Growth through Darkness: A Gallery Walk with Charvis Harrell

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“My art comes from a dark place,” wrote Charvis, when we asked him to share about his process and introduce himself.

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We all know the saying meant to push us through times of intense adversity and ongoing challenges: “that which doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger”. But if you ask him, “it’s more appropriate to say that which doesn’t kill you – but comes close – will change your life in a way you aren’t equipped to imagine. That is where my art comes from.”

The man behind the artwork hails from Macon, Georgia, where he and his creative expression have grown through times of prosperity, pain, and processing.

“The hardest part of doing any piece is getting past myself, until recently I would too often drink 125 ounces of cheap beer between in the middle of the morning just to get my brain past this one word I learned the hard way: sarcoidosis.

This lung disease inflames and weighs on people between the ages of 20 and 50 at times temporarily, at times permanently. In response to the environment – chemicals, bacteria – it’s as if stimulated and drained all at once, it seems. 
“It started in the summer of 2004, I felt as if I came down with a real bad cold. One day at work I felt like I couldn’t make it anymore so I went to the hospital. They took my blood and after a misdiagnosis of AIDS, tuberculosis, and other illnesses my body mimicked, until they finally did a biopsy and came to the proper result of sarcoidosis. Until that moment I was a construction worker as my father was and his father was, and art was something I did on rainy days to relax.”

As most are, Charvis was into crayons and such as a kid, and it was when he saw The Artifacts, Wrong Side of Da Tracks, that he intentionally made visuals his own, “I never got anywhere close to putting up a burner, but I had a real sick tag. I put it up everywhere I could in Sharpie and every once in awhile I’d get a can of some real cheap paint and try to do bigger stuff, but I must admit I wasn’t that good at that.” Still, he continued to draw, and during the healing process from a car accident at the age of 21, he felt led to paint – big, using mistints from the hardware store and higher grade paints, to highlight.

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This mosaic is an homage to Charvis’ upbringings in the church and career as a mason. “Doing construction with my father gave me a sense that anything was possible. Taking part in the completion of a building from the erecting of the foundation until turning over the keys makes you aware that you can make anything out of the materials you have with the right knowledge. My mother was the same way with sewing and plays and productions so I was surrounded by people who could turn plain objects into whatever they desired.”

 

He calls his early work “awful art, self-taught garbage where the background appeared to be an afterthought painted around the subject.” Four months after his sarcoidosis diagnosis, a house fire led to a new beginning and a “valuable lesson that when you own nothing you possess everything you need.” That fire claimed almost all of his artwork and most of his good friend and thought partner Jermaine Causey’s as well.

At that point, he says, “I began to produce art with a serious intent to flaunt some of my greatest possessions: my perception and sympathy for the people without power to speak for themselves. My art became much better and I started to show my work.”

That perception and sympathy combine to feed his work with honesty – essential when seeking to understand stories that are not your own, and to reinforce that there are dimensions to every person’s story. 

“I thank God for every moment and I know compared to so many other diseases it could be much worse, but the reality is, sometimes it’s hard for me to use my talents – often I wake around two or three in the morning, covered in sweat, nauseated, tired, and achy with my brain racing from me.”

That’s where the process often begins for him, waking to the darkness of morning then immersing into “research, research, and more research”, watching documentaries or Art21, a series on the art of the people of our century, until dawn. If he’s called to draw that day, he’ll do that, or paint, until midday. He shared that lately, though, he’s been devoting more of that energy to the writing process.

At his father’s recent passing, Charvis came across a collection of old poetry that he is in the process of self publishing, entitled “cartoon violence”, and his murder mystery, titled, “The Butcher, The Baker, and The Cupcakemaker Bot” is well underway.  You can find the introduction to it on Twitter, under the name butchbakemake. “I’ve gotten some great feedback, so lately I’ve been focusing more of my creative energy on writing, but I still find space to paint every week.”

Volunteering at the Tubman Museum, before it became one of the biggest museums of African American art  in the Southeastern United States gave him a rare chance to become extremely intimate with great works of art. He mentions the curator, Jeffrey Bruce, in particular, who “went above and beyond his way to be more than generous with his knowledge and expertise, which I still seek and appreciate”.

Tony Harris, creator of Iron Man and Ex Machina, also helped Charvis to develop. Harris was open to Charvis’ questions on general art, tools, techniques and ways to make comics appear professional. “The amazing thing is that as great as his art is, he was one of the least absorbed artists I’ve ever met. Everything was about Rockwell and how he constantly worked and reworked a painting, doing the same painting three or four times, his ability to tweak characters and bring about details that he invited and his ability to use the people around him resonate to an entire nation.”

So perhaps, growth is about the people that substantiate the space around us, challenging limits and illuminating possibilities to the artist, the self, within. It comes forth in the art as well, influencing strokes, nurturing subjects, inviting collaborators.

“I just finished probably my best show yet with Jermaine Causey and Nik Nerburn. I’ve been doing art with Jermaine since kindergarten and anytime you see one of my pieces you’re seeing conversations between Jermaine and​ I that led to that work. Nik is a new friend of ours, a photographer we just began to work with, and he is a perfect fit to counterbalance our style and add the personal touches that brings everyday people into the spotlight.”

The Ampersand Guild Hall, or The [&] Guild Hall, was the ideal location for the installation and his paintings. It is a family-owned, artist-run space committed to fostering community amongst people of all backgrounds in a place that badly needed a watering hole for creative vision. It is the only venue in Macon where artists of different races consistently put on shows together, presenting narratives that subvert the idyllic Southern comfort driving segregation and inequity.

You’ll feel his comfort working with space, physical or philosophical. You’ll see it in the way he utilizes elements like shadow and the coincident construction, the way he challenges the means and nature of interactions between people.

So together, Harrell, Causey, and Nerburn set out to shine light on folks shrouded in socially-constructed shadows, wrongly characterized by their oppression. Perhaps to educate some, in the visceral way that art does, and certainly to remind “others” that their multiple facets are seen, they matter, they are appreciated.

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“Just a reminder of what it’s like to be young and free”

 

In recent months, sarcoidosis has begun to affect Charvis’ eyes, and he will tell you, “I spend too much time thinking that if sarcoidosis takes my vision – how can I produce my art from an even darker place?”

It should be noted, though, that there are very real things that the eyes can’t reveal, that the mind won’t accept. Not without intention or passion or persistence, or all three. This artist expresses a pure dedication to muddling through the elusive with the rest of us.

Now, a recap of the show at his favorite hometown venue, [&] Guild Hall, through the lens of Ariel Robbins at Essentia Arts Photography.

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On Wahooism, the reduction of Native American culture to convenient and reductive symbols with aggressive connotations – especially offensive given historical to current practices of oppressing indigenous people in the United States.

What questions do you want people to ask themselves when they look at this?

“How comfortable are you with using an entire race as a mascot?  How would I feel if this was my race on a banner? Would you be offended if there was a team named the yellow skins depicting an Asian with skin the color banana yellow? The biggest misconception of all is you have a team named the Indians with a Native of this land depicted with a  bright red skin tone smiling ear to ear. Now I changed the race to an actual Indian is it appropriate now? Wahooism.”

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This is a companion piece to the red, white, and blue banner, it is a painting of “Wah-Tho-Huk” though most people know him as Jim Thorpe, an all-American. As a child he was forced to attend a normalizing school where Americans separated him from his family, culture, language, and even the very name his parents gave him – all under the pressure to be acceptable to America. He excelled in all sports and was even an NCAA ballroom dancing champ, but lived a hard, broke life, ending up forced to be a laborer. To this day, his accolades go unrecognized officially.

 

The controversy of this – the treatment of indigenous people in popular culture – is one that historical victors would like to have us overlook. It’s especially insulting when collective consent to Wahooism just amplifies the systemic violence and disregard for Native Americans currently displayed. Consider the tribal land seizures to make way for destructive oil pipeline construction in the corporate interest at Standing Rock and throughout the US.

Charvis takes it all head-on, pushing viewers beyond the comfortable narratives constructed for us. Experiences in that space beyond norms is vital this time of “alternative facts” and convenient misinformation, in which people are collectively confused about how we got here and where we’re headed. His work feels like a reminder to continue to question and to nurture those spaces beyond norms – regardless of the aforementioned current political dynamics in the United States, maybe even in spite of.

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It seems the ‘danger’ is learning, says Charvis

 

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I’m interpreting this as a commentary on rape culture and consumerism, but what statements lie behind that yell, when you revisit this piece?

It’s more so on the popular rap culture. It’s part of a series called “ With the jawbone of an ass.” It references Samson killing a bunch of people, but considers how we kill our love for each other and ourselves through our constant degrading of women and our love for things with people names on it. Artists that don’t challenge themselves tend to fall into a machine of cliches.

It’s as if 90% of the mainstream rappers love Jordans, needs a chain, smoke the best, make it rain on them hoes, got that stick, whip game, flip it, my goons so grimey, pop them bottles, hoes be loving, my ice got me froze, and the names of various products with white people’s names on them, bitches be sucking. If you listen to most of the subpar rap, you can point to an image coming out of the mouth of the subject I painted. For almost every lyric.

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The shadow play is so interesting, how’d you account for location and the sun for this installation piece?

“This piece commemorates the meeting and process of working with Ed Woodham and Samantha Hill. They were resident artists who were fired for working with the actual residents of a location they were asked to work in, instead of helping to tell a false narrative of people who weren’t part of the actual neighborhood.” Maya Mackrandilal writes about it all in The Impossibility of Art.

“Sam once asked me if I could use one word to describe my art and​ my message I’m trying to convey, what would it be. ‘Hate.’ The look on her and Ed’s face was priceless. Hate can be one of the strongest forces you encounter in your life. To illustrate my idea I carved the words rise with arrows pointing up and Bree Newsome at the bottom climbing the flagpole in South Carolina taking down the confederate flag. It shows how a hate for something can make you rise up to do a beautiful thing. Light is an important function of this piece, at the right time it shows that the things you do will cast a shadow bigger than you are.”

 

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Keep up with Charvis Harrell on Instagram (@charviszharrell).

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