Author: Judy Wade
Issue: August, 2008, Page 84
“Oh, my gosh, that looks like my old turkey roaster.”
“Hey, those are my swim fins!”
“Could that possibly be . . . a bedpan?”
Such comments are sparked by the artwork of John Carleton, a craftsman whose creations often defy classification. Mixed media might be the correct technical term, if car grilles, dials and gauges, silver trays, ice buckets, Chinese checkers boards and hubcaps can be considered “media.”
Photography by Brandon Sullivan
Whatever his art form is called, Carleton’s works inspire a new way of viewing the outdated and overlooked—commonplace bits and pieces he recycles into whimsical faces with delightful lifelike expressions.
Carleton’s faces spring to life in a studio at his Scottsdale home and at his larger studio in Cave Creek, Arizona, which he describes as being as much a warehouse as it is an atelier. Narrow pathways snake through piles of components waiting to respond to Carleton’s touch. A shiny ladle may have a future as a nose, a half-circle drawer pull’s destiny could be a smile. He says he works on the floor, but if the pieces were just lying there, they would draw little attention. “If you rearrange them just a little bit, the objects come quite alive and interesting,” he declares.
An old roasting pan (left) has knob eyes and a car-ornament mouth, while a bedpan has toy-wheel eyes and a juice squeezer for the nose and mouth.
To showcase his work, the artist recently opened his own gallery in Sedona. This past spring, his pieces were on exhibit in a show titled “Faces” at es Posible Gallery in Scottsdale. Es Posible owner June Gilliam says of Carleton: “He has a wonderful way of seeing the world. He can find even a single object and see it as a nose, or mouth or eye.”
The artist’s attitude toward “found” materials is in sync with the environmental movement’s thrust to reuse existing objects. “My art is an attempt to find and show the beautiful, perhaps the perfect, in the discarded, the broken, the forgotten, the obsolete,” he observes. Viewers often recognize parts of their own history and experience a sense of nostalgia, especially when seeing roasting pans, which may stir memories of family holidays. There is an immediate emotional connection, he says.
Garage sales, junkyards, secondhand shops and eBay are among the artist’s favorite sources for finding materials. “There’s something about something having been used,” he comments as he points out a round, smooth griddle. “There’s a history here—30 years of making pancakes.” Although labels come immediately to mind when viewing Carleton’s works, he does not title them, noting, “I think you prejudice the piece when you title it. So I leave it open to the viewer.”
However, appreciators of his capricious creations often cannot resist putting a name to the face. “I call the one I bought ‘Kiss Me, I’m Beautiful’,” says Scottsdale collector Carleton Rosenburgh. He was compelled to view Carleton’s show because he and the artist share a common name. Rosenburgh describes the purchase—a decision made with his wife, Louise—as a polished stainless steel teapot with a porcelain handle and spout made to look like a pig. Two porcelain kitchen knobs bear painted images of pursed red lips.
A former roasting pan is the head, a vintage camera flash the nose and mouth, the left eye an old stop watch, and the right eye a candleholder.
“We’ve hung it in our kitchen, over our stovetop,” Rosenburgh says, adding that its appeal is its mischievousness. “Its a humorous piece, not a serious display,” he explains. The collector expects that his teapot pig one day will find its way into his daughter’s collection of fine porcelain teapots.
Phoenix resident Debbie Schwartz purchased one of Carleton’s “bedpan” works as a birthday gift for her husband. “It has green sprinkler heads for eyes and a large orange ice cream scoop for the nose,” she notes. It became more interesting to her once she identified the sprinkler heads and other components. It will fit perfectly into the family’s art collection, says Schwartz. “We have a great deal of whimsical, unusual art in our home.”
Schwartz went to es Posible with her mother, Patricia Dreiseszun, who also purchased several of Carleton’s works. One is for a 50th-wedding anniversary gift. The second, another “bedpan” piece intended for Schwartz and her husband, is an elephant with candlestick eyes and a trunk. While Carleton has been creating his faces for only a couple of years, their enthusiastic reception from an art-loving public is encouraging. His work resonates with men, women and children who range from 6-year-olds to grandparents. “My granddaughters love it. At home they’re always making things themselves once they see something I’m working on,” Carleton says. Although he owned an art gallery while attending college and took a sculpture course, he finds that his limited formal art training leaves him unencumbered by the restraints of process or technique.
On this decades-old dustpan face, the mouth is a cabinet door pull and the eyes circular vents.
Equally surprising, his talent bubbles from an unlikely background. After attending law school at the University of Virginia, he headed up the organized crime and anti-fraud departments of the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. Carleton then used his legal experience to develop, invest in and manage a number of real estate projects. Once these professional interests no longer demanded the bulk of his time, he was able to discover the gift inside him that had been dormant for decades.
What is the artist’s motivation? “To try to make inanimate objects come alive,” he comments. The best way to do that is with some semblance of a human face, he says, “because that’s what draws our attention.” Facial expressions are the main nonverbal way that humans communicate; they have the ability to shame, to engender guilt, to inspire, and to show selfless love, according to Carleton. He feels that they may even be a more powerful mode of communication than speech.
John Carleton’s faces are on display at Intangled Gallery in Sedona; a portfolio of his work can be viewed at joncarletonart.com.
Artist John Carleton surveys his collection of discarded utilitarian items. He will turn these pieces, the tools of his unique artistic trade, into the heads and features of his whimsical faces.
A decades-old old frying pan becomes a face with old doorknobs used for eyes and a vintage juice squeezer for the nose and mouth. Right: A silver serving platter face includes a doorknob and candleholder for eyes and a blue drawer pull for a mouth.