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CHARLES CULVER – ARTIST
1908 – 1967
By Eric Culver


Charles Beech Culver (known to his friends as Bob) was born in 1908. It was a very momentous year for many reasons, not just because Charles Culver was born. 1908 was the first time ever that the ball signifying the New Year was dropped at Times Square. The 4th modern Olympic games opened in London, Taft was elected the 27th President, and SOS became the standard radio distress symbol.


In his earliest years, Charles Culver had yet to become a full-time artist, but he worked hard to perfect his craft. In his early 20’s, Charles’ parents, Millie and George Culver, gave him money to go to Chicago to study commercial art. The only reference to this period was found in one of his journals. To quote, “Monday, to school--lettering and pictorial composition. Phooey!”


He loved jazz music, and for a short time in the late 20’s and early 30’s went on the road with the Gene Goldkette territory bands to earn extra money, playing tenor sax and clarinet. Again, while living in Bellaire during the first half of the 50’s, he played clarinet in jam sessions at one of the most popular places during that period, Was-Wa-Gun, a former restaurant and bar, with cottages for rent and entertainment every night, on US-31 near Eastport, Michigan.


In addition to music, Culver had worked for a year or more part-time as a cartoonist for the Royal Oak Tribune in the 1920’s. Along the way he also found time to write and illustrate several children’s books; only some of them were really for adults, as demonstrated in the so-called children’s instructional booklet entitled “Little Vic and Merte,” in which he demonstrates through a series of cartoons and text the technique needed in order to beat someone over the head with a club. That club just happened to be the bone in Merte’s upper arm, the Humerus. However, on the other end of the spectrum, he wrote and illustrated a short tale called “The Story Of The Sunflower,” about a small boy growing a giant sunflower from seed.


Culver’s love of music, his children’s books and cartoons were only hobbies, and to make money he worked several years at the Chevrolet Studios in the General Motors Building in Detroit as a commercial artist. He did this only in order to make enough money to quit and spend as much time in Bellaire, Michigan as possible, sometimes up to two years at a stretch, painting full time. When he ran out of that money, he would return to work at General Motors. His wife Florence, every Sunday night, would drive him forty miles to Grayling from Bellaire to catch the night train leaving for Detroit and return to pick him up again at Grayling the following Friday night and return to Bellaire. When he had again earned enough money, he quit once more to stay in Bellaire and paint for another year or two.


He had finally gained enough recognition by the 1930’s to begin receiving invitations to exhibit his paintings in galleries such as the Gordon Beer Gallery in Detroit, the Detroit Artists Market, the Michigan Artists at the DIA, and then branching out to places like the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, and the International Watercolor Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, to name just a few.

               
   

Life and a Wife

In the 50’s, he commenced his ten-year teaching career at Arts and Crafts in Detroit. For those who don’t go back quite that far, Arts and Crafts changed its name to The Center for Creative Studies-College of Art and Design in the 70’s. Culver wrote a monthly newsletter for the faculty and students called Topic and Talk, which if not before, certainly after the first publication, established his humorous philosophy and vocabulary for all time.

He also added the job of art critic for the Detroit Free Press for two years, a task he did not always relish, especially when avant-garde art became the vogue. Many an argument was had due to his verbal slashing to pieces of what he perceived to be the pretensions of avant-garde art.


His association with the Ford Times had begun in 1950 as well. Hundreds of his paintings were commissioned by the then-famous little magazine that was sent out to Ford owners during the 50s and 60s. He painted landscape scenes or animals to accompany articles and wrote the occasional one himself to be included.

From the time he wrote his Children’s books and cartoons for the Royal Oak Tribune, and especially when writing the monthly Topic and Talk for Arts and Crafts, Culver was known for his sense of humor. When he was told that his niece, Jean, was to be married, he demanded, as a joke, that her husband to be, Ken, fill out a questionnaire Culver had created especially for that occasion. He informed Ken that it had to be answered fully and honestly before he would allow the marriage to take place.


Culver wrote in the March 1950 Ford Times about his first meeting with his wife. “I met Miss Florence Morrow at the Methodist church in Bellaire for my first date. She was a stunning brunette of 17, tugging away at the bell rope. I decided, right then, that if I ever needed a bell ringer, I would hire one of this same type.”


As were so many extraordinarily talented artists, he was terribly critical of his work and would often pencil out, or take a utility knife to, any painting he felt unworthy; he would then toss the destroyed painting into an open storage box behind the studio. Occasionally, his niece Jean would, when visiting and with his permission, rescue the painting from certain death by nature and do her best to put it back as close to its original shape as possible.
E. P. Richardson, former director of the DIA wrote, “People say ‘That’s a Culver’ when they enter a room of paintings and see the one that speaks his name, the one whose form and line and color identify the artist instantly. Charles Culver was a true artist.”


It is certain that many others thought of Culver with that kind of respect. He had over 25 one-man shows in the Detroit area alone, won 14 prizes at the “Exhibition for Michigan Artists” sponsored by the DIA, including the Scarab Club Gold Medal in 1940-43, and is represented, according to a curator at the DIA with whom I spoke in 2006, by some 90 paintings in the DIA’s permanent collection, more than any other Michigan artist at that time. This is not counting the thousands of paintings found in museums and private collections both nationally and internationally.


In a 1952 article in the Detroit Free Press, entitled “Artist Explains His Work,” Culver was asked why he painted the way he did. He wrote, “I try to ‘see’ though not too exactly; I try to think though not too ponderously; I feel emotion yet I try not to become overwrought. I interpret rather than describe, and design rather than depict. I work with values, not light and shade; hence, when I am successful, I achieve substance rather than three-dimensional form, and this satisfies me as being wholly sufficient. In my work I wish to be serious without becoming a bore, exuberant without being frivolous, humorous without being silly. I believe that good paintings are conceived, not contrived; and I am interested in art much more than in pictures.”


Charles Culver’s philosophy was quite simple. As he stated most eloquently, “A real artist, except in his youth, doesn’t follow trends at all, nor does he feel any sense of competition with other artists, because his desire is not to be best but to be individual. A real artist never desires to be the foremost artist of his time, but merely one of the good artists of all time.”

               
Website by Ron Crittenden. © Rick Culver, Bellaire, Mi.  All rights reserved.