Alexis E. Barton is a journalist in Birmingham, Ala. Andi Rice is a portrait photographer based in Birmingham. This story is set in Dallas County (population 38,000), which has the Selma Times-Journal, printing two days a week.
Charlie Lucas’s art studio, he tells me, is located “at the foot of the bridge.” Everyone in Selma knows what that means: the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge that civil rights marchers crossed on Bloody Sunday in 1965. It’s hard to miss in a city where history is nearly everywhere you turn.
When I arrive at his studio, 70-year-old Lucas ushers me inside, where a sculptural mummy wearing sneakers and blue jeans sprawls across a couch’s exposed springs. Lucas selects a thin cardboard canvas from a thick stack. His paintbrush hovers, then dips, swirling clouds of white into a wide blue sky, transforming what was once a brown Cato Fashions box into one of what he calls his “TV snacks”: pieces he usually begins freehand on repurposed, cutup cardboard boxes while watching television.
A self-taught painter and sculptor, Lucas has devoted himself to living as a professional artist for over 35 years. His abstract pieces have been featured in solo and group exhibitions in Alabama, Louisiana, New York and France. He’s worked with students at public schools in Alabama and Georgia, as well as at Auburn and Yale universities, and, in 2008, he traveled to Pietrasanta, Italy, as part of a cultural exchange through the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
Lucas’s pieces — surreal paintings or “toys,” sculptures made of recycled wire, fabric, wood and welded metal — often emerge from his dreams, visions and memories. Many are on display in his studio: sculptures of alligators, a wooden figure in leopard platform heels, and a dinosaur named Sassy Momma. “I don’t know how to grow up,” Lucas tells me. “I’m still a kid.”
He uses found objects to make his work, items that others may overlook. Lucas cites his great-grandfather, a blacksmith named Cane Jackson, and his ancestors in Africa as influences. Before they were enslaved, he surmises they might’ve been tinkerers, witch doctors or what he calls “fire guardists”: artisans who used fire to turn precious metals into jewelry, weapons and tools. Jackson showed Lucas how to work metal; as a child, Lucas visited the local dump with his grandmother, who secured a rope around his waist and taught him to dumpster-dive. African Americans have always done more with less, Lucas says, and he’s honoring the pieces of culture passed down to him.
Patricia Hills, professor emerita at Boston University’s Department of History of Art and Architecture, told me via email that Lucas comes from a long line of artists who “put things together as they found them.” Some Southern Black artists like Romare Bearden and Benny and George Andrews, she says, specialized in using “what was at hand”: quilts, newspapers and wallpaper.
Lucas knew that he wanted to be an artist by age 7, but he left home at 13, moving around and taking odd jobs such as working on docks. He didn’t devote himself to his art full time until age 34, after he sustained a devastating back injury from falling off a truck. While recovering, he says, he had a vision where he saw his rebirth as a tin man — a personification of his inner child. He set out to live the creative life he’d imagined for himself at a young age, while embracing the humility and discipline that this path would require.
For many self-taught artists, “there’s been some kind of trauma or some pivotal experience that makes them reevaluate what they can do … and it frees them in a way,” says Jennifer Jankauskas, a curator at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama, where Lucas’s work has been displayed in the sculpture garden alongside those of classically trained sculptors. She notes that “in Charlie’s case, I think he’s very aware of his ancestors, and that definitely feeds into his work.” There’s an intensity but also a playfulness in his art, she tells me over Zoom — adding that she hopes academics and curators are moving closer to simply seeing pieces from self-taught artists like Lucas as mainstream art.
Now that he’s manifested his tin-man vision, Lucas is reevaluating his work. He’ll always make toys, but he is also planning to make time for other interests: returning to school, building a museum to house his mother’s quilts, spending time with his grandchildren and even finding love. He says he’s worked hard to reach a place in his career where he won’t be on a schedule.
“God has left me here long enough to be an instrument,” he says. “I could sell myself off to museums and galleries, and become something not pretty. But it’s not about the money to me. It’s about building a legacy of knowledge.”