BLM Session: Nathan Eugene Carson

Hello Hamilton, hello cyclists, riders and people of Hamilton Bike Share and the Everyone Rides Initiative (ERI). Welcome to installment number five of the BLM Sessions. In this Session I (ERI Program Manager Thea Jones), sat down with Nathan Eugene Carson over zoom. I reached out to Nathan after I saw an installation of his work in the lobby of the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) in February 2022. I was impressed by the style, scale and subject matter of the paintings. 

When you walk into the lobby of the AGH you stand at the bottom of a two story space surrounded by glass. There are a few permanent artworks that have been there for a while, but the work on the west wall changes and features new artists. Here in this space, Nathan’s work hung above me, each image looking down on me--six rows of 13 to 15 portraits filling the wall. Each portrait looks at you from above, and you look at them from below. One might start to think, "who is observing whom?", and, "am I supposed to start performing for what appears to be an audience?" If I am still enough, will they perform for me?

Image 1: The Black Carnival by Nathan Eugene Carson. Photo credit Thea Jones.

Nathan is the current Artist in Residence at the AGH. His residency started April 2022, and he will be at the gallery making work and engaging with visitors until April 2023. The body of work that he is developing is titled The Black Carnival, and it builds off the portraits currently in the lobby. However, instead of the 100 portraits that are in the gallery now, Nathan is planning to complete thousands.

This is what Nathan said about what he is creating during his residency:

I am bringing my love letter to Hamilton to the residency. I am going to be painting this carnival, the more and more that I think about it, it's the life series--about what it is like to be out and experience life in Hamilton and all the different and wonderful souls that are here.

I did some research to see some of Nathan’s past work and to gain insight to where he, perhaps, has come from artistically and where he is now. What I was very moved to see is that Nathan has been committed to the theme of the carnival for many years. And while aspects of that carnival may change, the basic theme remains: spectators and performers, watchers and the watched. So I asked him: why the carnival?

My Dad used to always take me to the circus and fairs and carnivals and festivals, not only my dad, my whole family would as kids. So it is just something that has always fascinated me that you could be different or other. But also too, now with social media I kinda call it the online circus or a media frenzy, because you can be other on some platform like Instagram and still find your own community. So are you really another ‘other’ even more?

I live right in the Durand neighbourhood, [and] I like seeing all the different souls and how humans can be uniquely different and I think that inspires me, and so I call that my carnival performers.

Nathan’s portraits are bold and strong, the lines are clear and the colour is solid. I was curious to know how he works and what his process for making these portraits is:

I work on the floor, I don't work on a wall, I lay everything out. And I always say Nathan, who you are talking to right now, steps aside in my brain and inspiration steps in and then I just kind of go. It's really like playtime in some ways, maybe playtime reduces it a bit. It is for me almost a very spiritual or like a prayer, painting as prayer kind of practice. I just kind of go and I am working on making one thing or twenty different things. I find that when I deliberately think of something I am trying to paint it doesn't really work well as a painting. 

I very rarely use paintbrushes, I use recycled gift cards or cardboard. For the greater part of my life I have had no money, I have no shame, all of my materials (paints, pens, pencils) come from the Dollarama or people give them to me. I don't go to an expensive art store and buy stuff, because I am just creative, so I would rather just take the garbage or what other people would disregard and make something from that--making something out of nothing is always my motto. 

We then had a very interesting conversation about what it is like being a Black artist and how Nathan’s negotiates his identity and his artwork, if at all:

I came here to Earth under the star of being an artist. I [have] worked in coffee shops, I teach yoga and meditation, I have had many different callings in this life. But I feel that art is something I always go back to. Even when I fight with it and put it down for a bit.

Now being a Black artist, or just an artist of colour, it's so beautiful, but it's interesting to me, I wasn’t raised by parents who taught us about race at all. So I really had to learn that aspect and unpack that for myself, and that didn’t come until a lot later in life with a bit of education and a bit of intelligence. Trying to understand that my Grandmother is Native by Dad is African American, and my Mother is Scottish-French. So when people want to put me [in a box], or even in the LGBTQ+ box or the Black box, I always just feel [that] I am a universal soul.

I just never really segregate myself off, because I find that kind of thinking to be quite limiting and that is just me. I just love all souls in general, so that's why you kind of have to have compassion and see that way in order to not be judgemental of others. And because I am mixed with so many different things and because I feel so many different ways, even sexually, its like I just often feel I am not the best representative to speak on those kind of issues completely. Because I try to come from a very open space, that everybody should be included at the table or at the party.

I really enjoyed my conversation with Nathan-- he opened my eyes to aspects of Hamilton I perhaps had forgotten and about living in a space that is driven by inspiration and not by expectation. Too often we trap ourselves in what others or society may expect of us and we feel stuck there. Maybe if we follow Nathan and let ourselves step-out of our own way and let inspiration step-in, we may see more clearly. We may see what we truly desire. And this sounds like it would only drive us toward a happy place, a place of acceptance and welcome. In closing, I leave you with words from Nathan Eugene Carson. 

I love it here and that's why I am making this body of work now in Hamilton, it is a love song to being home and how great Hamilton has been to me.  | Art Gallery of Hamilton, Nathan Eugene Carson Artist in Residence