketches, totem poles, plastic dolls decorated with day-glow drips, ceramic frogs.
Carter's basement studio is even more crowded; a two-inch by six-foot path leads up to Carter's easel with both feet down side by side. Here, Carter works with the kind of paint most people use on their houses ("latex has a nice quality to it") mixed with day-glow to produce a "nice pastel. Some people say I'm a young Fauvist, but I don't know about that." p
Carter's work is often covered with what he calls "controlled drips, like (Marcel) Duchamp does," and scribbles that leave no spot untouched. There are crowded paintings and sculptures, a cross between Andrew Wyeth, Joan Miro and New York subway graffiti.
And yet the subjects -- usually black portraits -- are done in a sensitive, straightforward way. Occasionally, one of the works escapes the excess of ideas that seem to drown his other pieces, and shows the hand the artist most admires: "I like very powerful artists who can feel the art," Carter says, jumping up, "really feel it!"
Translate "feel" as "see;" Carter has a tremendous visual memory. "I don't think artists should work from photographs," he says. "A friend looked at one of my drawings and said, 'Hey man, you did that from your head!' I said, 'Where's it supposed to come from man?'"
Carter was born 32 years ago in the District, but says most of his direction and inspiration came from Harold Symes, one of his teachers at Wakefield High School.
"My teachers were like gifts," Carter says, "and Arlington gave me a good background. But Harold Symes, he's my man."
The feeling is mutual. "During your teaching career," says Symes, who is still with the Arlington fine arts department, "you teach maybe 10 students with the potential for self-direction and the ability to cope with all those adversities that artists face. Allen is one of these. He's kept his sense of humor, even though he's had to face a lot of frustrations, and he still has a hard road to go."
That road started soon after Carter graduated from Columbia College of Art and Design in Ohio. "It was trip city," he says, "looking for work."
Nine years ago, he walked into a teaching job with the Arlington Adult Education Department. But it took seven more years before he began to have some success as a Washington artist. That came with the opening of his first downtown, one-man show, which appeared at the Rowe House Gallery in 1979.
Since then, Carter has participated in one-man and group shows at the Arlington Arts Center, the Washington Mota Gallery, Howard University and last year, the "laundry show," in a laundromat on Columbia Road.
The shows at Howard illustrated for him the difficulties of being a black artist. "When word about black artist arrived," he says carefully, "all sorts of people jumped on the bandwagon, some with no talent. And that killed it. People said, 'Oh, they're only going to do this trash and not be serious about art.'
"I've been in shows at Howard -- some good, some very bad."
Carter now is preparing fresh canvases for a show that opens Feb. 20 at the Gallery Nationale in the District.
But he doesn't plan to give up teaching, and hopes eventually to teach on the college level -- in the metropolitan area.
"I like this area," he says. "It's my hometown."