Larry Carter connects with heritage through abstract painting;Chickasaw locksmith turned artist gain

CONTRIBUTED BY Gene Lehmann, Media Relations., Media Relations.

TISHOMINGO, Okla. – 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 mental gymnastics.

“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 painting.

“I don’t look Native at all,” Carter observed. Indeed, his complexion is light. His hair and moustache are a mixture of color akin to his paintings.

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.”