CARTER, CLARENCE HOLBROOK (1904 - 2000), famed Cleveland artist, was born in 1904 in the southern Ohio river town of Portsmouth. It may well have been the memory of the regional flooding in 1913, when he was six, that inspired his first important work, painted non-stop in one day and one night while he was still in art school. Carter came to Cleveland in 1923 to study with painters Henry Keller and Paul Travis, making ends meet by waiting tables in the tearoom of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Flood, his first prize-winning entry in the museum's annual juried showcase of regional artists, "The May Show," put $25 in the young student's pocket; Cleveland industrialist Ralph Coe purchased it for $100 from the show. Years later, Carter bought it back. The painting had a special place in his heart, he said, because it was the work that had brought him to the attention of the museum's director William Milliken. In 1927, Carter graduated from the Cleveland School of Art.
Milliken, an ardent champion of local artists, helped launch Carter's career, arranging for his young student to study with Hans Hoffman in Capri, Italy. The museum director promoted the work Carter sent back for sale from Europe, enabling him to spend a second year abroad in France, Switzerland, Belgium, England, Sicily and northern Africa. When Carter returned to Cleveland, Milliken arranged for him to teach studio classes at the museum. However, Carter primarily supported himself by selling his work during the eleven years between his graduation and 1938, when he took a faculty position at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Technical Institute (now Carnegie-Mellon University). Demand was not hurt by the fact that he took 26 prizes at "The May Show" during that time, including thirteen firsts, or by the fact that 10 of Carter's watercolors were accepted by the Brooklyn Museum of Art for its 1928 International Watercolor Exhibition. Though surrounded by such successful artists as Edward Hopper, William Zorach and John Singer Sargent, critics pronounced the 22-year-old the hero of the show. (Carter's Sommer Bros. Stoves and Hardware was promptly snapped up by the Brooklyn for its permanent collection.)
In May 1935, Carter was chosen from a statewide competition to paint murals in the Ravenna, Ohio post office by a national panel that included Eleanor Roosevelt. This was the first of a series of works commissioned for Ohio public buildings as part of the WPA Federal Art Project. Carter's work for the Works Progress Administration, for which he also served briefly as regional superintendent (1937-38), included four large murals for the new post office in Portsmouth, Ohio (contrary to what is stated in Federal Art in Cleveland 1933-1943, Richard Hundley believes Carter did not paint the mural in John Hay High School.)
From 1938 to 1944, Carter taught painting and design at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Technical Institute; Carter would in time be a professor, visiting lecturer or artist-in-residence at seven universities. He then took a position with the Alcoa Steamship Company and painted a series of 21 scenes from the Caribbean and South America that set new standards for national magazine advertising. He was to create other memorable series for the First National City Bank of New York and American Locomotive that appeared in Fortune and Life magazines.
By 1948, Carter's oils and watercolors had been collected by 27 important American museums, including the Harvard's Fogg Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, and he had become one of a handful of living American artists to have two paintings owned by New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. By the early 1960s Carter's work had become more symbolic, almost abstract, in character. A series of huge canvases the artist referred to collectively as "Over and Above" featured giant insects, birds and other animals peering over walls at the viewer. These startling images gave way to grand structural compositions called "Transections," then to surreal landscapes featuring mystical egg shapes, the symbol of life, that the artist called "Eschatos" (The Final Things).
Carter's fascination with photography came to light only after his death, with the discovery of an old chest full of snapshots corresponding to some of his most famous paintings. As demonstrated in Clarence Carter: The Unknown Snapshot Studies, the 2004 show mounted by the Southern Ohio Museum and brought to the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood, Ohio by the Cleveland Artists Foundation, some of Carter's best-known paintings are clearly based on photographs.
Recognition of Carter's place in American art spiked in the 1970s, when he was mentioned or discussed at some length in 11 books. Carter won the 1972 Cleveland Arts Prize for the Visual Arts and is perhaps the city's most successful artist. By the centenary of his birth in 2004, citations of his work totaled 61. Clarence Carter died in 2000 at the age of 96.
Dennis J. Dooley