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Photographs by
DJ Case and courtesy
Stevens Jay Carter

Some people, the lucky ones, realize at an early age what it is they love to do, what they were meant to do. Stevens Jay Carter dreamed about what he wanted to do before he attended kindergarten. Every day he tries to make his dream come true.

Portrait of the Artist

Cindy Gill

Long before entering elementary school, Stevens Jay Carter loved to draw. His parents, who were divorced and living apart, both encouraged the toddler’s talent. On weekends, he often visited his father, a mailman, who made it a point to save the cardboard sheets tucked inside packages of newly pressed work shirts. "Those were my palette," says Carter.

The immediate thing I would do is grab those and go into the other room to draw." By the age of 6, he had his own studio—an attic room in his mother’s home, where he would draw for hours at a time. His mother would tease him, "Stevens, I haven’t seen you for a while." But what he would create in that attic room was enough for her to understand that her son had something special to offer the world.

Some 40 years later, he’s still drawing. His artistic vision and techniques have matured, of course, but his drive to create and the pleasure making art brings him remain the same. His paintings project a joyful life source, often with swirling colors and dancing forms. His sculptures, too, are splashed with bright hues and a dash of whimsy. He works with the tools at hand: oil and acrylic paints, ceramic tiles, wood, plaster, sawdust, charcoal, pencils, even marbles and driftwood.

The walls of his bright, spacious loft are filled with his art. He keeps a folder tucked away, full of the newspaper coverage his work attracts. Based in Washington, D.C., he has been profiled in the Washington Times, worked as an artist and visiting scholar at the Smithsonian, exhibited his work at the prestigious Corcoran Gallery of Art, and been invited by the internationally renowned conceptual artist Sol LeWitt to help create a striking geometric painting that dominates a wall in the Hirshhorn Museum. Washingtonians, including some power brokers, have taken notice; several are collecting his work with fervor. Even so, he says: "I am happiest in a single room, with my paints on a table near me, so that I can simply create all day. I could easily lock the door and never see anyone."

Growing up in Plainfield, N.J., Carter began winning art awards in junior high school, where he also fell in love with wrestling. He kept winning art awards and wrestling matches, too, catching the attention of wrestling coaches at the University of Pittsburgh. They urged him to attend Pitt. He arrived here in 1976, embracing both wrestling and a major in studio arts.

It wasn’t easy being an NCAA wrestler and a dedicated art student. By his senior year, Carter retired from wrestling to devote more attention to his art. "That was so tough," he says. "But wrestling gave me something important. If I lost a match, I would be back there working twice as hard, three times as hard. So one thing I understand is, if you have a level of accomplishment to obtain, the only way to get there is to run faster, work harder."

He credits Pitt’s studio arts department for guiding him to tap his energy and develop his talent. "I had some great teachers who helped me understand the process of creation as well as the public side of art." At Pitt, he exhibited his work at the campus gallery, attended art openings, and interacted with working artists in the community. He recalls learning from numerous faculty members, including Professor Emeritus Virgil Cantini (a former department chair who created the metal sculpture, Man, which hangs on Parran Hall), Professor Ken Batista, and Professor Emeritus Girts Purins. "I would create something I thought was magnificent, and Girts would want to understand the process," says Carter. "If I wasn’t able to explain it and articulate it, he would say, in a very constructive way, ‘Well, do another one and let’s look at it.’ Now, looking back, I understand the learning process that was happening. Those experiences have stayed with me."

At Pitt, Carter, like other art majors, learned about more than drawing, painting, or sculpting. Some arts schools offer an arts degree with a focus on a particular genre. Not Pitt. The emphasis here, says Michael Morrill, the department chair, is to complement a broad studio arts experience with a liberal arts education. Many of the department’s students choose to have double majors, combining studio arts with art history, business, psychology, or other fields. "The liberal arts grounding gives students an opportunity to look at other areas and figure out ways to cross-pollinate their undergraduate experiences," says Morrill, "and I think students leave here with, perhaps, a broader world view, which you might not receive in a program where you’re focused primarily on art making."

Carter with works in progress

A few years after Carter earned his 1980 BA in studio arts, he packed his paintings in a used pickup truck and, like so many artists before him, headed for New York City. He had $1,000 in his pocket, at least until his truck broke down inside the city’s Lincoln Tunnel. Repairs cost $900 and some change, eliminating the Ritz Carlton as a destination. Carter looked for the cheapest livable hotel he could find; his choice—the Carlton Arms at 3rd Avenue and 25th Street in Manhattan. Soon after checking in, the hotel manager noticed him carrying color-splashed canvases to his room. The manager liked what he saw and offered Carter a "special guest package" reserved for up-and-coming artists: Stay at the hotel for free in exchange for wall paintings. Carter transformed the walls of Room 11A into colorful, dancing forms. He relishes those days still, a time of pure, sheer creation. He was in a single room, with his paints nearby, walls to fill, and nothing to do but let his visions flow.

Now his days must make room for the distractions that creep into a working artist’s life. Some days, he meets with a museum administrator or community leader, or he mentors young artists at a grade school, or he visits a collector to share new pieces of art.

Always, though, he anxiously awaits the return to his studio. When he pushes open the front door, he is greeted by a world of color, of motion, of churning wonder. Canvases fill the exposed-brick walls, which are full of intense colors and pliable images. Paintings look down from the ceiling and line the floor. A large piece of wood, with lyrical black brush strokes on warm yellow, stands nearly six-feet tall and suggests a family—three cheerful, rotund figures. On an easel, the image of Washington’s National Cathedral emerges from hundreds of rough strokes of color on a canvas in progress. A partial face, in plaster, stares down from a joist. A colorful paper umbrella hangs from the ceiling. Here, everyday items mingle with newborn art. A Chock-Full-o’-Nuts can holds well-used paintbrushes. Hanging bungee cords mingle with silver electrical wire and pink plastic cord. Books and magazines cram raw-lumber shelves. The room overflows with life.

In fact, all of Carter’s work is life-affirming. "Artists should lead," he says. "What I don’t see enough of is artists who are taking the position to lead in a positive role with the imagery they’re creating." That’s why some of his paintings have names like Amerressence, which seeks to reflect the essence of America, with its multiple colors flowing together. "I am interested in creating a world where all of our energies are handled in a positive and harmonious manner," he says. "I want to cultivate that more."

Since his graduation from Pitt, his paintings have been collected by two museums and exhibited at galleries in D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, Sacramento, and Houston. Batista, a professor in Pitt’s studio arts department, is impressed by Carter’s accomplishments so far. "Do you know how hard it is to go into the studio and create every day?" he asks. "It’s hard."

Cindy Gill is a senior editor of Pitt Magazine.

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