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Charmaine Locke: Locked on the feminine spirit

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyCharmaine Locke, with her "Blue Angel," mixed media on board, at the Red Brick Center for the Arts in Aspen.
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MISSOURI HEIGHTS – When it comes to the materials she uses and the forms she creates, artist Charmaine Locke has wandered all over the spectrum.

A tour through her spacious studio/warehouse in Missouri Heights turns up wood and wax, tape and leather, sculptures and panels, cloth and burlap. There is a screen triptych made of wood in the middle of the floor; a piece in the cluttered back room, “Theater in Iran,” that looks like a miniature theater, made of ebony and black silk. The two-dimensional pieces she is currently working on, which take up most of an expansive wall, feature paint, oil stick and pastel on paper – very fine, very large pieces of paper. Drawings on another wall use rice paper, and charcoal.

Outside the adjacent house, in front of a gorgeous view of Mount Sopris, is a larger-than-life bronze figure. Among the pieces in a current display at the Red Brick Center for the Arts is “Night Wonders,” made of shoe polish and plaster. In the ’90s she stepped one foot outside the visual arts realm and worked on several blues operas that started with original sets and characters she drew. One of the operas, “Songs of Experience,” was performed in 1995 at her studio in Splendora, Texas.



In terms of themes, though, Locke has maintained a comparatively tight focus. Whatever the medium, or the shape of the work, the subject matter tends predominantly to be on the feminine side of things. Rarely is the work political. In fact, Locke can point to two political pieces – “Theater in Iran,” a 1979 work inspired by the story of a group of women and girls who were left to burn in a locked theater; and “Tears,” two boards painted in black wax and gold print that list countries where atrocities against women have occurred. Though Locke originally studied psychology, and thought seriously about working in the field of abnormal psychology, the work is not often about the inner workings of the female mind.

Instead, Locke portrays the female essence, the energies that distinctly belong to women. James Surls, who is married to Locke and is a fellow artist, observes that his wife’s work is “pretty pure at the core” – that it examines the essential spirit of the female makeup.



The most influential figure in Locke’s artistic life has been a quintessentially male one: Surls. It was seeing a single piece of his work, in a faculty exhibit at Southern Methodist University, that caused Locke to first get involved in art. “I was so moved by it, I thought I’d like to take a class from him,” she said. Locke ended up taking Surls’ Introduction to Materials and Concepts, as well as an art history class, in the early ’70s. After they were both divorced, the student and teacher got married and in 1976 moved into a cabin surrounded by heavy woods in Splendora, 45 miles north of Houston.

Surls brought a decidedly masculine energy to his art. He worked in metal and wood, often making big, bulky sculptures. Not only did he bring a workmanlike approach to his creations – he often says he sees himself like a carpenter or a blacksmith – but he is a burly guy who has often sported a bushy beard. “I was very male – football player, patriarchal sensibility,” he said.

Which could well lead to the conclusion that Locke gravitated toward a sensibility opposite that of the teacher who was seven years her senior. But what seems closer to the truth is that it was not the male force, but the overwhelming female presence in her life that has permeated Locke’s work. She says that her early pieces were less female-oriented. But as her life became more and more filled with other girls and women, the female presence become more prominent in the art.

Locke is from a family of four kids, all girls. Both of her grandfathers died young; Locke’s maternal grandmother came to live with her family and became a prominent person in Locke’s life. Locke has four children, all daughters. She is stepmother to Surls’ three children – three more daughters. There are seven grandchildren in the family; six are girls. Small wonder that the female spirit plays a predominant role in her art.

“I don’t consciously exclude the male figure,” said Locke who, along with Surls, is being celebrated by the Red Brick Council for the Arts with an exhibition that runs through March 29 at the Red Brick Center in Aspen, and with a tribute dinner and benefit for the council on Thursday, March 18, at the Hotel Jerome. “I just know the female better, and am surrounded by female energy. And I think about it a lot, the way our culture is oriented, the art world.”

Feminist politics may not be on the surface of her work, but women’s issues are near the front of Locke’s mind. She points out that she attended college during the rise of Gloria Steinem and read every issue of Ms. magazine. The issue of women’s rights has never left her. In 2000, when she traveled to Africa, she didn’t care to see wild animals, but the conditions – often near primitive – in which women lived and worked. Surls said that female artists are a frequent topic of their conversation, and that a few months ago Locke researched the effect that having children had on the careers of female artists. What she found was that it was fairly rare for a woman to take the traditional role of raising kids and still have a career in visual arts.

To me, Locke spoke not of women who trade creativity for child-rearing, but of women in more dire circumstances. She brings up Afghanistan, where the Taliban are fighting for a society that gives women minimal rights.

“Here in this new millennium we’ve still got places in the world where women can’t leave the house without being accompanied by a man,” the 60-year-old Locke said. “Where they have no rights of ownership, or self-expression – no way of voting, purchasing. It’s as if they don’t exist. It’s a heritage of suppressing them.”

• • • • 

When Locke moved to the valley 12 years ago, she said she arrived with a bouffant hairdo – or if not a bouffant, a set of curls that required nearly as much maintenance. Since becoming a Coloradan, she has dropped the coifed look, and looked at feminine ideals from a new angle.

“Here in the valley, in this Western environment, there’s this history of strong women, outdoors people,” she said. “They don’t wear makeup. Sometimes you can’t tell a woman from a man from a distance. There’s a different sensibility and definition – it’s more about inner strength and beauty than just physicality. And physical strength is a real attribute.”

When Locke began her latest series of works on paper, she began with the idea of doing figures. Not much else was predetermined, and as she painted the characters took on, as they usually do, a female shape. As she got further into the first piece and developed the colors, she recognized something in the face – her daughter Lily (who, with her husband Matt Kennedy, recently opened the Kennedy Gallery in Carbondale). She looked at the next piece and saw that it was beginning to represent another daughter, Ruby. As the unconscious gave way to an intentional way of working, she began on two more pieces, for daughters Eva and Molly. Each piece has a distinct color palette and its own representation of the female spirit – “of who they are inside, and how I see them. Portraits of my daughter’s spirits and energy,” Locke said. “So here’s a way to recognize the women I love, our daughters.”

Stepping away from her new works on paper, heading toward the back storage area, Locke glanced at several massive sculptures made by her husband. One was a massive block of dark wood in the shape of a house, topped by a metal element.

“Here’s the male energy all around me,” Locke said, pointing to Surls’ work. “At some point I hope they can come out of here. I love them; he’s magnificent. But they’re overwhelming.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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