Almost Lost: The Lyrical Abstractions of the Late Ronald Carvell Meaux

Works of Ronald Carvell Meaux. All images courtesy of Patrick Terenchin

Sifting through the evidence of life after a person passes away inevitably reveals untold stories. So it goes with East Cleveland artist Ronald Carvell Meaux (1945-2012). When Meaux died of natural causes alone in his apartment in February, 2012, no one noticed. No family member, friend or anyone else took responsibility for cleaning up the details of his estate, or even to claim his body.

Meaux’s corpse sat forgotten in the Cuyahoga County morgue until June. The County morgue confirms it was then that the body was released to Cummings and Davis Funeral Home, of East Cleveland, where –the funeral home confirms–it was cremated without a service. But after a June 27 auction of Meaux’s art drew international attention, the consigner –who essentially rescued the art from the trash after Meaux passed–plans to pay for the expenses and give the artist a proper memorial. Cleveland-based Gray’s Auctioneers sold every one of the forty paintings and dozens of drawings offered for a total of more than $10,000—an average sale price of more than $200 for each painting by an artist whose work was previously unknown.

The very existence of the man born Ronald Moore would have slipped entirely without notice into the depths of time if it weren’t for the intervention of a tenuous acquaintance, Mike Lucas, also of East Cleveland. Lucas’ only connection to the late artist was that his uncle manages the apartment building at 13311 Second Avenue, where Meaux lived. Lucas says that after Meaux passed, the landlord didn’t want to pay anyone to clean out Meaux’s cluttered apartment. The task was left to Lucas’s uncle.

And Meaux left a large amount of stuff behind. “He had furniture, sculpture, all kinds of books about African American history, the Holy Bible, the Holy Koran, and others, in book cases all around his house,” Lucas says. He loved classical music. And he seems to have been something of a hoarder. “They found him dead and when we went in there you had to shovel your way in. He had garbage 1, 2-3 feet high.”

To make the clean-up easier, Lucas’s uncle encouraged friends and family to take away the things they wanted, essentially diverting trash from the landfill. They sold some old books to Zubal Books. In addition to the furniture, records, and other miscellany, Lucas noticed a substantial number of medium sized-paintings, all individually wrapped. Among all the clutter, Lucas says, “The only good thing was that he protected his paintings. He wrapped some up in
plastic bags, some-in cardboard boxes made for that, and put some in a wooden crate.”

There was calligraphy, figurative paintings, abstractions, and poster art. Lucas thought the paintings might be worth something, so he gathered them up and eventually took them to Deba Gray at Gray’s Auctioneers, during a walk-in, free appraisal session.

Gray says Meaux’s work fell roughly into three categories—figurative, often homoerotic paintings, proto-pop experimenents, and “lyrical abstractions,” which have much in common with the abstract expressionist work of the 50s and 60s.

“Meaux’s lyrical abstractions express the pathos of an embattled, homosexual, African American man struggling with his identity in a Midwestern city in the 1960s,” Gray wrote. “Featuring such fantastic titles as Bacchanale with Telepathic Window and The Metamorphosis and Influence of an Ancient Demi-God or Aphrodite Feigning Virginity, Summer 1965, his dynamically expressive paintings and works on paper are a revelation of the artist’s personal demons.”

Lucas told Gray he would use some of the money raised by the auction to memorialize the late artist. Buyers came from New York, Philadelphia, Belgium, and Florida to engage in what Gray described as “fiercely” competitive bidding. She says late in the auction a few Cleveland area collectors showed some interest, but ultimately there were no buyers from Northeast Ohio.

One of the buyers was art dealer Patrick Terenchin, whose Hudson, New York shop focuses on 20th century painting, drawing and printmaking and caters to collectors and interior designers. Terenchin plans to offer the paintings for sale this fall, unless he’s approached by an institution to put them on exhibit. He says the discovery was by accident over the internet.

“Meaux clearly is influenced by Abstract Expressionism that he was exposed to in the mid-1960s or earlier. Where he encountered it is anyone’s guess,” Terenchin said, perhaps alluding to the fact that the Cleveland Museum of Art didn’t have a commitment to contemporary art at the time, and MOCA –then known as The New Gallery–was only founded in 1968.

Terenchin says the works he bought suggest the best non-objective work of Willem De Kooning from 1950 to 1955, or James Brooks in about 1955, or Lee Krasner around 1960. “His work is distinctive in that the mood is very dark and mercurial. Meaux’s atmosphere is a heavy one in which it is sometimes hard to breathe,” Terenchin says. “What comes to mind is light reflecting on indeterminate surfaces underwater.”

Terenchin points out some factors in Meaux’s story that will resonate with artists living in Cleveland today.

“I think the work is top rate: sophisticated, informed and honest. Perhaps most importantly for me, the collection represents the  work of an artist with no audience and little hope of ever supporting himself with his work. This is not only because of race and sexual orientation. Geography is also a factor here.”

Of course, he acknowledges, the internet opens up the world to Northeast Ohio artists in ways they never could have dreamed of when Meaux painted most of those abstract works. Back then, however, Meaux wouldn’t have had many options.

“We have no evidence that Meaux ever exhibited,” Terenchin says. “No labels appear on any of the works and there is no information online or in any reference books. How does an artist stay interested and keep going, year after year, under a set of circumstances such as his? Within this question lies the real attraction for me to his work.”

“I knew him,” Lucas says, But I never knew he was an artist.” Lucas estimates Meaux lived in the apartment for “15 or 20 years,” but that the first time they met was just two years ago. Residents of the building had been gathering in the back lot in the afternoons to grill food and drink. Meaux would come out and join the conversation. He liked wine, which was also evident in the number of empty bottles left behind in the apartment.

“I think he was drinking and would get inspiration and start painting. I guess he painted in the kitchen because that’s where I found most of his equipment at. He had a table and one of those table easels that you prop up against the wall.”

Ephemera found in the apartment indicate that Meaux was also a teacher, though Gray says it’s not certain whether he taught art or some other subject. Lucas kept a plaque recognizing Meaux for “Special services to West Technical High School” in 1993. Another plaque recognizes him as a lifetime member of the NAACP.

Because Lucas is not a relative and has no legal connection to the deceased, he says he was unable to claim his body.

He did, however, recover a significant component of Meaux’s work. Lucas says he removed nearly 100 paintings, about twenty of which he gave away to family and friends, and 40 of which of which were sold –along with a few dozen drawings at the auction. He plans to keep everything that’s left.

“If I hadn’t have went and pulled these out, they would either still be in the garage, or or they would have gotten destroyed,” he says.