In his autobiographical novel Black Boy, Richard Wright tells of his seventh-grade schoolteacher ridiculing him for wanting to become a writer. “You’ll never be a writer,” Wright learns. About 1959—more than a generation later—a different teacher, in central Alabama, asked eight-year-old Charlie Lucas and his classmates what they intended to do when they grew up. Lucas remembers the episode well. He had learned “art” at the feet of his great-grandfather, a blacksmith. “All of (the other children were) saying stuff like ‘policeman’ and ‘fireman,” he says,” and I told her I want to make stuff like my granddaddy. She wanted to know what that was, and I described it to her. She said, “You’re talking about art, and that’s for white folks. You got to learn a trade!” I knew then that school didn’t have nothing for me, so I left.”
Lucas had worked a bit at age seven as a water boy on a construction crew, so he went back to that. He learned various construction skills over the next twenty years, during which time he lived briefly in Florida and operated a machine in a shrimp factory. He returned to Alabama and built a house across the road from his grandmother in the settlement of Pink Lily. In 1984, at the age of thirty-three, Lucas fell from the back of a truck at a construction site and was permanently disabled. He then became a full-time artist, creating welded-metal sculptures from used automobile and machine parts. Before that, he had limited his work to practical things, like toy weapons, wagons, bicycles, and hobby-horses, which he gave to friends. Yet Lucas had bigger plans for his art. “I always had big ideas for myself,” he says, “but was scared of them. Then one day I said, ‘Charlie, it’s time to do it!’”
“Charlie was always special,” his grandmother said. (She lived across the road from her grandson.) “I had to be hardest on him ‘cause he was the one with the promise. I always keep my eye on him. Lord, he was making soldiers and puppets and dolls and little pieces of furniture when he was hardly big enough to walk. I knew he was going to grow up to be special. Ain’t none of what you say a surprise to me.” When he was younger, however, he was convinced her tough love made her “one mean old lady.”
Where do Charlie Lucas’s ideas for his art come from? A prominent New York art dealer, upon seeing photographs of his art, was certain that Lucas was studying the oeuvre of Richard Stankiewicz; “I guarantee it,” he said. And many people claim that Lucas’s large metal animals reflect a familiarity with the work of Deborah Butterfield. As of this writing, however, Lucas’s many influences do not include Stankiewicz or Butterfield (if he has seen their work), for Lucas has always had ample sources nearby from which to draw inspiration. His father is a machinist. His father’s mother made quilts, dolls, and appliquéd embroideries. Lucas’s grandmother remembers that her grandfather “made all kinds of things with his hands for the family,” and that “he learned from his own father.” Her brother, Lucas’s great-uncle, made life-size clay statues that he placed around the yard, both to entertain and to “protect” the family. Lucas’s sister is a quilter, as is his mother, who also makes dolls. His maternal grandmother and great-grandmother were also quilters. Lucas’s maternal grandfather was a gunsmith and basket maker. His grandfather’s father was a well-known blacksmith in the area, who in addition to the traditional products of his trade, made baskets and iron and wood objects for his family and the community. Lucas has trouble describing the forms of these objects, saying only that they were “real strange and powerful.” It was this great-grandfather (referred to as “Granddaddy” by Lucas) that was Charlie’s mentor and source of inspiration: “I relate to the metal because I see my granddaddy more that way,” Lucas explains. Lucas has also discovered a female cousin who is a basket maker. There are now seven generations of artists and craftspersons identifiable in Lucas’s family history. Continuing with that tradition, he has taught his four sons to make things.
When Lucas was asked to describe the iron objects made by his great-grandfather the blacksmith, he apologized that he did not have the facility with language to do so, and regretted that he could not recall them precisely enough to draw them. In 1989, he visited folk art collector Herbert W. Hemphill in New York. Hemphill had recently returned from Africa and had brought back several iron ritual staves, made by blacksmith/priests of the Bamana, a West African culture. When he saw them, Lucas became very excited, saying, “That’s it! That’s it! That’s like my granddaddy’s stuff!”
Many of Charlie Lucas’s sculptures stand along a rural road and in the fields around his house. His art is a convergence of the techniques of the blacksmith, the quilter, and the basket maker. He is, in essence, a modern-day root sculptor. But because the hands of his male antecedents bent, twisted, and hammered horseshoes, wagon wheels, and automobile engines, Lucas’s creations grow not out of the forests around him but from the junk heaps of the industrial age. Wood carver/root sculptor Jesse Aaron, born in 1887, said, “I find pieces of wood that got something in them. When I see the right piece, I know what’s there.” Root sculptor Ralph Griffin, born in 1925, said, “I never made nothing that wasn’t already in the wood when I found it.” Root sculptor Bessie Harvey, born in 1929, said, “I go into the woods and listen. There is spirits in every piece of wood. I listen to them. They tell me what they want to be.” Charlie Lucas, born in 1951, said, “I only bring metal home what I see something in. I don’t just collect junk, I look for pieces with character in them, and they show themselves to me.”
There is more than technique here. Lucas has created a series of characters—people and animals—who interact in a highly autobiographical morality play. Though the audience for the drama has grown beyond his family to his community and even to a diverse array of art collectors, dealers, and curiosity seekers, the primary viewer for whom the work is intended is the artist himself. Lucas’s art is about Lucas. Though there is some degree of disingenuousness in his pronouncement that he is “just the Tin Man, tinkling around with my toys,” there is truth to it. Lucas creates a body of work that serves as a constant reminder to him of momentous events in his own life or of memorable people he has met and known. This art is intended to remind him of his shortcomings or serious mistakes, perhaps with the expectation that the presence of the sculptures will prevent the recurrence of the mistakes or will protect him from himself.
Three-Way Bicycle, a piece made shortly after his disabling injury, describes an important decision Lucas faced about his future: “When I come to the crossroads I got three choices about which way to go. I think a lot on it, ‘cause if I make the wrong one, I can’t go back.” The bicycle has three front wheels, each straining to go in its own direction. Lucas saw his choices as follows: to make art full time, to move to a neighboring county and become a farmer, or to retire from work and draw disability payments.
Two other sculptures relate to his injury. Angel Playing at the Foot of My Bed, with a harp like musical instrument made literally from the end piece of an iron bed, depicts a low point in Lucas’s life, which he remembers vividly: “After I fell off that truck, I’m laying up flat on my back, and I hurt so bad I thought I wasn’t never going to be able to get up. And then it’s like an angel standing there, playing the most beautiful music. And it says, ‘Charlie, you got stuff to do, get up!’ and I got up.”
Eighteen-Wheeler is a life-size reindeer, made of metal bands, woven by the sculptor with the ease and dexterity of a master basket maker. The piece once fell from Lucas’s pickup on the highway to Montgomery. The reindeer was partially destroyed by a passing truck (an eighteen-wheel tractor trailer; hence the title) and was restored by Lucas with a different color of metal banding. The result is a work composed of two distinct halves, symbolizing the artist himself: “That animal is me—broke, and put back.” and it is also a man who envisions himself with two separate identities: “I’m Charlie Lucas in that house over here (in his home). Charlie Lucas got a wife named Annie and six children. When I go across the road to my studio and put on my welding mask, I become the Tin Man.”
A self-portrait identifies that transformation. Tin Man is a gangly male figure constructed of iron rods, precariously balanced, wearing what appears to be a mask. The abstracted features of the mask are metal objects whose forms resemble the letters C and L, the artist’s initials.
Lucas discovered that art could signify positive forces within him. Power Man, a 1985 piece constructed of scraps salvaged from an Alabama Power Company project near his home, offered insight into his potential. “When I started putting that thing together . . . it was like I was pulling energy from another world, like calling up electricity. It made me know I could do anything I want to.”
Another work offers self-criticism and a warning: When the Brains Melt Down, the Dog Eats the Brain. Lucas is pointing out the danger of excessive drinking. The animal is fashioned in a woven style like Eighteen-Wheeler, in baling wire. His “brain” is a heating coil melted down from overuse or defect. A bicycle handlebar projects hornlike above the animal’s brain, a metaphoric control for errant behavior.
Saturday Night Special issues a more subtle warning. Lucas attached it to his porch, near his front door. A grotesque male figure plays what appears to be a guitar but might also be a rifle or a shotgun. Saturday night is a time for fun and music-making. But the piece—whose title is slang for a popular weapon of death—reminds artist and audience that propensities for pleasure and violence often lurk together. Pleasure, labor, and infirmity are all linked in The Old Slide-Trombone Player, a piece that echoes the message of Saturday Night Special. A worker pushes a wheelbarrow and carries his musical instrument.
When Lucas’s marriage was shaken by a problem he attributed to an in-law, Lucas created Broken Home from a window panel with fragments of shattered glass. Into its rectangular form, Lucas incorporated several of his favorite devices: the autobiographical bicycle seat mask; a serpent (the intruding in-law); and a fan blade, quite literally the deus ex machina that will blow away the offending serpent.
Many of Lucas’s other pieces—Time Man, Radio Man, and The Old Fisherman, for example—portray alter egos of the artist or people who have significantly affected him. Old Roman Soldiers does both. Lucas describes it as “a man pulling a good friend off the battlefield where he been hurt bad,” but it is also a wounded man attempting to carry himself from a different kind of battlefield.
In Let My Spirit Flow Free, the artist creates his personal redemption song while paying tribute to his great-grandfather. This piece, like most of Lucas’s sculpture, consists of several symbolic objects, visual metaphors arranged within the confines of a metal wheel three feet in diameter (the sculpture’s honoree, King Jackson the blacksmith, spent much of his work time making wagon wheels). Lucas said, “This is for my granddaddy. His spirit was free. This piece make my spirit free like him.” Undulating wires suggesting flowing water connect a number of metal components. One is a mask fashioned from the lid of an oil drum. Others include a fragment of an exhaust pipe and a radio speaker, both from wrecked automobiles, and chromed kitchen faucet. Each element contributes to the chorus: the oil drum top, with its opening a spiritual eye, an outlet for he energy contained within; the exhaust pipe, which facilitates the banishment of noxious gases; a radio speaker—”I can hear my granddaddy talk to me from his world”; and finally, the faucet, in the “on “position, allowing, if the work of art performs its role successfully, the release of Lucas’s spirit.
Quotations in this article are taken from conversations with the Lucases in 1986 and 1987. Quotations of other artists are taken from conversations with the author that took place in 1974 (Jesse Aaron) and 1987 (Ralph Griffin and Bessie Harvey).