ST. PETERSBURG — As far back as grade school, Charles Axt was called upon to utilize his natural talent for art. His teachers would have him sketch pictures on the chalkboard of American historical figures such as George Washington. He continued to develop his talent at DeWitt Clinton High in the Bronx, N.Y., where a teacher encouraged him to pursue his art at Alfred University.
“So I wound up at Alfred in the ceramic program,” Axt recalled. “In those days it was called the college of ceramics, where you learned the trade—mold making, pottery, how to make glazes and all of that. And there was also the design program so I got into that, and that’s when I really got into design and painting and sculpture.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Ceramic Design in 1957, this Harlem native secured a substitute-teaching job. The temporary nature of the position suited him because he knew he’d soon have to do his two-year hitch for Uncle Sam.
“In those days you got drafted into the army,” the 78 year old explained, “so I got a job teaching ceramics in New York. I worked a year then went into the army.”
When he wasn’t aiming a rifle at a target, he was stroking a canvas with a paintbrush.
“In two years I was in Oklahoma and did some watercolors, just to keep my hand in it,” he remembered.
Once out of the service and back east in New York, Axt found a job teaching ceramics at P.S. 55. It was around this time that he became a part of an art groups in the Village in New York, and turned his interest to his paintings, which began to appear in galleries. After a shakeup in the school system, where junior high officially became middle school, Axt found himself out of a job.
“I was teaching ninth grade and you had to go to a high school to teach ninth grade,” he explained, “so in the middle of all that, I was displaced.”
In 1965, a solution presented itself in the form of a phone call from a distant locale. A friend of Axt’s who lived in St. Thomas in the Caribbean informed him that they needed teachers down there, and would he consider relocating to the sunny, subtropical island?
“I had a house in Mt. Vernon, sold it, picked up from New York and moved there,” he said.
Axt started a ceramic program at the high school down there where he also learned the mahogany trade. He explained that he did “a whole lot of carving” of the semi-precious wood. When the school wanted him to become an administrator he returned to the States to get his master’s, but wound up staying in Newark, N.J. for another eight years. It turned out to be a productive time for the artist due to the many connections he made in the art world.
“I met a lot of people like Romare Bearden,” Axt said. “His paintings were going for about $40,000.” Bearden, a hugely influential African-American artist, worked with several techniques including cut-and-paste art, oils and even cartoons.
It was during this time that Axt was able to exhibit more of his work such as ceramics and wood at such locations as the Trenton State Museum and the Koltnow Gallery in New York. Yet even with these exhibits, it was tough to break into the mainstream for African Americans.
“We were having a hard time as black artists getting into different shows, but we had a black gallery called the Cinque Gallery,” Axt said. “It was famous and run by New York State to help young black artists.”
His works gained enough attention to even garner him a listing in a 1970’s directory of who’s who of African-American artists, which Axt admitted was pretty big at the time.
He stayed and taught at Montgomery Street School in Newark, a special education school, when paradise beckoned once again and Axt received another call from St. Thomas. They wanted him back, so back he went in 1978, where he stayed and did more carvings and paintings. Many of his sculptures have a heavy African and Caribbean influence. In 1984, he moved to St. Pete and once taught at Gibbs High School for a few years.
But molding and sculpting eventually took its toll as Axt developed carpal tunnel syndrome. Doctors wanted to operate, but Axt refused. And he was hardly the type to merely sit around doing nothing about it.
“I couldn’t work with clay so I went back into painting,” he said. “I painted all these pictures, a total of almost 20 paintings. Two dimension and three dimension are two different things. Sometimes physically I can’t do what I used to do because I’m getting kind of old. I’ve been in this game a long time!”
If nothing else, an artist has to look after his hands, and Axt did just that—but on his own terms.
“I went to therapy and went to yoga and I got my hands back,” he stated. “I’m not saying I’m not going to go back into clay, I’m just playing it by ear.”
As if his impressive arsenal of work isn’t enough, these days he is trying his hand at yet another medium: collages.
“You might say the word was ‘capricious,’” he said, explaining his mindset to go down another artistic path. “This is just experimenting.”
He is currently at work on a series of collage portraits, many depicting faces with some sort of mask. Axt admitted that the work of Bearden, who also did collages, is an influence. Other favorite artists he lists are Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne and the renowned British sculptor Henry Moore.
Though proficient in working with ceramics and paint, Axt explains that painting offers the artist more control whereas ceramics involve not only skill but a little luck and sometimes supplication to a higher power.
“I like the idea that you have a final say when you’re painting a painting,” he said. “You can manipulate it. If you’re not sure of your end, you can go back and change it then you’ll have it the way you really want it,” he said.
He explained that ceramics are a different story. An artist goes through the arduous process of sculpturing it without breaking it, firing it without breaking it, glazing it without breaking it and someone’s work who’s sitting next to theirs in the oven could blow up from the heat and ruin the lot of them.
“A lot of times you’re not in charge. It’s the fire gods, as they say. So when you’re firing ceramics you’re praying all the time!” he laughed.
His advice for young artists starting out is to be mindful of the business end of the art world.
“The main thing with art is you have to have someone who is going to push the money side of things if you want to sell your work. A lot of artists don’t want to sell their work because they do it for their own pleasure. I do it for my own pleasure but I don’t mind selling them,” Axt laughingly remarked.
To reach Frank Drouzas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.