There’s no part of growing that isn’t retracing your steps. It’s a complicated, one-step-forward-two-steps-back process that, while frustrating, eventually helps grow you into a different version of yourself.
In late August, artist Charles Mason III talked about this process and how it is influencing this stage of his career. The conversation was part of the Station North Arts District Art Walk, a series of events held this summer that gave residents a close-up look at various facets of Baltimore’s arts community. Sitting inside the Waller Gallery, Mason spoke on how changes in his life are reflected in his work. He said he’s still adjusting to being at the Waller and figuring out where he goes from here.
“It’s about realizing that I’m in an uncomfortable state and growing at the same time,’ he says. “It’s this weird feeling where you don’t know where you’re about to land at, but life is still happening, and you have to deal with what’s happening in life.”
The Waller Gallery is the brainchild of Joy Davis, who, in 2017, converted a row home at 2420 North Calvert Street into a space dedicated to works by people of color. Mason began his residency at Waller Gallery in July. Before that, he had a residency at Patterson Park community arts space Creative Alliance. He has participated in exhibitions in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City, and his work is on display in the James E. Lewis Museum of Art in Baltimore and in the Whitney Museum of American Art Special Collections in New York City.
Mason’s most arresting pieces are large, layered collages that are mounted on a few of the museum’s walls. Some of the pieces have the painted image of a flower sprawled across them, a recurring theme in Mason’s work. Paint, old clothing, and other found objects are layered on to create texture. The colors in some of the pieces — mostly earth tones of rust and burnt orange and mustard yellow — remind me of my solidly ‘80s childhood, and my well-worn copies of Ezra Jack Keats’ “Peter’s Chair” and “The Snowy Day.”
He explains that the colors don’t necessarily have deep meaning; he is often working with what he has on hand.
“At one point, it was what people gave me,” he tells the small crowd gathered for the talk. “So whatever you gave me, I was using. So it could have been yellows, I was using a lot of yellows. It could have been blues.”
Speaking with Baltimore Museum of Art BMA Curator and Department Head for Contemporary Art Jessica Bell Brown, visual arts curator Thomas James, and Baltimore-based Goya Contemporary museum Gallery Assistant Marian Simms, surrounded by a circle of mostly younger Black folks, he explains that in graduate school (he graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2019), it was easy to find supplies to create his work. Just by dumpster diving he could get his hands on paints, brushes, and more — all for free. In his residency at Creative Alliance he was still sheltered, working under under the umbrella of a large, professionalized arts organization. Now, he’s out of the nest and fending more for himself.
“Waller Gallery came at a really important juncture,” he says. “I was talking to Joy and tapping into my research, and that’s how I ended up here.”
He says once he has been busy at Waller figuring out what to keep of his past processes, and where and how to innovate. “I’m really building up surfaces way more, I’m really constructing spaces more,” he said.
“I just had this freedom that I was like, ‘I’m done with Creative Alliance, I’m done with grad school,’ so I was unpacking that and I took a lot of risks.”
Mason’s work also wrestles with addressing Blackness — or not addressing it. “I am steadily wrestling within myself the performative act of blackness for me at any instance,” he writes in his bio on his webpage. “This leads me to think and create abstractly on how blackness can be experienced through installation and material.”
At the talk, he spent some time talking about a piece that stretches across the floor in the front room of the gallery. It’s typed words on sheets of clear plastic:
“They are the enemy, they are the other, and they are usually
To not sound as cliche as that may seem, they are those
Who I don’t trust, they are the faculty, mentors, friends and
Colleagues I look and second-guess every step of the way.”
That’s a bit of a reclamation of his past, too. Writing was his first art form. “Even now, all I do is write. I take notes, I research, I write about how I feel.”
As the event wound down, I asked him to project himself out of this moment and into the future. When he is older, more established, with access to more resources, would his work change?
“That scares me,” he said. “If I have the same ease, will I have the same tenacity to create objects?
Mason thinks out loud about his connection to his father, and recalls seeing him as a man who made do with what he had. “
”I don’t know if my connection will be further away, or just because I have more access, I’ll be able to make more work,” he said. “It does scare me to see if I have that same reaction, that same gut instinct … and the same resilience because you’re kind of making things out of nothing.”