Studio Visit with Charles Dickson: When Nina Simone Sings Your Name and Other Stories…
By Gary Brewer
Charles Dickson seeks to create a language that conveys what he terms, “the black American aesthetic”. He sees himself as a conduit or vehicle from which he can strive to speak truth, in a state of calm he lets images and ideas flow forth, his language of symbols available to communicate the narratives. He compared his images and symbols to Egyptian Hieroglyphics and said that through repetition he strives to create a personal language that communicates his ideas and reflections of the world. Charles work expresses his desire to find freedom, to flow from one image or symbol to another and to create sculptures that speak in tongues, like a sibyl in an altered state, divining truths that come from a deep spiritual source.
Charles freely blends carvings of penises, vaginas, women, black power fists, African sculpture with images of lynching’s and other horrors of racism; the work bridges the space between powerful emotional catharsis of raw unfiltered emotion and celebratory songs of spirituality and joy.
I asked him about the images of male and female genitalia, if he saw them as fertility symbols of if some other idea was behind them. “It is honest and true. I want my work to be true and our sexuality is an honest fact about being human.” We also spoke of his carvings of women and he said that it was an important symbol, “I wanted to create powerful positive images of the black female form they do not exist in traditional European culture. The black female form is an important part of the language I am creating to make this symbol.”
He grew up in Watts and had the good fortune to attend an excellent High School with an extremely advanced woodshop/applied arts department. He was given a scholarship to study at Otis Art Institute with Charles White over the summer. Charles White asked him what he wanted to do, and he said he was hoping to attend Otis Art Institute, when asked why Charles replied, to be an artist. Charles White said, “You do not need to go to school to learn to be an Artist. You can make art under a tree, in your garage or in your living room. Just be true to yourself. Just make it”. These words left a deep impression on his young mind and he followed his instruction.
I first got to know Charles Dickson’s work at a major retrospective at the Watts Towers Cultural Center and was blown away both by the depth and breadth of his metaphoric language as well as their shear power as sculptural objects. He fearlessly channels his experiences, the tragic and the beautiful, references to African art and improvisational marriages of found materials and sculpted forms that converge into objects of power.
We spoke a bit about music, of our admiration for Coltrane and in particular of his emotional truth. Charles identifies with his search for spiritual freedom in his music and that his sound came from a deeply emotional state, feeling every note and conveying that emotion directly to an audience. It is a search that one feels in Charles sculptures, the search for something true and to channel it in fluid powerful sculptural forms.
I asked him about his use of African sculptural styles and motifs he said, “It is in my DNA. We lost our connection to that language on the middle passage. I want to mix my experiences as a black American with that of my ancestral heritage”. He feels that it is important to create this language that the history is still so young that the story needs to be told in the deep language of metaphor and poetry embedded in sculptural form.
While looking through his vast studio workshop I came upon a mold of a women’s face. Charles said something about how sensitive Nina was, my ears perked up and I suddenly recognized the face. I said, “Is that Nina Simone”, and he said yes! Many years ago she had contacted him and asked if he could make her a mask, he said sure but that he needed to make a mold of her face first. He traveled to her home made the mold and returned to his studio to create the mask.
When he finished he returned to deliver it. She was in her studio practicing on the piano, when it was announced that Charles Dickson was here with the piece, Ms. Simone, with out missing a beat sang out his name in her deeply emotive voice. Charles said he almost bowed to the floor to offer the mask for free for the honor of hearing his name sung by her. She paid him in full put on the mask and asked, “ Charles, this does not make me look like a fool does it”. To which he replied, “You look beautiful”.
How to take the tragic and the beautiful and to sculpt them into forms that speak directly to the soul, it is a journey that Charles Dickson is on, reaching back across the middle passage and leaving a trail of poetry that speaks of freedom, beauty and sorrow.