C.M. Laster: Art Against the Odds

C.M. Laster: Art Against the Odds

Article by  Margaret Day Allen 

C.M. (Charles Michael) Laster needed a heart bypass operation in September of 2020. As he waited alone in a Nashville, Tenn., hospital, his family waited in Crofton, Ky.

“I was stuck there in that hospital for two weeks,” he said. “All I could do was turn to art. That’s the only thing that could help me.”

His wife, Grace Kelly, brought him some art supplies, and he began drawing. This set of drawings, which he calls his Hospital Series, shows an outline of a person with a large heart, either in his chest or his head, along with other symbols.

During this period, Laster learned that his father had died. Soon after, Laster looked out his hospital window and saw four eagles circling over a wooded area. He believes they were a sign that his family was now reunited in the spirit world. In honor of his Native American heritage, he began drawing figures that combine the human form with eagles and feathers. Laster explained that when a member of his immediate family dies, he has always been sent a sign, a spirit animal signaling that he or she had passed. The death of his father marked the passing of the last member of his immediate family. Both of his brothers and his mother had died earlier.

Laster was born in 1963, and grew up in Lickskillet/Clifty, Ky., on a small farm near his current home. His parents married when they were 15. His mother worked at a sewing factory, while his father worked at a factory making wooden doors and trusses. As a child, Charles would sometimes visit his father at work, taking home discarded wood to make art.

The family lived a traditional country lifestyle, where every member was expected to contribute their labor. Laster recalled killing hogs, raising chickens, and planting tobacco. “I’ve been working all my life,” he said. “We had everything we needed, but we weren’t rich.”

Later, his father quit his factory job and started his own business building wooden storage sheds. Charles Laster grew up with several generations of his family nearby. His great-grandmother claimed to be a “pure blooded Indian.” She told stories of her ancestors living in the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina.

There is a history, only now being fully studied, of escaped slaves, Native Americans, and some white people retreating to the swamp to avoid persecution, capture or criminal prosecution. It was a hard life, with poisonous snakes, mosquitoes and bears inhabiting the area. The vegetation was so dense that most people quickly became lost and died, or retreated to dry land.

These social outcasts lived together, raising their families on small islands in the swamp. They survived by hunting, fishing, and growing gardens. They had limited interaction with the outside world, bartering wood shingles they made for supplies. There are historic records of such communities from almost the beginning of European settlement on the coast of Virginia and North Carolina. These communities disappeared soon after the Civil War when members rejoined the outside world.

Laster traces his ancestors back to two indentured servants who were among the first settlers of Jamestown, Va. He also knows he is related to some Native Americans mentioned in historical records. Tales of these ancestors, their spiritual beliefs and practices, influenced him from a young age.

“When I found out I was an artist, I was in the first grade,” he said. He was given a spelling test, but because he is dyslexic, he was unable to spell the words. Instead, he drew pictures to describe the words. His teacher called him to the front of the class. He thought he was going to be criticized, but instead his teacher praised his work and called him an artist.

He became an honor-roll student in high school and president of the Art Club. He also played cornet in the high school band, but was kicked out for improvising. He spent his afternoons working with his father in the family business. He held a variety of jobs while in high school and immediately afterward. He developed a drinking problem, but was able to kick the addiction. “I’ve been sober 27 years,” he said proudly.

He met his future wife, Grace Kelly, at a party, but they were just friends for several years. He moved to Chicago, where he made crates for the transfer of expensive artworks. After Grace joined him, they formed The Recycled Art Project, obtaining grants to teach children’s art workshops.

“We fell in love in a dumpster,” Charles said. “We locked eyes, and that was it.” They moved back to Kentucky in 1994 and married in 1995. They continued conducting art workshops. Charles also played in several bands and made several recordings while continuing to work in his family’s business. In 2002, they decided to make art full time.

But life was never easy. “I’ve had a lot of grief and death in my life,” he said. Several relatives have died from drug overdoses, while others are serving prison sentences related to drug abuse.

Folk artist Howard Finster was a major influence in his life. Laster said he became aware of the Rev. Finster from the Talking Heads album cover, “Little Creatures,” that featured Finster’s art. After seeing some more of Finster’s art in an exhibit, the Lasters decided to visit.

They immediately connected with the older artist when they met him in the mid-1990s. Laster said Finster invited them to lead several art workshops on his property, and encouraged them to make art. They have followed that advice for about 25 or 30 years. “He put us on the path,” Laster said. “He anointed us. Howard loved me like a son. He meant a lot to me.” The Lasters helped Finster with the maintenance of the property and also assisted in coordinating Finster Fest and other special events at Paradise Garden for several years. This connection led them to many other artistic opportunities.

The Lasters created an art car and participated in several art car parades. They now own their third art car, “Laster Blaster’s Inner Galactic Shack-o-llack.” They have traveled many thousands of miles over the years to art festivals. Their daughter, Ruby Elvis Rose, 16, who is home schooled and also an artist, travels with them.

The Lasters make art using almost any material they can find. Charles has made not only paintings and drawings, but wooden creations and homemade musical instruments. He often buys thrift-store paintings and reuses them. During one period, he made images on pieces of discarded, colored aluminum using typing correction fluid. He said he usually draws spontaneously, without a specific plan. The art that emerges reflects his current life struggles. Much of his artwork includes writing, often mentioning his obsessive-compulsive disorder, O.C.D., which flares up during stressful times.

When he began having seizures about eight years ago, he started drawing heads. These are a type of self-portrait or “medical illustration,” with a cross section of a head filled with words describing his thoughts, fears and hopes. His new work, Hospital Series, although drawn in a similar style, does not include any writing other than the title. Some artworks are painted with glossy craft paint, while others are line drawings using Sharpies or art markers. The hospital drawings were created on 1970s computer paper using Sharpie pens.

Despite the fun of attending art fairs and being with their “art family,” the Lasters have battled serious health problems. Both Grace Kelly and Ruby have allergies and asthma that often keep them confined to home.

Charles Laster, photo by Ted Degener

Most of Charles’ health problems are thought to stem from a tick bite. He said he developed Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which went undiagnosed for about 10 years. Laster said he went to about 100 doctors before getting a diagnosis, and by that time, the disease had developed into a severe auto-immune disorder.

They had to educate themselves about this recently discovered condition, known as alpha-gal allergy. Eating meat from any four-legged animal can trigger a life-threatening reaction. A surprising number of foods and medical supplies are manufactured using meat products. “We have to really read the food labels carefully,” Laster said. In some cases, these products may not appear on the label. While the Lasters were still learning about this condition, Charles had seizures so violent that several vertebrae in his neck were broken. He had to have an operation to repair the damage.

He recently discovered the disease can lead to heart problems by causing excessive plaque buildup in the arteries. His alpha-gal allergy was a problem when he discovered he would need quadruple heart bypass surgery, since many medications are manufactured with animal products. He was transferred to a hospital in Nashville, where he spent his 25th wedding anniversary and hand-wrote his will. Despite the odds, the surgery was successful.

Grace Kelly Laster, photo by Ted Degener

He is now recovering at home and serving as the executor of his father’s estate. To cope, he has turned once again to art. Now he is creating a Rehabilitation Series of drawings. With the help of a friend, Phil Cheney, Laster is planning to release a limited edition book of his Hospital Series of drawings. Because of the pandemic and health problems, the Lasters are unable to attend art festivals at this time. They are now selling primarily on Facebook and on Instagram: @charleslaster and @gracekellylaster. For more information about the Lasters and their art, contact them at: lasterblaster@att.net.

MARGARET DAY ALLEN is the author of the book When the Spirit Speaks: Self-Taught Art of the South and a member of the Folk Art Society of America Advisory Board. She often writes about self-taught art.

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