Friday, July 7, 2006

Carl R. Blair: Biographical Essay

The Struggle For Nightfall, 2006
Acrylic on canvas
19 x 16 in.

By Wim Roefs

Carl Blair has been on many levels a driving force in the arts since he came to South Carolina in 1957. He’s one of the state’s most prominent painters. He was a leading force in making Bob Jones University’s art department a central part of the Upstate South Carolina art scene. He is among the founders and owners of one of the state’s oldest art galleries. He’s been on scores of local and statewide boards and commissions. And he’s been a mentor to students and friend to many colleagues, providing both moral and practical support for more than a few. In 2005 he won for Lifetime Achievement the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, South Carolina’s Governor’s Award for the Arts.

As an artist, Blair was with colleagues such as William Halsey, Corrie McCallum, Merton Simpson, Arthur Rose and J. Bardin in the vanguard of modern art in South Carolina. His prominence as a painter is marked by several museum retrospectives since 1995. In 1999, he was included in “100 Years/100 Artists: Views of the 20th Century in South Carolina Arts,” the South Carolina State Museum’s look back at the 20th century. “When people think of South Carolina,” Greenville artist and independent curator Sharon Campbell already said in the 1980s, “I am sure they think of Carl Blair as being one of the foremost artists in this area.”

Blair worked his way to success through several styles and approaches, as the current exhibition of the Margaret Blair Art Collection shows. With the landscape as his main subject matter, he arrived at an abstracted style and aesthetics that allowed for great variety while always revealing Blair’s touch. His paintings, Blair has written, are neither realistic nor abstract but “visual poetry” and “statements about nature and the aura which surrounds it, placing emphasis on the formal elements.”

After forty years, fellow artist Edward Rice commented in 1995, Blair’s work still stands. “From his somber, largely derivative, early works to his joyous, secure, recent canvasses, Mr. Blair has shown us how to see the splendor of everyday existence; the face of a Kansas rock quarry is transformed into a cathedral wall of faceted translucent alabaster; the light on fall foliage is fixed on the canvas as crushed pigment straight from the colorman’s mill.”

As an art teacher for four decades, Blair helped BJU become a hub for fine art production. His influence has been evident as former students such as Jason Wagoner, Eric Benjamin, Mark Mulfinger, and Diane Kilgore Condon and others have made names for themselves. “Carl was an inspiration to all of us students in countless ways,” Kilgore Condon wrote in a letter supporting Blair’s Verner nomination. “I fully credit him with the unflagging support that kept me in school and ultimately, in the arts to this present day.”

During her seventeen years since school, Kilgore Condon wrote, Blair “served unfailingly on our behalf as a mentor, friend and source of information and support.” When in the early 2000s she and others started the ArtBomb Studio, a large artist-run studio complex in Greenville, Blair showed his enthusiasm and regularly checked on the progress. “Never once did he attempt to quell our enthusiasm despite the size of our project.”

Blair also taught in the summer honors program at his state’s Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and at the Fine Arts Center for the Greenville County School District. He also taught night and summer classes for two decades at the Greenville County Museum of Art. “His students learn a great deal more than painting from him, as do many of the rest of us,” Sharon Campbell wrote in the catalogue for a 1998 Blair retrospective at BJU. “We learn to live lives of compassion, diligence, and freedom. He is invaluable to the artistic life of this region…”

As co-founder, part owner and president of one of the state’s oldest and most prominent galleries, Hampton III in Taylors, just outside of Greenville, Blair from the early 1970s helped provide an early outlet for contemporary art in the state. Hampton III’s importance cannot be overstated. In addition to Halsey, McCallum and Bardin, the gallery from the start provided representation for Leo Twiggs, Jeanet Dreskin, Bette Lee Coburn, Tom Flowers, John Acorn, Darell Koons, Emery Bopp and others, many of whom were leading contemporary South Carolina artists. The gallery also tapped into subsequent generations as it exhibited work by Philip Whitley, Edward Rice, Bob Chance, Alice Munn, Jim Craft, Jeri Burdick, David Yaghjian, Janusz Zadurowicz, Dave Appleman and many others.

In recent years, Hampton III has organized landmark exhibitions of works by Halsey and Edmund Yaghjian that helped establish new price levels and recognition for those deceased icons of post-war South Carolina art. The gallery also reintroduced veteran artists such as Sigmund Abeles, Charles Quest and Alta Alberga. Blair played a crucial role in all this. Between Hampton III and BJU, he has, by his estimate, hung more than 1,500 exhibitions.

Statewide, too, Blair helped promote and steer the development of the arts. He held office in the legendary Guild of South Carolina Artists, which served visual artists from 1950 through the 1980s, especially with its annual statewide exhibitions. In 1968 he was appointed to Greenville’s Arts in Public Places Commission. He served on the acquisition committee of the S.C. Arts Commission from 1969-1972. In 1987, the governor of South Carolina appointed Blair to his first three-year term on the S.C. Arts Commission Board of Directors. He was reappointed in 1990 and 1993 and elected chairman of the board in 1994 and 1996. Blair also sprung into action in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo wrecked coastal South Carolina, organizing an effective fundraising campaign for artists affected by the storm.

Blair was born in 1932 in Kansas, where he grew up on a farm and, by his own account, “dreamed a lot... I spent a lot of time in the woods, got to know trees and plants and atmosphere, the effect of the sun and light… I took everything in, stored those impressions up.” In 1956, he received a BFA from the University of Kansas; the next year, he earned an MFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design. He married Margaret Ruble, and the couple, also in 1957, moved to Greenville, where Blair joined the art faculty at BJU.

Margaret Blair became Blair’s rock, both personally and professionally. She was, Blair often claims, “the brains behind the operation.” His wife, Blair told Deb Sim for a Greenville Museum 1995 retrospective catalogue, “is smarter than I am, she is better looking, she has a vision… She can see way farther ahead than I can… She has been everything to me, and if I have any success as an artist, I owe much of it, most of it, to her.”

After coming to BJU, the Blairs decided that Carl would without compromise try to make the best art he could. “We agreed that if we didn’t sell anything, we’d have to live with it,” Blair told Sim. “We wouldn’t short-cut or do pretty things that we thought would sell. We would do good art. And we lived with it for years and years… If I did sell anything it would be five, ten, fifteen, twenty dollars. After a number of years of struggling and being true to our art dream, I did start selling a few things.”

Soon after their arrival in Greenville, Blair began teaching at the Greenville Museum, too. In the 1960s he also taught several years at the Kansas City Art Institute’s summer school. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Blair began his long involvement with the Guild of South Carolina Artists, entering work in its annual art competition and starting the string of awards he would receive from that organization. He frequently began to collect awards from other statewide, regional and national competitions, too, receiving a good hundred altogether.

Critics were impressed with the technical ability Blair demonstrated in his abstracted landscapes. University of Georgia art professor A. Graham Collier called him “a lyrical poet.” One judge, Louis Bosa, chair of the advanced painting department at the Cleveland Institute of Art, selected Blair for a top award because “the artist had captured the most strange mood of nature” the judge had seen for some time. Blair’s entry, Bosa wrote, captured “the feeling of wind blowing, as well as almost the growth of nature.” The art competitions took Blair’s work to venues such as Atlanta’s High Museum, the Isaac Delgado Museum in New Orleans, the Montgomery Museum of Art in Alabama, Florida’s Ringling Museum of Art, the Mint Museum in Charlotte, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Clemson University and, in his home state, the Greenville Museum, the Gibbes Museum in Charleston and the Columbia Museum of Art.

In 1962, Blair was invited to join the Joanne Scott Gallery in Norfolk, Va. Six years later, the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York City followed. He was included in Prize Winning Art Book Six in 1966 and in Paris, France’s Le Revue Modern in 1965 and 1968. In 1969, Blair also was part of the first major survey of visual arts in South Carolina, the “1st S.C. State Invitational” at the Columbia Museum of Art. That same year, he was included in Jack Morris’ book Contemporary Artists of South Carolina, published by the Greenville Museum.

Two years later, Blair was invited to “Six South Carolina Painters,” an invitational at Clemson University, and to an exhibition of art from ten Southeastern states at Georgia College at Milledgeville, juried by Elaine De Kooning. Also in 1971, Blair became president of the Greenville Artists Guild. The next year he was the first person to receive the “Annual Director’s Award” from the Greenville Museum. In 1972, with Emery Bopp, Darell Koons, and Richard Rupp, he founded Hampton III.

Blair kept up a busy exhibition schedule throughout the 1970s and 1980s. His reach extended well beyond the Southeast. One of his paintings was in the 1984 group exhibition “Portrait of the South” at the Palazzo Venesia Museum in Rome, Italy. Blair had his first major solo museum exhibition in 1982, at North Carolina’s Asheville Museum of Art. He participated in several in-state museum exhibitions. In addition to solo gallery exhibitions at Erskine College in South Carolina and his own Hampton III Gallery, Blair had one-man shows in Atchison, Kan., Scottsdale, Ariz., and, repeatedly, at the Jerald Melberg Gallery in Charlotte, N.C.

Throughout the 1990s and after, Blair kept up his torrid exhibition pace at museums, institutional venues and commercial galleries, including Melberg, Hampton III and galleries in Columbia, Charleston, Atlanta, Kansas City, Mo., Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio, and Vero Beach, Fla. He also showed at Blue Spiral I in Asheville, N.C., the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga., and the Las Vegas Art Museum. Blair’s work was part of the U.S. State Department’s Art in the Embassies program, in Egypt and Mauritania. In 1994, Blair was invited to the S.C. State Museum’s “Centennial Celebration Exhibition.” Blair’s work is in more then 2,500 private, corporate and public collections.

The Greenville Museum in 1995, BJU’s Gustafson Fine Arts Center in 1998, the Burroughs & Chapin Museum in Myrtle Beach in 2002 and the Blue Ridge Arts Council in Seneca in 2003 organized Blair retrospectives. The Greenville retrospective also traveled to the State Museum in Columbia. Both the Greenville Museum and BJU published catalogues. “For over four decades,” Greenville Museum director Tom Styron wrote, “Carl Blair has been a vital force in the Greenville arts community, setting standards of professionalism and personal integrity that inspire all who know him. Carl is the very soul of creativity, and he is a terrific painter. From his earliest brooding landscapes to his latest bold abstractions, his vision of transcendent energy, order, and purpose has remained steadfast.”

Blair retired from BJU in 1998 but didn’t slow down as an artist. In addition to the never-ending stream of solo and group gallery shows, several recent museum exhibitions testify to his continued relevance to the South Carolina art scene. In 2000, the Greenville Museum organized an exhibition of Blair’s black-and-white monotypes. In 2001, the Columbia Museum of Art followed with an exhibition of Blair’s grid-patterned landscape paintings and monotypes. These works, Bill Bodine, the museum’s curator at the time, wrote in the catalogue, “speak eloquently of Carl’s lifelong pursuit of an art that combines elements of both representation and abstraction.”

In January 2005, yet another solo exhibition closed at the Spartanburg (S.C.) Museum of Art just after a show of five prominent, historic South Carolina artists, including Blair, opened at the Greenville Museum. Blair also had solo exhibitions at Lewis & Clark Gallery in Columbia and at the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County in Camden, S.C.

When Blair was nominated for the Verner Award, the letters supporting him did more than testify to the quality and extent of his contributions as an artist, educator, gallery operator, and arts advocate and administrator, although they did that. What stood out were the many references to his loyalty toward colleagues and his quiet support for many of them individually, including his willingness to ferry other artists’ artwork around the state to exhibitions and competitions. “Carl is one of the most non-egocentric artists that I have ever met,” wrote artist John Acorn. “I do not know of any other individual,” former student Kilgore Condon wrote, who “has stepped into my life time and time again with friendship, respect, humor, guidance and a strong moral compass and spiritual faith, hoping to see me excel in my own personal artwork and in my hopes for Greenville’s artistic growth.”

What also stood out among the Verner letter writers was that many were surprised with the request for a support letter; they assumed Blair already had a Verner. “WHOA!!!,” Columbia furniture designer and Verner Award winner Clark Ellefson proclaimed, “Carl Blair has not received the Verner? How can this be? I had always assumed Carl had been awarded this recognition – he has done so much!”

© Wim Roefs
July 2006

Wim Roefs is a free-lance writer, independent curator, and art dealer. He is the owner of if ART, International Fine Art Services, in Columbia, S.C.