Leader of the Pack – Richard Carlyon

Richard Carlyon drowned his sorrow in an early morning beer.

What else was there to do after getting fired on your first day?

Traffic in Columbus Circle was a mess. When it finally got moving, he was already late. Carlyon’s boss stood in front of the time clock and turned him right around. It felt like the end of the world for a twentysomething kid in New York City.

That evening at his apartment, Carlyon watched the day’s gridlock on the news. He saw himself snarled in traffic, racing to save his job. Then he saw what caused the backup: an enormous dead whale on a flatbed truck.

In his rush, Carlyon was oblivious to the beached monster winding its way downtown.

But that was more than 50 years ago. Today, the 75-year-old Carlyon is a master at paying attention. Seeing things that other people don’t is what makes him a good artist. Getting others to do the same is what made him a great teacher.

“My tendency is to try to live in the present,” Carlyon said. “You try to be alive to what presents itself, especially in dumb, plain everyday circumstances.”

Dick Carlyon is a godfather of the Richmond arts community. He began teaching in 1955 at Richmond Professional Institute (it became Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968).

In the decades that followed, he encouraged thousands of young artists to paint, sculpt, draw and dance. He survived pop, postmodernism, conceptual and performance art.

Even today, as the 21st-century VCU arts program earns national accolades, professor emeritus Carlyon remains more than relevant.

Many argue that he’s always been a few steps ahead.

On Dec. 10, during winter commencement and a standing ovation, VCU President Eugene Trani awarded Carlyon the university’s highest honor, the Presidential Medallion. The award is given for extraordinary achievement in learning and commit- ment to the mission of VCU.

Carlyon’s 42 years on the art-school front lines more than qualified him.

“He was just an obvious choice,” said local choreographer Chris Burnside, a member of the selection committee and a longtime friend.

“No one else has impacted like him,” said Burnside. “Generation after generation would agree he was the most inspiring teacher they ever had.”

Bev Reynolds volunteered to curate an exhibit of Carlyon’s work at her gallery to coincide with the award.

“Richard Carlyon: Selected Paintings and Drawings 1981-2005” is on display upstairs at the Reynolds Gallery through Friday. The exhibit includes canvases from the ‘80s, videos from the ‘90s and ink drawings from 2004. The work is a mix of moods and media that reflect the artist’s versatility, enduring curiosity and fascinations for order and improvisation.

On the surface, Carlyon’s geometric paintings seem easy to digest: floating rectangles and fat lines. Each canvas is stark and immaculate, but a closer look rewards the viewer with subtle shifts of color.

In comparison, the framed drawings look like the scribbling of a madman. Simple illustrations and chopped sentences are piled on top of one another and smeared into gibberish. Each page looks mangled by a rogue copy machine.

But there’s a method to the apparent madness. Carlyon determined each drawing’s subject matter by chance. He organized a system that included 20 boxes of image clippings and grids on each page. Both were numbered. What went where depended on a roll of three dice.

“It takes forever to do,” he said. “I have no idea how it’s going to end up.”

The exhibit gives “Carlyon the artist” a chance to step out from the shadow of “Carlyon the professor.” Because most remember him as the man in black at the front of the class, a witty, white- mustached man who told tall tales about contemporary artists.

Carlyon became a rite of passage. Many would consider their arts education incomplete without at least one of his classes under their belt. “He’s a legend in the city,” said Reynolds.

When Reynolds moved from New York City in the mid-’70s, one of the first things she did was sign up for a contemporary art class at VCU. Carlyon taught the course.

“He was totally mesmerizing,” Reynolds said. “After taking his class, I felt that Richmond was going to be a good place to be.”

Carlyon’s lectures flowed like stand-up comedy. He didn’t believe in textbooks, and he didn’t drone over an endless carousel of slides. Empty seats were rare, and if you showed up late you sat on the floor.

“We had a freshman Intro to Arts class, and no one ever missed,” said Burnside. “No one wanted to miss what came out of his mouth.”

“He was a real star,” said former student Carol Sutton, who studied art at RPI in the mid-’60s. Today, she lives and works in Ontario, Canada.

“It was amazing,” she said. “His 8 a.m. art history class would be full. People were standing in the aisles.”

In 1993, Carlyon received the Distinguished Teaching of Art award from the College Art Association of America. In 1997, he retired from full-time teaching.

Life in retirement went smoothly until doctors discovered something that didn’t belong: a tumor on his bladder.

“I was told I could do nothing and in 10 months I would not be here,” said Carlyon. “Or I could do chemotherapy and probably have two years or more.”

The “or more” got his attention. Carlyon spent this past summer in the hospital undergoing surgery and chemotherapy treatments. Since returning home in August, he has spent most of his time immobile in a comfortable chair.

He was a thin man to start with, and the illness has put deeper shadows in his face. He has not abandoned his signature black, though his clothes fit more loosely. He’s even added some color with a red blanket and matching sweatshirt.

His dark glasses and sideways smile still make him the coolest guy in the room.

“The disconnect from people is very, very hard on me,” Carlyon said. “I can’t even watch television anymore. Because when you watch television, you see people doing dumb things or brilliant things … you see the world. And I’m not in it. I’m in this house.”

At times, he said, returning to studio practice seemed like a fantasy. But his energy has improved.

“I’ll never be well the way I was before – it’s impossible,” said Carlyon. “But I can be well in another way.”

He’s sick of nodding off in his recliner. He’s tired of getting opened up and put back together. In short, he’s fed up with this cancer business and ready to get back to work.

“I am more and more disposed to thinking about things I’d like to make,” he said.

Though chemotherapy has physically drained him, mentally he is restless. Creatively, he is boiling over.

Carlyon and his wife, Eleanor (who is also a painter), have lived in the same Fan house since 1969. He said they are converting an upstairs bedroom to a temporary studio where he can focus on smaller work.

But he’s most looking forward to rejoining the world.

“If I can become mobile again,” he said, “walk around the block, walk down to the fine arts building to see my friends or walk to my studio, I would be really happy.”

Right now, the stairs to his second-floor West Broad studio are too steep for him to climb. But he’s doing nightly exercises to strengthen his legs. And when he talks about returning to work, it’s not a matter of if but when.

Because for Richard Carlyon, making art is not just what he does, it’s who he is.

“People who don’t have art in their life feel like they are living a perfectly fine life. They’re not missing anything,” he said. “But those who have been touched by it in some way, whether it’s making things or thinking about things, or the way they interact with people, they’re forever changed.”

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 18, 2005

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