Larry Carter connects
with heritage through abstract painting
Carter greets Andrew Harjo at the Southeastern Arts Show and
TISHOMINGO, OK Hidden within the fiery colors of a Larry
Carter canvas is the essence of his Native American heritage.
"There is a point of personal satisfaction when I know an art
lover 'sees' what he first overlooked," the Noble, Oklahoma, resident
said with a smile.
It is not always difficult to spot the central theme of the
abstract artist's work yet, often times, it is.
Mr. Carter's Bear Witness is a case in point. Art festival aficionados
know "something" is there hiding in the green, blue, yellow and
red. The painting requires a few scans of the observer's mind's
eye to make the final determination
"hey, it's a bear."
Another Carter work is titled "War Bonnet." Finding the feathered
bonnet is not difficult. Discovering the warrior donning it requires
"It's one painting that is most difficult (for others) to decipher,"
Mr. Carter said. "I frequently point out the forehead, eye, nose
and chin so the viewer may fully appreciate the warrior amid the
cornucopia of colors used to create it."
Using palette knives and reluctantly a brush for
delicate details, the Chickasaw artist finds himself embarking on
life's latest chapter at age 51. He is self-taught, painting only
five years and devoting a mere 20 months to abstract art incorporating
Native American themes.
PICKING THE LOCK
Mr. Carter has worked 20 years for the University of Oklahoma, eight
of those as locksmith department supervisor.
"I pick locks," he said.
His wide smile signals he expects expressions of shock and loathing
when offering up a three-word job description sounding like a crime.
"Learned it from my father," he quips, adding a level of uncomfortable
ambivalence for those within earshot.
His career as a locksmith proved fortuitous.
Born in Oklahoma City, a graduate of Noble High School, Mr.
Carter attended OU two years before moving to Montana to join his
father's locksmith business.
He landed in Bozeman, Montana. For a decade, he toiled. But
he also did something else he soaked up the mastery of famed
western oil painter Charles Russell and other artistic giants who
found solace and creative inspiration in the vast expanse of America's
Big Sky Country.
"I love hunting and fishing," he said. "I chased deer and elk
as often as I could."
Scenic mountain ranges spilled into splendid grassland meadows
followed by seemingly endless plateaus. He was unaware of it, but
the artist was picking the lock of his own mind, acquiring information
colors, themes, animals, terrain, sunlight, shadows
he would craft to canvas nearly two decades later.
SOONER NATION SUPPORT
His work is in the home of University of Oklahoma President David
Boren and also hangs in the office of OU's Dean of Students Clarke
Stroud. Mr. Carter gifted those, but two other Carter works were
purchased by the university and adorn walls in the Stephenson Research
and Technology Center.
Five years ago, the artist and his Montana-born wife, T.J.,
selected a painting for his office. It captures an elk in the wilderness.
"I can do that!" he exclaimed to himself.
He purchased a beginner's oil painting kit. Imagery of his hunting
adventures in Montana flooded his mind. He lightly brushed the canvas.
What emerged was a deer standing at the forefront of a dark and
mysteriously beautiful forest, its head high sniffing for danger.
Mr. Carter entered it in an OU staff talent show.
It won first place.
"The paint wasn't even dry," he said. "I have often wondered
what would have happened had anyone realized it was my first painting
and was completed using a rudimentary beginner artist's kit."
FINDING NEW INSPIRATION
Until 20 months ago, his work consisted of realism landscapes,
wildlife, even a portrait of his son, Kael.
Then, Rocky Hawkins showed up on Mr. Carter's radar. Mr. Hawkins
was born in Seattle in 1950 and enjoys an international following.
"I saw his work and it completely inspired me," Mr. Carter said.
"He (Hawkins) paints an abstract. He then sits back and studies
it. He allows the abstract to tell him what it is supposed to become."
Larry Carter is a Chickasaw Nation citizen. He votes in tribal
elections. His ancestry has been known to him since childhood. But
he will be the first to admit his Chickasaw blood did not inspire
his art until he began following Mr. Hawkins' method of abstract
"I don't look Native at all," Carter observed. Indeed, his complexion
is light. His hair and mustache are a mixture of color akin to his
Following Hawkins' technique, Mr. Carter's abstracts spoke to
him in a decidedly Native American tongue.
"The connectedness astounded me," he said. "I saw warriors,
braves, horses, bison. I saw the Trail of Tears. Fully ninety-nine
percent of my abstracts are Native-themed. I now say 'I am a Chickasaw
artist and this is what I paint'."
He also is a patriotic American. Old Glory is painted often
because "the red, white and blue screams out to be painted.
"The beauty of abstract is this: a part of your heart is contained
within the work and you get to decide what part of it touches your
soul," the artist said. "It will speak to you in ways others will
not understand or even fathom. Your relationship with it is what
becomes of it."