Ellen Dieter Returns to the Swift

Ellen Dieter Returns to the Swift
The Bay Park Paintings give a beautiful taste of home

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hometown Encounters Remind Me of My Own Artistic Roots

First, about me. Let's get right down to it, I had to get out...
As a creative young man, I was an odd bird in Lenoir NC.  Lenoir was a hard working town. If you weren't farming (and even if you were), most people spent their days turning out the highest end furniture and custom upholstery, a town full of craftsmen. In spite of having some of the best artisans in the world, I remember the arts be largely absent  from my experience, except on TV, where I saw occasional creative programs for children full of modern art and design.

No one I ever knew went to an art museum on purpose. I imagine there were many people who loved and even collected art in my small town. Still the standard art of my experience was the ubiquitous last supper, or Currier and Ives.  I heard lots of derisive comments about "modern art" without ever figuring out that the art I loved was modern. The furniture designers knew there was an outside world, but with a pragmatic understanding that the future wasn't for everyone. Some design forms and fabrics for upholstery echoed the traditions of Cubism, Futurism, Bauhaus and even Abstract Expressionism: clean, bright, unburdened by narrative.  However they always shared a showroom alongside more popular Victorian and Baroque designs.I figured out over time that this "modern art" was not new, and the adults around me affronted by Picasso or Braque were 50 years behind the times.

In 1962, when I was born, Broyhill Furniture released Brasilia Line, based on the futuristic architecture of  Oscar Niemeyer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Montagem_Bras%C3%ADlia.jpg But Victorian was still the rule of the day.

I did get out...at 16, to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Emily Carr College (Now University) of Art& Design and The Vancouver Museum of Art  moved me from curious observer to art-junkie. When I returned in my early 20's, things had changed drastically. Both the long-running  Annual Sculpture Celebration and the very active Caldwell Arts Council itself which  hosts touring exhibitions of note, local shows and workshops, made Lenoir one of the more artful small towns in the region. I also became aware that there were, and presumably always had been, a lot of great local artists practicing around town. Over the next many years, as Lenoir blossomed, I spent more time away.  Finally, I was following the siren song of love and career back to the west coast, this time to the lower-left.  

I currently live in San Diego CA and curate the Swift, and every element of my life is intimately tied to the arts in one way and another. But North Carolina never really left my heart again, and this place which holds my heritage and most of my family, including my beloved mother and sister. And it was a need to see my dearly missed family that sent me on a trip back to the Old North State ( I won't call it Tar Heel Country, because I am, for my sins, a Duke fan).

While making my compulsory visit to downtown Lenoir, I was saddened to see much of the recent redevelopment failing with the current economic realities. I took a walk around the quiet and empty blocks that had seemed so revitalized and alive before the real estate bubble burst.  Then a bright storefront and a name on a wall caught my eye.

There on Main Street, was the studio of local artist Charlie Frye, a hometown original, who walks the blurry line somewhere between raw and fine art. Frye's work was a revelation on my last visit, because he is a painter in Lenoir who doesn't simply focus on landscapes the beautiful Appalachian Foothills. I was particularly struck with his series of hometown portraits, and his literary portraits.  

Charlie's primary reason for being lies in the need to paint. And his recent one man show in neighboring Wilkesboro NC demonstrated he can do this on a large scale. Frye's work, although it is often of and about place, also discloses a complex interior landscape, a place where characters populate a personal mythology. His portrait of Edgar Allen Poe conveys a personal viewpoint, in a way, the place Poe occupies in Charlie's own mythology, in relation to other characters which live there. Charlie is a skilled portrait artist and a excellent draftsman of the figure, although he never does nudes. (Gosh no, not here. I guess you could call me a conservative in that sense. ) By "here" I don't know if Charlie was referring to Lenoir, or his studio in specific...in the studio he supports his paintings by teaching classes in art to people of all ages, from individual adults, to groups of home-schooled children. Charlie comes to this naturally, having entered the arts after working as a teacher.

Charlie stands before a couple of his haunting anatomical chart paintings which reflect a historical narrative about the displacement of native peoples. His work can be serious, or lighter, as in the crayon self-portrait he holds, done as an example for his students.

But for an aspiring artist, Charlie feels anything but limited by his surroundings. His work is always local in spirit, and he seems to draw strength from the kind of rootedness that being a native son provides. One landscape is painted atop a large roll down county map, of the kind that used to be in classrooms all across the school district, it serves as a sophisticated sort of layer on layer depiction of the landscape, an aesthetic argument that sometimes, "the map is the territory."

Another indication of Charlie's commitment to the region is his "Made in Lenoir" movement. Charlie promotes and markets wares made in Lenoir from his storefront studio and on his website. If you buy a painting from Charlie, it will come in a frame which he manufactures, or orders locally made from another local artisan.  He is deeply in touch with the fine wood-working history of Lenoir, and is himself a skilled craftsman.

It might be tempting to see Charlie Frye as a kind of oddity, but I feel in a way he represents some version of a larger, generational shift in American culture. It used to be that rule-one of becoming a successful artist was to move to the biggest city you could manage to reach, and spend years working your way up the food chain of galleries and patronage. Artists like Frye are redefining success by staying put, and asserting that artists have a place in all communities. If you reflect on the recent trends such as shop-local, brew-local, eat local, ideas which have become mantras of the green revolution, a local artist makes perfect sense. But artists are still often thought of as outsiders, or hobbyists, who have no place in the working life of a community.  
If you're looking for Charlie Frye, go to Lenoir, Head down Main Street, and park when you see the red wall.
Charlie Frye envisions a place for artists in community which is neither elite nor specialized. To that end, he has begun working as sign painter, hand painted, illustrated signs of the kind not seen in town since the era when wall mural advertisements were a commonplace on Statesville Brick walls. This kind of utilitarian art, the making beautiful of the commonplace is where the tie of the artist to the community has it's deep and abiding roots. They say a man with his heart in the community gives heart to it as well. I'm grateful to Charlie Fry for continuing to provide that spark.


1 comment:

  1. Loved the story about Charlie Fry--enjoyed his art and your story about your life. Glad you had a chance to see family, but so happy you are back...the artists of San Diego need you here, as our voice. Thank you for all you do Wes---Lynn Marcoe