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Cleveland artist John W. Carlson remembered in pair of memorial retrospectives

As a painter and as a person John W. Carlson was known for his empathy.

"He had an uncanny ability to make you feel that you were the only person in a room by truly listening and paying attention to you," said photographer Shari Wilkins, Carlson's partner and collaborator.

Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, Carlson gave up on art school after one year, preferring the steady paycheck he got as a garbage man in his hometown.

"He joked that he had an MFA in being a trash man, but that that influenced his art career because he started to see people in their most human form. And he started to study the landscape around him with a different eye," said Hilary Gent of HEDGE Gallery in Cleveland.

HEDGE continues to represent him and his art following his unexpected death in 2020.

Much of Carlson's art centered on his own personal grief following the death of his 26-year-old son, Ryan, in 2010.

His preferred medium was drawing with charcoal.

John W. Carlson_Kids_Pastel on paper_41”l x 23”H_2004_(black frame behind glass) (1 of 4).jpg
"Kids"
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John W. Carlson
John W. Carlson's charcoal drawings are on view at ARTneo inside 78th Street Studios.

"He specifically said it's the fact that it's created by fire. It's the remnants of being burnt. Almost kind of like the symbolic meaning of it is something that he said was also powerful," said Sabine Kretzschmar of ARTneo.

In 2019, Carlson and Wilkins traveled to Nebraska so he could see the house where his son had died.

This journey helped bring closure for Carlson who began adding color to his work.

This change was best demonstrated in his acclaimed exhibition from 2020, "BLUES."

Carlson_Dark Was The Night_oil + charcoal on canvas_36x48 inches_2018_SOLD.jpg
"Dark Was The Night"
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John W. Carlson
John W. Carlson's 2020 exhibit "BLUES" was the most acclaimed of his career.

While Carlson was also a musician who loved playing the blues, his friend, photographer Ruddy Roye, said Carlson's show was about more than the music.

"What he painted was what people felt that created the music. He wanted you to feel the anguish in the Middle Passage, the anguish in people who are fleeing slavery. For me, he painted what his pain looked like, and it resonated in the way he did," Roye said.

Less than a year after the blues exhibition, Carlson died of an abdominal aneurysm on Dec. 20, 2020. He was 66.

Even in death, Carlson showed his empathy as an organ donor donating his kidneys and liver.

"His donation enabled three other people to carry on... so it's to me, probably one of the biggest impacts and legacies that he has," Wikins said.

"John W. Carlson: A Retrospective" is on view at HEDGE Gallery and ARTneo in 78th Street Studios.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.
A native of Akron and graduate of Kent State University, Jean-Marie Papoi has been working in the field of video production for 15 years. Since joining Ideastream Public Media in 2016, she's enjoyed filming and telling the stories of community members throughout Northeast Ohio.