SOUVENIRS OF AN INDELIBLE TIME: The passing of John W. Carlson tears Cleveland’s cultural fabric

John W. Carlson in his studio. Photo by Billy Delfs.

John Wallace Carlson died December 20, sealing, for those who knew him, 2020’s reputation as a truly horrible year. Carlson was 66. His passing robbed Cleveland of a kindly, creative force whose art and teaching leave a memorable mark.

Carlson was tall and skinny, his fashion casual and faintly glam, his hair electric. Walk into a show and he’d beam in on you, encircling you with his warmth and smarts. He was an inveterate reader who kept a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel on his bedside table. His interests were never feigned. Carlson cut his own groove.

Married and divorced three times, he fathered two sons. Son Brandon lives in Ashtabula. Ryan lost his life to drugs in 2010.

News of Carlson’s death from an abdominal aortic aneurysm led to an outpouring of shock and grief on social media. The messages made clear that he will be deeply missed as a friend and source of support among fellow artists, but his mourners will, at least, be able to take solace in visiting him through his works. His website will continue, his studio will remain open, and his work, including material not previously seen, will continue to be exhibited. A musically-oriented memorial service, likely outdoors, is planned for this summer.

His story began in Ashtabula, the Northeast Ohio city where he grew up as the second of six sons born to Wallace and Kathleen Carlson.

“It was a very tight community down in the harbor, where all your ore boats would come in,” says brother Tim Carlson, who was two years younger than John. “We had so many families in the immediate area with kids our own age that it was nothing to look for enough guys to have a baseball game or a football game.”

“There were vacant lots, vacant fields where we could catch grasshoppers or look for soda pop bottles to turn in for two cents. You could do anything you could think of.” The Carlson boys had paper routes. John and Tim’s first adult jobs were at Ed Barron’s Komplete Kar Kare. Life was good, even though their father occasionally had to work two jobs to keep the family going.

The Carlson brothers, on John W. Carlson’s 9th birthday. BACK ROW, STANDING: Frank (left) and Tim. FRONT ROW, SEATED, LEFT TO RIGHT: Marty, John, Rick, and Brian. Photo courtesy of Tim Carlson.

“I recall the games we played in the neighborhood like ‘Army’ that involved attaching cereal boxes to our backs as backpacks,” says Brian, the second-youngest Carlson brother and the Theo to John’s Vincent. “It was John who also had us extend our geographic foray from western European theaters into the world of the Mongols. Of course, the Mongols rode horses and so making the appropriate horse noises was crucial; life on the steppes.”

By the time Carlson was twelve, he had an artist’s eye, says Tim. “I would go to him with some of my drawings and he would say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good, only there’s one thing I would change.’ And then he would give me a tutoring session for free.”

Flyer image for an early band featuring John W. Carlson on guitar, courtesy of Harlon Rinto.

Carlson also was a musician. By high school, he had acquired his first guitar, a Decca Acoustic, and he went on to play in various bands. Tim fondly remembers the night in 1971 when John took him to his first rock concert: Five Man Electrical Band, the J. Geils Band, and Humble Pie at Public Hall.

John W. Carlson, photo by Harlan Rinto

“We went with three of his buddies from school and they thought that with me dragging along I was going to be a wet blanket,” says Tim. “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ John says, ‘Yeah, come on. You’re going to go with us.’ That’s the kind of brother he was.”

John W. Carlson, top right, with the LA Pistons. Promotional flyer courtesy of Harlon Rinto.

Carlson eventually had to choose between a rock ‘n’ roll career and more stable work. Largely self-taught, Carlson attended the long-defunct Cooper School of Art for a year, but never returned. He became a garbageman and later a technician at Ashtabula’s water treatment plant.

At fifty, he was able to retire and make art full time. He moved to suburban Cleveland and dived in passionately, painting large, figurative canvases full of gesture and emotion. He wanted his art to disturb and engage. His work was exhibited at galleries in New York, Chicago, and widely in the region, including the Butler Midyear Show at The Butler Museum of American Art and the Ohio Arts Council Riffe Gallery First Juried Show in Columbus.

The influencer

Carlson was teaching figure and basic drawing in 2005, when Nancy Heaton arrived at BAYarts, a community-based organization that presents cultural programming and events, offers arts classes, and mounts exhibitions.

“He pretty much put BAYarts on the map for quality, professional classes. It really was an honor to have him represent us,” says Heaton, the nonprofit’s executive director. “His classes always filled immediately, and many students signed up every quarter. He always had music playing: Miles Davis, Depeche Mode, the Stones. His students learned how the two go hand-in-hand.”

Portrait of John W. Carlson, by Douglas Max Utter

BAYarts student William Forester learned more than figure drawing from Carlson. “Because of a massive stroke, I had lost my career, my place in life,” he says. “I had also lost use of my right arm and hand, and had difficulty using my non-dominant left hand and arm. I was reluctant to get back into life, and further challenged by the fact that I was still learning how to speak again. I was starting from scratch.”

Eager to set up at the front of the room, Forester arrived early to his first class.

“I don’t know why I didn’t think about this before, but the model disrobed naked. I looked at John and he noticed the puzzled, surprised expression on my face. And I noticed his expression: cool and collected. John had such a cool personality as an instructor. He was so patient, and he really seemed to understand what I was trying to tell him, even with my very limited vocabulary and difficult enunciation. I will always remember his non-verbal way of speaking through gestures. I could relate to that more than anyone, trust me.”

Eliza Wing, Cuyahoga County’s chief communications officer, also was a Carlson student. “We listened to music, we complained about our drawings, about not ‘getting it right,’ but he never let any one of us go there,” says Wing. “Whenever I took a risk with my drawing, he saw it and leaned in with me.”

Painter and gallerist Hilary Gent worked with Carlson on solo and group shows, including last winter’s BLUES exhibition, at her HEDGE Gallery. Carlson’s optimism and generosity will always shine for her.

“I posed for him once while he sketched away, and weeks later, he presented me with a painting that identified my inner personality,” she recalls. “This portrait didn’t capture me smiling or engaged. Rather, it was as if he had seen into the deepest part of me, and portrayed the anxiousness and stress he must have seen in my eyes. It was almost as if I’d sat down with a psychologist. This artist dissected me through sketches and I left his studio that day feeling free of negative thoughts. He gifted me the painting and it stares back at me in my own artist studio, reminding me to release fears and doubts.”

“He always told his students that the space that he inhabited included the moments between minutes,” says Wilkins. “He used to say to me that it matters that one sees with fresh eyes. It was about looking, seeing.”

You didn’t have to be his student to learn from Carlson. Jenniffer Omaitz, an artist from Kent, never studied under Carlson, but she appreciated the phone call she got from him last summer to commiserate about the difficulty of teaching art in the pandemic. “I got the impression that he was discontented with this idea of remote teaching because art is something very difficult to teach in a remote setting,” Omaitz says. She was glad to connect with a “kindred spirit.”

John W. Carlson with Shari Wilkins. Photo by Halim Ina.

Carlson’s reach extended far beyond the personal. In 2015, he and Wilkins cofounded the American Emotionalism Movement. Carlson wrote a manifesto calling for art to be “visceral, profound and passionate.”

“The whole idea was that the work should be felt emotionally, and that you shouldn’t have to have a lot of interpretation or explicit explanation as to the work,” Wilkins says. “It’s the way he created his work, and it was part of his practice, and it was also part of my practice.”

Travels with John

Carlson liked to travel, mainly by car, with the radio on. He always had a guitar with him, most recently the National Steel that Wilkins and her father had bought for him.

“We were open for adventures, open to meeting new people,” Wilkins says. “Things always seemed to happen, which we really liked.”

Wilkins has a trove of memories on which to draw, including a mystically charged moment on New Year’s Eve 2018. Carlson and Wilkins arrived at the Clarksdale Crossroads in Mississippi that midnight; their GPS had sent them there en route to their hotel. “We were sitting there and it was like there was someone running around the car, knocking on the car, going around the car. It all lasted like 30 seconds,” she says. “We did see a person off to the right-hand side, but they disappeared.”

What’s left behind

Wilkins and Carlson first connected eight years ago when he opened his studio next to the Cleveland Print Room in the ArtCraft Building. “Every time he would mention one of their trips or the fact they were going to one of his exhibits, it seemed like they were simpatico,” Tim says of the couple. “They both had a talent in art and it seemed to me that it was a good fit.”

In the wake of Carlson’s death, Wilkins has been processing in part through sharing her photographs of him. But Carlson, she says, “is [her] favorite person to talk about.”

“I didn’t know how people felt about him, because I was focused on him and he was focused on me,” she says. “We each had our own lives and friends outside of that, but I didn’t have any idea.”

Carlson kept in touch with people who collected his work, and Wilkins is confident they will help with shows to come, like a possible BLUES Redux.

“It’s been amazing what people have offered in hopes that he’ll continue to be collected and continue to be shown,” she says. “I have a lot of ideas as to what we can do but it’s so preliminary. I’ll be recovering for a long time.”

John W. Carlson plays for Silver Severovich. Photo by Shari Wilkins.

Carlson often talked about “the importance of a full backpack of experience,” Wilkins says. “He knew himself. He knew he was stuck with himself. He celebrated what mattered to him.”

And it is of some comfort to Wilkins that Carlson was finally able to come to terms with the profound sorrow he felt about the death of his son Ryan.

Carlson, too, leaves sorrow upon his passing. But he also scatters light and hope.

The night Carlson fell ill, he called his kid brother Brian, a gastroenterologist, for advice. He was cold and in pain. Brian told John to head to the hospital.

After John died, Brian jotted down some thoughts to comfort himself:

“What, actually, was John’s experience of death?

“It was probably painful physically and terrifying intellectually and emotionally, because he didn’t understand its meaning and to top it all off his most human possession, his hands, were so fucking cold … And I was helpless to live it (or die it?) for him… And then the narrative was replaced by:

“Look at me … I have no clue what John’s experience of death was like…But I hope it was something …  cool.”