"I felt like a blind man going through a herd of cows," said Charlie Lucas, describing his experience in a French airport while traveling from his home in Prattville, Ala., to the "Cité de l'Art," Vence, in southern France. He was chosen to spend two months there as an artist-in-residence at the N.A.L.L. Art Association.
Lucas, 49, cannot read or write because of severe dyslexia. This disability, combined with an inability to speak or understand French, made the Alabama artist's first solo trip to France harrowing but gave him an immense sense of accomplishment. Not only did Lucas have to make his way alone through several foreign airports, but after arriving he also had to decipher the French monetary system and do his own shopping, cooking and other essential chores.
To make his trademark metal assemblage sculpture, Lucas went to the local dump, where he collected car and bicycle parts, broken motors, rusted sheet metal, wire and other discards. He put them together with a welding torch provided by his patron, artist Nall Hollis. He was assigned to live in a small cabin, where he painted works on cardboard, made wire sculpture, cooked his own meals and relaxed. On site he built larger sculptures, such as a composite metal construction of faces and abstract forms that were installed around the entrance to Nall's museum home. Titled, "Looking Through My Grandfather's Eyes," this ambitious piece, one of the artist's largest ever, makes ingenious use of bright red metal automobile fragments, white rusted lawn chairs and twisted tubing. Lucas' horses, bicycle riders, fish and other linear pieces are scattered about the nine acres that make up Nall's garden and woods. Lucas estimates that he made more than 40 pieces while in Vence.
Under the auspices of the State of Alabama and the municipal councils of Vence and nearby Tourrettes-sur-Loup, works of 13 artists from Alabama were exhibited in Alabama Art 2000 from July through September in the town hall of Tourrettes and at the N.A.L.L. Art Association, Nall's artists' enclave and home/museum.
Nall, 52, was born in Troy, Ala., and settled in Vence in 1991, after having studied with Salvador Dali in Spain and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He adopted his middle name as a single name and formed an art association based on the letters of his name: Nature - Art - Life League. A man of indefatigable energy and vigor, Nall has showcased the work of young artists and has sponsored artists and writers in the former artists' colony where he lives. He completely renovated the ramshackle buildings on the property and decorated the interior walls, floors and ceilings with his trompe l'oeil paintings, chinoiserie and unusual furnishings gleaned from France, Italy, Monaco and other places. He directs a regular program of instruction for students and apprentices while keeping up a frenetic pace in turning out his own work -- super-realistic portraits, landscapes, still lifes and flower paintings. Nall also produces Limoges porcelain designs that replicate his exquisite flower paintings.
Four of the artists in Alabama Art 2000 are self-taught: Lucas, Mose Tolliver of Montgomery, Jimmy Lee Sudduth of Fayette and Yvonne Wells of Tuscaloosa. Nall was a friend and early supporter of Tolliver. In fact, one of Tolliver's repeated motifs is an expressionistic portrait of Nall that bears no likeness to him whatsoever. Tolliver was represented by 10 works in the show and Sudduth by six or seven recent works. Wells, a graduate of Stillman College, has taught school for 34 years. Her vibrant quilts represent social and political themes, with titles such as "B.I.T.C.H. (Being in Total Control of Herself)" and "Attitude Adjustment." Although educated and quite savvy, Wells is a self-taught quilt-maker. Her powerful fabric collages are among the strongest works in the show.
The other Alabama artists reflected an eccentric and non-cross-sectional choice of mediums. Of the nine non-folk artists, four are photographers (William Christenberry, Chip Cooper, Flemming Tyler Wilson and Kathryn Tucker Windham); two are sculptors (Clifton Pearson, ceramics; Frank Fleming, cast metal); the late Steve Skidmore was a printmaker and draftsman; and Bill Nance is a landscape designer. Nall is the only painter who is not a folk artist. In addition to his paintings, Nall drew portraits of each of the 13 artists (including a self-portrait).
Nall obtained funding for transporting the art to Vence; publication of a hard-cover, full-color, 128-page catalogue; mounting the exhibition; and a grand inaugural gala to celebrate the exhibition. The catalogue can be ordered for $49.50 from Black Belt Press, 610 North Perry Street, Montgomery, AL 36104.
When asked how he felt about working in France for the summer and about attending the festivities with the governor's entourage, Lucas said he was proud that he had been able to get to France on his own, communicate in another language and produce a significant body of work. He said the formal dinners and lavish entertainment were things he could have done without. "Some nights we had two dinners to go to in one night," he said. "I just kept a low profile, did my work and got along."
WILLIAM OPPENHIMER interviewed Charlie Lucas in Vence.