COMMENTARY: Charles Carter: Mountain Man Artist

I had driven to the edge of the city, and was at the base of the towering mountains of California’s Angeles National Forest, an hour’s drive from the city of Los Angeles. I drove up a rutted, dirt and concrete road, crossing over at least one small bridge, before I arrived at the sprawling complex on top with its splendid view of the valley below.

Carter"s jewelry reflects his primitive leanings. (photos by Christopher Nyerges)

Charles Carter greeted me with a big smile as I climbed out of my Jeep, and then he guided me through the hilltop estate of the recently deceased artist Zorthian, where Carter’s primitive home and studio is hidden. He led the way down a dirt path lined with tall oaks and sugarbush. Down the hillside we went, finally arriving amidst the cacti and eucalyptus at his tipi and the studio-home that he had built by hand.

"I met Zorthian more than 20 years ago at a black artist exhibit I helped to organize," explains Carter. "I was in transition then, and I asked him if he had any rooms for rent. He said no. But later, I called him back and asked if I could camp somewhere on his property. After a silence, Zorthian told me to come on up and we’d talk about it."

Zorthian told Carter to select a spot where he might camp. On the approximately 50-acre estate, Carter found a little flat area on a west-facing hillside covered with oak trees, wild grasses and poison oak, and it was there that he first set up his little tent.

"I lived very primitively," explains Carter, who primarily wanted a quiet place where he could practice his painting and jewelry-making in a setting that was spiritually uplifting. "It was wonderful to be away from the city, and to be here in this quiet sanctuary," he said.

A Tipi Raising

After three months in the tent, Carter’s host asked if he wanted a tipi. Carter enthusiastically replied yes, that to live in a tipi was a lifelong dream. So Zorthian asked his Indian friends to come up to the mountain estate and set up the tipi lodge.

"It was another three months before the Indians finally came to set up the tipi. When I asked when they’d come, Zorthian just told me that they would come when they come.Then, one day while teaching, I got a phone call saying "The Indians are here!" and so I cancelled my class and returned immediately. The tipi-raising was under the direction of Chief LongWalker and his family. It was quite an event and we all had a ceremony afterwards."

Carter said that a powerful wind came up that first night he slept in the tipi, and he regarded it as a test of sorts, and he continued to reside for another three years in the approximately 15-foot-diameter tipi.

In a 15-foot tipi, Carter lived for years without electricity, refrigeration or plumbing.

Carter took me inside the tipi, which seemed small from the outside, but felt much more spacious on the inside. "It was a great experience to live in the tipi," he said. "I lived in it for three years, cooked there, did my art there, everything. It was wonderful, and I learned much about the toughness of the Plains American Indians who once lived this way. They had to be hardy people."

Carter used candles and a little kerosene lantern for light, but had no electricity, no refrigeration, no plumbing. He points out that the tipi can be a very warm place in the winter, and can be heated by only one candle once the flap is closed.

Expanding World

After those three years, Carter realized he needed a bit more room to do his art work, so he built two more small buildings to use as a studio for making his jewelry, and for guests to have a more traditional room to sit and talk. The small rooms, which he built from random pieces of plywood and recycled materials are leak-proof. And they even have electricity.

"Remember, I cooked on a fire, and my lighting consisted of candles and a kerosene lantern," says Carter. About 10 years ago, he ran an electric line down to his hillside home because he realized the necessity of electricity for making his jewelry. "That first night when I turned on an electric light it was a bit of a shock, since I wasn’t used to it."

Carter’s jewelry consists mostly of necklaces and earrings, with the central piece often a bone from an animal found on the estate. The bone might be from a goat or a deer or other wild animal. Though the sprawling estate once had more than 40 goats, mountain lions slowly killed them off, and sometimes Carter finds their bones.

Carter says he has been an artist "about 30 years," and his work includes line drawings, large oils on canvas, some sculpture and jewelry. He served in the U.S. Army, and has attended California State Los Angeles art classes while pursuing life as a bohemian artist. He explains that he started out as a painter when he was in junior college, when he had an interruption of his art career.

A Spiritual Life

"I began to have spiritual experiences that I didn’t understand—insights and dreams, and strange things happening to me. This led to my interest in mysticism and yoga and meditation," Carter explains. "Through meditation, I was shown a past life where I lived with my guru. My guru came to me and I knew we’d been together. I learned that the way to our divinity is through the pituitary gland, between the eyes. I read Autobiography of a Yogi, and through meditation, the Universal Mother—the feminine aspect of God—showed me that I was her son. All this changed my life."

The artist"s paintings draw from Native American styles.

Carter became a monk for two and a half years and lived at the Mount Washington Self-Realization Fellowship Center. He then became a lay member of the fellowship center and slowly got back into his art. So when he met fellow artist Zorthian and moved into a tent and then a tipi in the Altadena foothills, Carter says "it was a great opportunity and blessing to be here. It’s quiet, private, and I can explore my inner self."

The artist met his wife while living in the tipi. She moved into his little hillside home and they lived there together for three years before she passed away. "I think of her often, and I have dreams about her," says Carter, explaining how they would take a walk each morning along one of their mountain trails.

Though his tipi is no longer his primary residence, he still uses it as a place to meditate. "The tipi is an experience of its own," he explains. "Its special shape makes it a unique focal point of energy. I believe that the shape of the structure makes it easier for meditating."

Carter says he’s "had the ultimate experience of living primitive," adding that now that he is older, he has a desire for some modern conveniences. Though he still uses an outhouse, he has electricity and for the past three years, plumbing, too. Still, there is no computer, no microwave, no washing machine, and none of the so-called "mandatory" modern conveniences in Carter’s rustic mountain home.

Carter has received numerous art awards and recognitions, including one in 2006 from Los Angeles County for his contribution to the arts. Sometimes there are spiritual messages that he puts into his art, but usually he simply draws whatever comes to him. "I used to concentrate on putting me

ssages in my art, but now I paint whatever I feel at the moment, and any spiritual messages in the art will happen automatically.

"Life has changed for me in this last year," he says of a bout with cancer. "I"m just starting to work again after a long absence. I am focusing on my health first." As of November 2006, he finished an exhibit of his oil paintings, line drawings, and jewelry at the Coffee Gallery in Altadena. Having turned 73 in January, he feels that his art will take a new direction this year, as he plans to work more with color and energy.

Carter’s goal was not simply to be an artist; he wanted to create while also living an alternative lifestyle. He explained that it is difficult to combine the lifestyle of an artist with his ecological lifestyle. "The simplicity of living this lifestyle is not glorious," says Carter. "It is hard. But it is very fulfilling because this lifestyle also blends in the spiritual aspects."

CHRISTOPHER NYERGES is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, and the author of several books including How to Survive Anywhere. Readers interested in Carter or his art work can reach him through Nyerges, P.O. Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041;