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Through the woodcarver’s eyes: A moment with Charles Dickson

By Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times

There are many creative spirits that reside in the City of Angels.  One of the favorite parts of my job as a photojournalist for the Los Angeles Times is when one of them crosses my path.

I met sculptor Charles Dickson, 66, while he was working on the piece “Dance of the Wood Nips” at his studio in Compton.  The sculpture, made from a rare piece of Monkey Pod tree, captures women holding up a portal to the sky.

“In this piece I wanted to talk about the human spirit in relationship with nature,” Dickson said.

He is one of 130 artists who were given the opportunity to work with rare pieces of wood that came from fallen trees, remnants of a severe windstorm at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia in 2011. Many of the 235 trees destroyed were rare and exotic specimens from around the world.

It was a pleasure watching Dickson as he buzzed around his creation, sculpting and molding the piece.  He used a wide variety of carving instruments, including chisels, drill bits and — his most extreme tool – a chain saw.

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Charles Dickson. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times

“This is a collaboration with me and the tree, so I’m not trying to force a move on it.  I’m trying to coexist with it,” Dickson said while working on the piece.

Dickson dons a jumpsuit and a mask with a ventilator to avoid inhaling any debris from his carvings.  He is dressed like an urban astronaut ready to explore unseen worlds, which he seems to create from ideas that reside in the recesses of his mind. He has been mining the depths of his imagination for the past 50 years. A testament to his creations can be found in his current show, “Through the Eyes of Charles Dickson,” a retrospective at the Watts Towers Arts Center, Noah Purifoy Gallery & Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center and Gallery.  The show is curated by Paul Von Blum and Rosie Lee Hooks.

Dickson, who is an artist in residence at the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus and the caretaker of the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia, gives visitors something else to admire besides the iconic spires. Some of his work dates back to 1957, to the first piece he made at age 10 of Moby Dick.  The infamous whale is made of hand-carved wood and features eyes that were created from his mother’s earrings.  From this point visitors can explore the following decades of his creative process. The themes of his work reflect his African ancestry, African American identity and his appreciation for black women. He works in various mediums including bronze, rare hardwood, ivory and styrene plastic.

There are many centerpieces that anchor the exhibition including “Stepping In, Stepping Out, Stepping On,” made in 1986.  The sculpture features the figure of a woman who seems to walk through the piece becoming translucent in the end. This is made using a process that Dickson invented known as ‘high impact styrene plastic urethane foam.” (HISPUF) The exhibit has you looking high and low.  Work literally hovers over you.

Back at his studio once again, Dickson collected a case that contains a small chain saw and rushed outside to his truck. He had discovered an abandoned tree trunk left on a sidewalk a few miles from his home in Compton and wanted to reclaim the best pieces to be used for future sculptures.  A light rain began to fall but caused little hindrance to the artist focused on his mission.  He gathered the trimmings and loaded them in his truck, lost in the thought of what he’d create with the wood.

There are many things that will stay with me after spending time with Dickson. His passion for and dedication to his work is amazing.  And his ongoing creative explorations seem endless.

It is the sound of his laughter, however, that will resonate with me most strongly. It fills every crevice of a room.  It reverberates and washes over you and leaves you with a smile on your face, much like his work on exhibit.

“Through the Eyes of Charles Dickson” is open through March 2, 2014 at the Watts Towers Arts Center gallery  (1727 E. 107th St, Los Angeles); it is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.Wednesday through Saturday  and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday.

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Charles Dickson carves up a found piece of tree trunk along a sidewalk in Compton. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times

1 Comment

  1. December 12, 2013, 12:43 pm

    Aside from the great artwork itself, it's great to get a 'behind-the-scenes' look at the creative process and hear it in the own artists' words–a great article! Please do more, weekly perhaps, on local artist from the rich and vibrant creative community here in Los Angeles which by and large remains invisible but yet it's in plain sight! Bravo LAT!

    By: P.Gladden

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