In 2006, Charles Carson put away his drafting tools and picked up his paint brush – decades after studying for his graduate-level art degree. Forty-five years of architectural work had been completed, and he finally had time to pursue interests in painting watercolors and oils, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, traveling the world and, his current passion, dancing. Amid lots of laughing and “don’t tell anybody that,” Charles spins stories, in his own distinctive way, throughout a conversation.
With a degree in Architecture from Clemson University and all but the thesis completed toward his Master of Fine Arts from the University of South Carolina, Charles is a man who cherishes knowledge and experience. According to Peggy Spann, his agent, “Charles has this thirst for learning. People love to be around him.”
Charles’s desire to learn began in childhood. He remembers making art as early as sixth grade when someone, perhaps his parents, gave him a small wooden box with tubes of oils, and he used them to paint on a canvas-covered board. “That’s my earliest recollection of painting,” he says.
Charles took mechanical drawing in high school in his hometown of Kingsport, Tenn. Ham Wallace, a local architect, called the school’s drafting teacher and asked him to recommend a student to work part-time for the firm. Charles was chosen, and he worked for Wallace from his junior year in high school through graduation.
“Years ago, we had to draft drawings by hand. I had an ability to draw perspective, so that’s what I did for Mr. Wallace.”
Charles’s mentor had graduated from Clemson University, and he encouraged his young employee to attend his alma mater. While at Clemson, Charles took architecture courses and worked with architects during the summer. Following graduation, he enrolled in the M.F.A. program at USC.
Despite his Clemson allegiance, Charles enjoys doing what he learned when he was a Gamecock – painting what he sees. At USC he studied watercolors with Harry Hansen, acrylics with Phillip Mullen and live figure painting with Professors Voros and Bowers. “I took the live drawing class three times, but not because I didn’t pass it – I always made an A,” Charles says, laughing.
His many years as an architect have given him special insight into structures, but he paints a variety of other subjects, too. His work represents everything from historic buildings, like the Adluh Flour Mill in Columbia, to a portrait of his granddaughter. Many of his paintings represent the Lowcountry, including Bell Buoy (formerly in Edisto), The Inn at Pawley’s Island and the original Pawley’s Island Hammock Shop. Of the Hutchinson House on Edisto, Charles says, “I’m glad I painted it when I did – it’s covered with vines now.”
His work exhibits a strong eye for colors. In his painting of Pawley’s Yacht Club, the shadowed side of the building – a shack, really – is rich with grays, purples and aqua. In the watercolor of the Hutchinson House, the peeling tin roof is bright orange-red, and it shelters teal-green wooden boards. The clear blue sky above is intersected by winter branches, and the strong colors make the painting leap off the paper. One can almost feel the coldness of a winter day. In a large oil of a black and white boat on placid water, a mirror-like reflection of the red water-level trim makes it challenging for the viewer to determine where the real boat stops and the reflected boat begins.
When asked how he decides what to paint, Charles says, “The best deal is to paint what’s there.”
Whether painting terra cotta tile roofs against a brilliant Italian sky or tiger lilies from his back yard, Charles says Cerulean blue and red-orange are one of his favorite color combinations. Each makes the other more intense. He often draws with India ink before adding color washes, resulting in a clean image with strong, clear colors. One of his best examples of this, an intricate sketch of the twisting stairs leading to a monastery in Meteroa, Greece, was completed in 35 or 40 minutes while fellow travelers toured the monastery. About his speed and accuracy, Charles simply says, “I can draw.”
Visitors to his home also see furniture he designed and built, like the lazy-Susan table assembled without a single nail or screw. “I copied a table found in my mother’s barn, and I made three of them. My daughter and one of my sons have the other two,” says Charles. He has also refinished almost every piece of furniture in the house.
One might correctly guess he is a perfectionist, owing to his many years as an architect and the precise nature of that profession. His paintings of buildings reflect that experience, from his excellent perspective and structural lines to the attention paid to construction materials.
“I painted, off and on, all along and did most of the renderings for my practice,” he says. The practice he references, Carson and Associates, designed a few homes but specialized in office buildings, schools and fire stations. Charles recently donated all of his firm’s renderings and plans to The Caroliniana Library.
In addition to being an accomplished artist, Charles reads constantly and never leaves his house without a book, should the opportunity to read be presented. “I read a lot, mostly factual books about things I find interesting. I’m curious, and I always want to learn something.”
From the looks of his library, Charles is serious. Twenty linear feet of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – that he built, of course – line two walls of his den. He is proud of his library, especially the bound 12-volume set containing every plan ever drawn by Frank Lloyd Wright. Charles’s appreciation for Wright’s work grew through the years. Of “Falling Waters,” one of Wright’s designs located close to Pittsburgh, Charles says, “Wright camped on that property pretty often, so when it was time to draw the plans, he had it in his head. He designed the house above the waterfall and drew it in one weekend. It was built with hardly any changes from the original drawing.”
Charles has traveled the world, and sketching has often been part of the experience. Running and biking were intertwined with the travel, too. “I’ve been to quite a few places. I biked three times through Europe with a group of about 20 cyclists,” he says. One of those biking trips began in Hamburg, cut across Denmark and Sweden, and ended in Norway. Another took the group rode upriver along the Danube, from Austria into Germany and Bern, Switzerland. A third took them to Toulouse, in the south of France, from where they biked across the Pyrenees into Pamplona, Spain. They rode for a week in Spain before heading back to France through Andorra. “We came down the mountain at 50 to 60 miles per hour,” Charles says, chuckling. “I wouldn’t do that again.”
Next on the travel agenda: Madrid and Barcelona to see Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral; Bilboa to see Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum; Paris to see Rodin’s studio; Amsterdam to see Van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s museums; and Berlin for the Brandenburg Gate.
Charles has raced the Boston Marathon and the Charlotte Observer Marathon, and he ran as a guide with George Hallman, a blind professor who taught at Columbia College. “I ran the Boston Marathon with George. For training we just bumped elbows, but we were connected by a two-foot-long rope for races.”
In 2002, after he had retired from private practice, Charles heard of a job opening in Richland School District I related to a $381 million bond referendum. “I wanted to be busy and have a little income to buy coffee and so forth. I never really thought about it, but I ended up staying there 10 years.”
These days, Charles takes salsa and Charleston lessons with a private teacher and frequently visits the Emerald Ball Room to practice his new steps. And he visits the American Legion on Monday nights to dance the Lindy Hop with USC coeds. About that, he says, “It’s high activity.” Charles relaxes by shagging with friends.
Of particular note to Midlands’ residents is what Charles inadvertently did for USC. Back in the early 70s, when Coach Paul Dietzel was building better facilities along with his award-winning football team, Charles met with him and Harold Brunton, vice president of operations, to present drawings of a new building that would house the Gamecock athletes. Across the top of the drawing, Charles had scrawled “The Roost.” The name stuck, and the rest is history.
Charles has three children: Schell Carson, also a Columbia architect; Ginger Carson, a Columbia pharmacist; and Chris Carson, a historic preservationist in Bethlehem, Penn. Charles’s work is currently exhibited at Pawley’s Island Hammock Shop and The Artisans’ Center in Walterboro. In May, he was part of a group featured at Tapp’s Art Center. His work is included in personal collections in Pennsylvania, Missouri, South Carolina and North Carolina. And his self-portrait, an excellent likeness done in oil, is featured, thumb-print size, on his business card for C-Spann, LLC, the partnership he formed with Peggy, his agent, to promote his work. Check out his Web site at www.yessy.com/peggyspann.