Joe Carter might not look like a “Burning Man” regular, but this summer’s gathering is the first he has missed in years. “We went to Element 11, instead,” he says, referencing Utah’s new, cozier version of the enormous desert happening.
He really got into the event that launched in July at Stargazer Ranch in Box Elder County, handing out bacon and from-scratch blueberry pancakes to folks who wandered by his campsite. A few firefighters stopped, but wanted assurance that breakfast would be drug-free. “I told them the pancakes were just like Mom used to make,” Carter recalls with a grin.
Personally, I never would have suspected anything less (or more) from Joe Carter: he doesn’t resemble your stereotypical “artist” but rather the electrical engineer he once was – before returning to school for a second bachelor’s and a new career. Shaved head topped by a baseball cap (he has quite the collection), Carter’s tall figure invariably sports chinos, comfortable shoes and wire-rimmed glasses. Yeah, way rad.
While he often has work to do on a couple of rental properties, Carter mostly spends his days painting (though he did drop in at Comic Con before our interview), or trolling estate sales and KSL.com for stuff he might want to paint for the three galleries that represent him and always, always need more of his work. He’s with Park Gallery in Carmel, Calif.; Terzian in Park City; and his new show opens Oct. 20 at Phillips in Salt Lake City.
Easily met, always upbeat, humble, and just a genuinely nice guy, Carter finds beauty in common objects like brooms, a spool of thread, a gasoline engine, or a handful of old, dented pencils. He prefers items that are worn and well used when selecting them for a canvas. “I like things that have been handled a lot and have the marks to show it. Usually I see a human quality in the subject, and I try to create a tuned-in, saturated reality,” he writes in an artist statement.
He might buy an old Corona or Underwood typewriter on eBay and set it up at his Millcreek-area home under a light in the basement studio, then carefully capture what he sees in oil, “as well as I can.” Typewriters are favorite subjects for his brush:
Typewriters are very three-dimensional; the old ones are open framed, you can see all the mechanics in them. They have a form and function – they’re beautiful. They have steel wheels and gears and doodads – that’s stuff I like. I like machines. I like things that have a little world in them that I can explore and bring a painting back out of.
And Carter wants his viewers to enter the world of whatever he depicts, which is what led Bonnie Phillips to accept him into the gallery when he was still in school: “Joe paints common objects in an exploration that invites the viewer to make their own relationship to the objects he has chosen and presented. This is a very engaging approach and is why I initially was and continue to be interested and supportive of his work,” she says.
Phillips Gallery director Meri DeCaria finds that Carter’s work sells “because of his technical mastery. People buy Joe Carter’s work, too, because of the connection they make to mundane things from the past and the way he is able to glorify them: old typewriters, bottles of screws,” toys, or buttons and other miscellaneous items seen through glass.
On rare occasions, she says, “whimsy doesn’t work.” There was a plastic toy truck they couldn’t find a client for. And that jar of bolts Carter so loves to paint “is really an incredible piece but you have to find a client who loves the way something is painted, not necessarily the subject matter.”
The new show will, of course, feature a typewriter; also an old movie projector; a jar that contains some caps from valve stems for tires; a radio tube; two stamps; some spools of sewing thread; a little toy truck; and other small items the artist couldn’t recall when we spoke. Carter is especially enthused about the handle of an old saw he was working on: “Someone taped it and it’s got dots of paint on it,” he says.
For the most part, painting is a job for this artist, and one he does exceedingly well. Carter is meticulous in detail, a trait that probably stems from his days creating miniature transistors and resistors. A 4’ x 4’ square painting can take 200 hours to complete. “I’ll spend a couple hours doing one key on a typewriter and 26 keys takes 10 days,” he says. “I want everything to be right. I don’t ever say, ‘Oh screw it, I’m done.’”
He likes his work to sing and doesn’t leave much tension and few discordant passages for the viewer. “I don’t like cacophony necessarily. When my eye travels across the visual plane it has to spin through,” he says. “I’ve got to remove those little visual stops that keep you from soaring and gliding. I end up being tight because I do want it to sing. I’ll occasionally leave a little tension in, but not very much,” Carter says of his work.
While he truly enjoys chipping in on a model at Saturday drawing sessions at the U, he hasn’t been able to participate there for six or seven months because he has been preparing for the upcoming Phillips show. “I like the figure and I’d like to do some landscapes at some point,” Carter reflects. He does some portraiture (of family and friends) but mostly sticks to still life.
Born in Havre, Montana, where his father, a construction worker, was helping to build a dam, Carter recalls happy childhood months spent in a tent on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where his mother seemed to remain calm enough while he, his three younger brothers and a sister played along the very edge of that chasm while his father worked large earth equipment on a project not far away. “Everything was raw and loud and fun,” Carter states. Mostly, though, he was reared in Sandy, back when it was wild and undeveloped farmland replete with frogs and pollywogs, though new neighborhoods were starting to go in.
He drew well as a kid, even more so in high school when he won awards (one at the Art Barn at Finch Lane) for his work, but he didn’t think you could make money as an artist and wanted to one day have a family and a good job to support them, so looked in other directions for a career.
Carter graduated from Murray High in 1972 and followed a younger brother into the Navy two years later, thinking he would see more of the world than just Portland and the Philippines. “I didn’t have a master plan. I just did things,” he says. Fortunately, he did not see anything of Vietnam during that era, and his tour netted some college money and the GI Bill, which he used to enroll at the University of Utah in 1977. His game plan simply involved inquiring as to what college had resulted in the most people getting hired the year before. Electrical engineering, or EE, was the hands-down winner and that’s what Carter earned his bachelor’s degree in, in 1981. He, too, was immediately hired upon graduation and found that “I was in my tribe, for sure.”
He thought EE was like learning magic. “We live in a fantastic universe and that stuff is bewitching. And it’s difficult. I was proud of myself.” Though his father had attended college, “I was the first in my family to get a degree,” he remembers.
He first worked for Leeds and Northrup, a major engineering firm, designing and building complicated circuit boards used by power companies. That resulted in a nearly 20-year career in the field doing “about everything,” eventually including artificial organs. “I liked all that stuff. I liked the people. They were nerds; they were kind of like me. They were smart; they liked to read. I miss that in art – having friendships. You sit there working by yourself, talking to your paintbrushes.”
But he listens to books on tape while he works – he estimates it’s probably his 25thtime through The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He liked Byatt’s Possession; Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; Neil Gaiman; and enjoys all kinds of science fiction. “Then I’ll grab a book on the history of the Bible, or ancient civilization, particle physics, or ancient Samaria. I like all that stuff, too.”
In 1984, he married Jane Benvegnu, who worked at The Salt Lake Tribune as assistant controller, later controller – a big-deal job that she gave up a few years later to focus on their three above-average children: Nancy, a Westminster graduate is a patient advocate at the Maliheh Free Clinic and lives at home; Mary, a graduate of NYU (she did a year’s study abroad in London) is assistant to a managing partner at famed movie-star reps Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles; and Alice, a Sterling Scholar in math, earned a bachelor’s from Northwestern, worked for quite a while in marine biology at Woods Hole in Massachusetts and is pursuing a Ph.D. at Duke in limnology, the ecology of streams.
“I always daydreamed I would be explaining how a carburetor worked to a little boy, but girls are super-fun to raise. None of them are visual artists but they like art and they are proud of me,” Carter says. “They want me to have a website.” All seem to truly enjoy one another’s company and frequently travel together or attend concerts (recently Joe hit Robert Plant with his girls, and Joe and Jane are seen at most of the local rock venues – in keeping with his enviable collection of vinyl and CDs).
He took a few art classes at the U while he was getting his engineering degree, got good feedback on his work, and in the mid-1990s had a boss who gave him time off to take one art class each quarter. So when he quit in the fall of 1998, announcing that he was “going to go be an artist,” it couldn’t have come as a huge surprise.
While he remembers several classes fondly (one from Bob Kleinschmidt, another from Paul Heath, one from Maureen O’Hara Ure, one from Sam Wilson) he remains especially grateful to two of his professors for lessons learned: Tony Smith for “his genius as a painter and a person” and Paul Davis for mantras the artist utilizes daily: “Flip it like a pancake.” “Mix paint on your palette, not on your canvas.” Davis had his students do a drawing and then paint over it in one color in monochrome paint “to get the lights and darks right, to get the values right and I still do that to this day,” says Carter. “Every one of my paintings is painted usually in burnt umber . . . until I get those lights and darks just nailed and I’ll put a wash on and then I’ll go in with color and I keep the values the same. Paul Davis taught us to squint to see the values. I look through my fingers to see the light change.”
By spring 2000, Carter had his BFA, a gallery at Phillips and a new purpose in life.
“What I do with my work is show you beauty you may not have seen before; that junk is beautiful,” he says. “I don’t want to make a painting of a Batman action figure because you can buy the action figure for 10 bucks so why would you buy a painting of it? I want to show you that this lawn mower engine that’s greasy and dirty is beautiful as a piece of art. Or that someone’s handled this wrench over and over and left this mark and it’s as beautiful as any nude. That these scratches and dents in the right light are what’s really cool.
“Guns,” he muses. “I could probably paint the heck out of old guns. They’ve got all the elements. But they are way too overloaded with baggage. And Jane wouldn’t let one in the house.
“When I’m done, I want it to be a painting that I want to hang,” Carter says firmly.
Joe Carter & Nancy Vorm, Phillips Gallery, Oct. 20-Nov. 10, Gallery Stroll reception Oct. 20, 6-9 p.m. with an artists’ talk at 5 p.m.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.