In 1930 William S. Carter came to Chicago from his native Saint Louis to study art. The University of Missouri did not accept black students, and the college for blacks in Jefferson did not offer an art curriculum. At the time, the Art Institute of Chicago was one of the few institutions that did admit blacks.
"You could count the black students at the Art Institute on one hand and still have fingers left," Carter recalls.
The 1930s were rough years for almost everyone, let alone those planning careers in the arts. After one year at the Art Institute and a two-year stint as a caretaker at the Palette and Chisel Academy on North Dearborn, Carter enlisted with the newly formed Work Projects Administration (WPA) in the art division. President Roosevelt's project, designed to employ people--such as artists, writers, and actors--whose work might otherwise seem superfluous during hard times, enabled Carter to make a living as a painter.
Unlike many artists who complained of censorship, Carter was never told by the WPA what he could or couldn't paint. Every week he turned his products over to the government in exchange for a $92 monthly stipend and art lessons. He has managed to support himself since almost entirely with his art, as both an artist and art teacher.
Carter's pieces--then and now--are clearly about finding the beauty in an often ugly world. He works primarily in oil paint and varies his style from abstract to cubism to realism. One of his favorite subjects is women, often dancers, gypsies, and exotic beauties. He believes that he would have received more recognition for his WPA work if he had gone with the flow and painted the kind of images that are now associated with the era. "Most of the things people did during the WPA were about poverty--showing how downtrodden people were in America, and how hard they worked and how little they had. But insofar as painting beautiful things, they were only beautiful in how they were made. That's all right if that's what one wants to do, but I think art is for beauty."
Carter is in a good position to compare the way the poor are treated by the government today with the way they have been in the past. His cramped CHA apartment at Elm and Dearborn serves as a home, studio, and storage facility for his own work and his collection. "During the WPA, we didn't have the problem of [studio] rent. Of course we didn't know what a studio was. My bedroom was my studio just as it is now. Nowadays artists are still struggling to make it."
Carter's tiny living room is cluttered with paintings, stacked three or four deep, leaning against every piece of furniture. The walls are covered with his own artwork, as well as with the work of well-known and not-so-well-known contemporaries. A true eccentric, he wakes every day at five o'clock in the afternoon; he sits down next to his 13th-floor window and takes in what he considers to be the best part of his housing complex home, the sparkling southern view. Then he paints all night.
Carter marks 1986 as the year that his past association with the WPA began to afford him a popularity that has exceeded any that he had known before. "All of a sudden, everyone wanted to know about the WPA," he muses. His work has been shown at the South Side Community Art Center, Isobel Neal Gallery, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and many other locations, in addition to having been included in the Art Institute's Chicago and Vicinity Show ("I hung by Picasso") and its now-defunct Sales and Rental Gallery.
"In the Sales and Rental Gallery," Carter remembers, "I had some work. One piece was sold and one was rented by the Wurlitzer Company for five months. Those were delicious days. The Art Institute is not like it used to be. It seems like they have disassociated themselves with traditional things. I don't like what they have now. I like modern art. I like Picasso, but Warhol? To take Marilyn Monroe's head and blow it all up? What does that mean? There are so many gimmicks now. I can't tell what era I belong to. I'm in this era, but I'm not influenced by it."
Carter tells a story about one gallery owner who tried to have him sign a contract agreeing to exclusive representation in her gallery. He wrote her a letter and asked, "What are you going to do if I sell a piece out of my studio? Put me in jail? I'm too old for that kind of thing." The gallery owner waived the contract.
Carter insists that art should not be defined by the race of the artist who created it. Yet he admits that black artists often find themselves behind in the race for recognition. Having substituted in the Chicago Public Schools for 15 years, Carter knows that many children aren't given the opportunity to explore their own creativity.
"I think the art education that kids get in the Chicago Public Schools is putrid. I taught in the system, and I think their approach to art is absolutely asinine. There are only piles of paper for kids to draw on."
A one-man show of 50 pieces by Carter in media including oils, watercolors, charcoal, and pen-and-ink opens tonight at Nicole Gallery, 734 N. Wells, from 5 to 9 PM. Carter will be present. The show runs through March 3. For more information call 787-7716.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Meredith.