Karen Putz: I stumbled across Charles Wildbank a few years ago while doing a search for artists who are deaf/hard of hearing. I was completely blown away at Charles’ talent–his paintings look like photographs. What follows is a chat we had via Facebook.
Karen: First off, I LOVE your talent. Your paintings are amazing. Tell me how you went from a school teacher to doing art full time.
Charles: I taught for seven years both in Montreal and at Lexington School for the Deaf. I kind of burned out teaching, then made the move to do full-time painting in 1979. In fact, I am teaching a bunch of hearing artists today in Key Largo…this is a rare occurrence.
Karen: So, how did you make that leap?
Charles: I started with displaying art in store windows on Fifth Avenue, followed by doing art festivals, and occasional art galleries locally.
Karen: What was the process in which you were burned out with teaching and realized that art was what you wanted to do?
Charles: I believe and realize now that reality will reflect your current beliefs or become attracted (to those beliefs.) In wishing I was painting full time, perhaps many situations in teaching deteriorated and that convinced me to resign.
Karen: So, you’ve been doing this (art) since 1979–has it become everything you’ve dreamed it would be?
Charles: Yes…but the dreaming/fulfillment does not finish…more to go.
Karen: What’s next for you?
Charles: I will continue to live in both studios in New York and Florida by season. What’s next is usually kept sealed until ready for release into public.
Karen: Tell me about being deaf.
Charles: My parents swore I was deaf when I was a year old, but doctors dismissed it. My parents asked around and found out a new school was opening, Mill Neck Manor. My mom volunteered with other parents to carpool us. School was an old manor house, starting with about twelve deaf students from ages two to eight. I made my first visit to the school to meet my new teacher when I was going on two. Right away, I had my headphones put on and was given voice instruction. All through age five, I relied up gestures since sign language was not in the curriculum.
I enrolled there from ages two to six. I am still in touch with three of those original students to this day. I began to form words and sentences when I was six. Right then, my parents wanted to switch to a regular school close to home. Mill Neck was about a half hour bus ride then. The carpool eventually got replaced by a fleet of small, yellow school buses.
Going to a hearing school was a big challenge for me. Adjustments were made, such as moving me up to front row in the classroom and pairing me with a hearing student for note taking.
That was when I started to speak in sentences, learning from classmates in the school yard.
Karen: Did you discover art at a young age?
Charles: Yes, I was in love with pencils and crayons, seeing their transforming power through my little fingers, I could communicate better with any drawing surface! In challenging communication situations, I would resort to drawing to get my point across. As if that was not enough, I taught myself to write.
I craved guests at our home as an outlet to the world. I would beg them to write their name, the entire alphabet, etc. So, I was ready for hearing school by first grade, I guess.
You could say I was the nerd. I finished coloring books in one afternoon, exhausting every piece of paper! So it became obvious to all that I was the young artist.
My parents got me into piano lessons after school. I was impossible, so the teacher begged my parents to reconsider and perhaps get me art lessons–at age nine.
I learned pastels, charcoal, etc.
Sometimes I would miss my deaf classmates. I was lucky to find my way–two miles by bike–to the nearest deaf classmate from Mill Neck. We both did not learn sign until we were teens. We used pantomime, facial expressions, pointing, and lipread awkwardly formed words and names. By the time I was in college, he paid me a visit and taught me some fingerspelling,
Karen: Tell me about high school–what was that like?
Charles: High school was tough. Lots of note taking, and I was getting despondent over grades. Then my parents recruited a full-time tutor on weekends. That helped my (self) esteem tremendously, almost overnight.
Karen: Did you have deaf friends in high school?
Charles: Deaf people are just as bright as others, we just need to interface! Schools with inadequate resources have resulted in many unhappy and alienated students.
I only had those two original classmates from Mill Neck until grad school! Those two classmates paired, eventually got married, and had kids. I connect through Facebook these days.
When I turned 21, I became a teacher of deaf and this resulted in meeting so many new deaf friends.
Karen: Who mentored you in art?
Charles: During my teens, I carpooled with a friend for Saturday classes, drawing in charcoal or pastels with a Japanese woman in Long Island. It involved sketching from still life or photographs. As for portraits, I guess I had to learn on my own.
My first encounter with real art was when my dad drove me to Manhattan to see Raphael’s exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. I was spellbound… This was when I was fourteen…and my grandmother had the same copy in her home, so I connected immediately.
My grandmother encouraged me as she lived only around the block from me. She drove me to get art supplies and I got my first oils when I was eleven–actually age ten.
Karen: At what point in your life did you realize that art was your true passion?
Charles: By my fifth year of teaching, I was beginning to regret my career choice and I was missing painting. Two years later, the straw broke on camel’s back and I commenced full-time in 1978.
When I met David Hockney in New York, I was getting envious that I went right ahead and painted his large portrait. That’s when I really felt the passion of art.
I felt as if rocked back and forth on a rough sea…with decisions to make. I was undecided and in anguish. I guess that is what it took to make a solid decision. It was as if it was a great leap between graduation from art school and the art world.
Unusual opportunities presented themselves as reminders–pointing me in my direction when I felt so blind and uncertain.
I did not have mentors. I lived 45 minutes from the art capital of the world then. I really feel it helped to get my feet wet in the real art scene while I was a teacher. I was visiting close friends from art college in Brooklyn, and I was surrounded by the art muse all over again. So 1978 was a big year for my art career–for keeps.
Karen: What were some of the unusual opportunities that presented? I always say that sometimes going down the “wrong” path leads you to the right one with certainty.
Charles: Yes, indeed. We have to remember that these were pre-internet times–even no fax machines then. I relied on family members to help me get phone messages. It was a formidable communication obstacle. Otherwise, I headed to the train station to commute to the big city. I observed other art graduates doing shows in Manhattan, so that is what I did–hit the sidewalks and found spaces to hang my art. I asked 5th Avenue shops–meeting with window designers–and it was GO! They immediately took my art on and sales were coming in as I placed my famiy’s phone number int he store window of Bonwit Tellers and Cartier.
Karen: That’s amazing. You simply went big.
Charles: Then I got married that year to a lovely deaf lady. At a most severe illness on my ex-wife’s part, we had to part ways after 25 years of marriage. Right now, I’m in a new relationship with Mary, who is not deaf. We both share an ardent art scene interest.
Karen: Were you always confident in your talent?
Charles: Not always.
Karen: Tell me about that.
Charles: It took years to not take it personally, what the reactions to my art were–always mixed reviews in hyperboles in either direction. This, I realized, is the province of the art world that all artists share.
Karen: That’s true of writers, too.
Charles: Yeah. It reminds me of duality. I find writers a wonderful companion in the arts, both sharing a resonating passion, we cannot do without the other.
Karen: Art speaks differently to each person and not reflective of talent.
Charles: Yes, indeed.
Karen: But it’s hard not to take it personally.
Charles: You tell me… In my advanced years, it is there, but the effects are very slight with the power level of echoes.
Karen: So, it gets better as you become older and wiser, eh?
Charles: It is there, but I learn to ignore and stay focused on passion itself.
Karen: What’s it like to begin a painting…and the middle…and the final stroke?
Charles: The artists seem to go through stages in their sequence, that of emulating the masters, then transcending them, to find the muse is ever elusive. Then the “noise” of the masses is crossed over and the artist best listens to that little voice within more.
Dedication is the real master, it transforms through manhandling the materials with increased skill and confidence. The artist gets past that struggle with the brush and attention is diverted more toward the vision and final creation. The doings become like a blur of near automatic activity…in contrast to what it will become.
Karen: Do you find when you ignore the “voice,” you become off path?
Charles: As of now, I can see any vision and put it into a future space and time, with as best-estimated matching reality…this is the hard part…just seeing the vision in its coherent whole, yet in a vacuum, all inside the head. I must have discarded many ideas and inspirations in the process. Many are daunting…so those real masters out there are really beating the odds against non-existence of a dream, yet manifest it into physical form. I am all dreams and ideas, awake or asleep.
Often what we dream has NO BASIS in reality! This is why some of our creations are met with violent reactions, good or bad. Then over time, it becomes the mundane and taken for granted, with the help of the bombardment of the mention by press and media.
Karen: What separates a good artist from great, or a mere artist from a master?
Charles: It is when wonder is replaced by capital letters in the sky….WONDER. We come from wonder and therefore aspire to offer wonder. It is just amazing when some cease to be awake and let the marvels pass them by! That “wonder of a child” is a wondrous ideal to keep maintained by everyone.
Karen: So true. Many lose the wonder, and go into routine.
Charles: A great artist is a magician, really. Every aspect of the illusion is addressed sufficient to the overwhelming of the audience’s sense. So, good artists have this uncanny ability to “get out of the box” on any given idea. Perspective has to do with this, and with that, the ability to see from outside points of view. This is probably how great art makes it through the centuries, culled through years and years of selection process.
And for myself, history will tell. Ultimately, the artist should be the first to derive satisfaction from the new creation at the point of its manifestation or its hatching–and forget the consequences be what they may–and allow the creations to continue to deliver on their own…as if they are offspring…letting them have their own life.
Karen: I am floored by your art, it as a depth and a richness that truly stands out. Who does your marketing?
Charles: I enjoy relinquishing control the moment I release the art. This perhaps enables me to stay creating. I do all my marketing. I want the art to attract the marketing. This is just me being hard on myself and to this day, I am still of the emotion that the best is yet to come. This is what perhaps gets me going and going.
I tend not to look back at my creations. I enjoy so much of the art at large out there, and this is what I dance to the tune of… I love the company of artists as we seem to have a common understanding of the responsibility we harbor.
Karen: What’s your big dream?
Charles: My dream is like that big carrot dreamt by a small carrot…I naturally expand on this dreaming in ways I could muster, perhaps an ever increasing, expanding scale…it would, of course, involve great form, colors, sensation, sufficient to staisfy me and even those I love.
Like a pencil, our lives are an instrument. Like it or not, we work with what we got and transcend our perceived boundaries just to remind ourselves perhaps we are not what we seem.
Like an hourglass, where in that glass is time, really? At the top, at the pinched middle, or any of those spent grains of sand? It is a recurring dream, that hourglass, so I may make something of it. I think of sand a lot these days…speaking of sand, going to the beach daily just confirms that.
I work in several tiers–small art pieces, some larger pieces, and for later, some big projects that the world has yet to view. But a lot still inside my head!
Karen: If you were to give a piece of advice to someone who has a deep passion, what would you say?
Charles: I would say that passion is largely a self-construction, it is something that requires good self search, especially while making ends meet. This creation at best is allowed to consume the artist and integrate with discipline into all life activities possible, in order to best sustain passion. One has to be willing to face the blows, the mistakes, the trials, the efforts–and they have no price or liability considerations. In other words, best not to weep over lost battles, but to forge on… The great lengths may not count in other’s view, but ultimately, those efforts to unwasted and hopefully get rewarded. It is a road that demand suppression of any notion of regret.
Karen: Have there been times when you struggled and almost gave up to get a “job?”
Charles: Teaching was one of those jobs, Cleaning pools, even! Restaurants, just like all those actors who made it. My greatest mastery in my regard, is the newfound ability to accept the outcome–good or bad–and move on. That is our real sovereignty–integrally whole all the way, not just in thought, but in emotion, and living it. Not caring what others think, or taking it to heart. I would hope this makes my expression of art go uninhibited.
Karen: And it applies to all aspects of life. When we step into our authenticity, there are no boundaries to what we can do.
Charles: I like what you just said!
For more information on Charles and to view his gallery: Charles Wildbank