Dickson Carroll. American, born 1940

Trained as an architect at Yale University, Washington, DC based artist Dickson Carroll creates whimsical furniture, macquettes, and artworks constructed out of wood. These fanciful, brightly colored objects combine Carroll's skill as a craftsman and his vision as an architect. (Addison / Ripley Fine Art)


*Further inquiries click on artist/dealer website listed below.


Artist Statement

I very much enjoy living in both the real and ideal worlds. I am often asked which I prefer most-- as if I had to choose one-- architecture or art. I don’t. I love them both equally. But when architecture falls short of its artistic promise, there is always the sculpture, and not having to take out all of one’s artistic energy on an architectural client for whom it may not be appropriate, seems sensible.
Essays

Biography

REMINISCENCES ON A CAREER IN ART AND ARCHITECTURE

I have always been equally interested in architecture and art, although I planned to be an architect for as long as I can remember. As an undergraduate at Yale (1958-62) I took some classes in the art school along with the graduate students. Among the teachers and critics there at the time was Josef Albers who was retired but came back from time to time to teach a class . His successor, Sy Sillman, taught Albers' iconic color course. Robert Engman, the sculptor, taught undergraduate courses as well. Nancy Graves and Richard Serra were both students with me in the first year painting class. I was painting abstract and abstracted realism at the time. Nancy, who had just graduated from Smith, was doing impressionist-style landscapes, and Richard was painting small, Morandi-like still-lifes.

William Bailey was a critic of mine. He was very quiet-- mainly he just looked at the work and asked a few questions. Arnold Bittleman was more expansive,. I took his still life and nude drawing course. I remember him looking at my work and suggesting that I pursue a career in the fine arts, but when I said that I intended to be an architect he said, "Well it's good to have artists in architecture," or something to that effect. Other critics at the Art school at the time were: Al Held, Philip Perlstein, Neil Welliver, and Alex Katz.

My artistic mentor at the time was Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect. He was also a painter and, in fact, designed polychrome wood sculptures, though they were fabricated in Scotland to his designs by a Scottish woodcarver, and then shipped back to his studio in Paris where he painted them. All of Le Corbusier's output was published in a sequential seven volume series. I poured over every page. I remember being at an art school party and talking to Richard Serra. He asked me what artist I most admired. When I said Le Corbusier, he laughed and told me I would never amount to anything. Apparently he did not consider Le Corbusier to be an "artist" at all or at least not worthy of emulation. We almost got in a fistfight over his insulting remark.

Paul Rudolph was head of the Architecture school at the time. Rudolf was a very sculptural architect making a complete and dramatic break from the Bauhaus tradition under which he had trained. I admired him greatly. I made several trips to Sarasota with architecture school classmates to see his early work. From the top floor of Louis Kahn's museum at College and York Streets in New Haven-- where the architecture school was housed at the time-- we watched Rudolph's Art and Architecture building emerge from the ground and gain form across the street. As the big corner tower with twin bypassing beams at the top took shape, I remember Philip Johnson quipping that it reminded him of a bull with a ring in its nose.

I found the building fascinating. The following year the architectural students moved in. I loved Rudolph's building, living and working in the spaces and with all the bypassing forms, watching the changing light and shadows in the building, set against the urban landscape in motion beyond.

Art and architecture have always been one for me. In architectural school, we were always solving sculptural problems. One of the critics I liked most was John Hedjuk. It was before the time he became famous at Cooper Union and built his Wall house. He made the statement to our first year studio class that you could not enter a building on a corner. We were designing a small house. I went on to challenge that assumption and designed a cube-shaped house entered at the corner. The first floor at the corner of the cube had been carved away so as to create a flat plane for the door and a covered entry .

At the jury as the other critics questioned my oddly-focused design, Hedjuk explained that I was responding to a design challenge of his. Hedjuk was an iconoclast. He was a great and inspiring teacher as well, as was Rudolph. Rudolf always welcomed and invited opposite and diverse points of view. He reveled in the debate of opposing points of view, but at the end of the jury as he would sum up, the results seemed always to uphold his own strong point of view!

I have always preferred going my own way. Aside from Le Corbusier, whose work is quite different from mine, I think I have been my own best mentor, while always open to everything all around me.

After graduation, I came to Washington, not to work for a recognized design architect, but to work for a firm which promised me the most opportunity to work on my own design. The job didn't work out. What I produced, the firm couldn't use. I decided I needed to set out on my own and started a firm with a friend who was already registered as an architect. In the five years or so that it took to build our practice, I had a lot of free time. It was then that I started making sculpture, inspired-- and given permission perhaps--by the example of Le Corbusier. From abstract, organic work I moved to functional /sculptural furniture and crafts, then to maquettes for visionary architectural projects which could, in principal, be built but remained as concrete ideas for possible buildings.

I had a series of unsolicited projects which I decided to design for specific places in the city: a Gateway on Connecticut Avenue for the National Zoo, a renovation for the Cleveland Park Post Office, a design for the Cleveland Park Metro stop, a prototype refreshment kiosk for the National Mall, a sculptural graphic for the underground vault of the Gallery Place Chinatown Metro station. As there were no clients for these projects, they remained in model form. The models were sold as sculpture.

I love landscape and landscape painting, and I made three-dimensional landscape-sculptures, compressed in depth, wall-mounted and lit from within, often based on my canoeing experiences and on my travels in the US and Australia.

There is no line of demarcation for me between functional or purposeful art and fine art, or between architecture and art-- It is all art . Architecture is, of course, a practical professional service which must meet clients' taste, the demands of their budgets, and strict structural and code requirements. Nonetheless, the objective is to fuse--- to the extent possible-- the practical and esthetic possibilities. A project like the Macomb St. Playground Gazebo combines both architectural and sculptural objectives.

I very much enjoy living in both the real and ideal worlds. I am often asked which I prefer most-- as if I had to choose one-- architecture or art. I don't. I love them both equally. But when architecture falls short of its artistic promise, there is always the sculpture, and not having to take out all of one's artistic energy on an architectural client for whom it may not be appropriate, seems sensible.

I never wanted to grow my architectural business and become a manager--to have to get work to keep the business going for its own sake. I try to work half of each day on architecture and half in the studio on sculpture. I have never had an employee and have most always worked at home. My time is flexible and my own. The architecture has supported the sculpture financially and made a good living for my family and me. There is no project which is too small for me, but there are a lot which are too large.

In the past seven years, my wife and I have taken up the study of French. We travel periodically to different cities in France in different regions of the country for three weeks to study in French Language Institutes and to live with French host families. After two weeks of classes we travel in the immediate region. It is an immersive experience. We have weekly sessions with a French tutor back here in Washington. We have become francophones. We love all things French!

As a motivation to learn French grammar and vocabulary, I needed a creative project. I took up writing fiction in French. What has evolved is an imaginary memoir based on life in our neighborhood. I am using photos of my sculpture as illustrations, working back and fourth between the story line that I create and the collection of photos of the of three-hundred plus sculptures that I have produced since I became a sculptor forty years ago. The fact that much of my work can be perceived as models for something larger, or something that could be real, but really is not, comes in handy. There is a "let's pretend" aspect to my work and a story line often seems to be implied.

The adjective most applied by others to my work is "whimsical." At one time I was exhibiting for several years at a New York gallery in Soho. At one of my openings, two men came in who were doing the rounds. After looking at my work one of them seem to become enraged and said to me, in so many words, "how could you possibly have escaped all the angst of our times?" Well I didn't. Any more that he did. It's just that it's not what comes out in my work. Perhaps the writing-cum- sculpture project could add a new dimension to the public's perception of my work.

I have done little or no writing in my career despite an extensive verbal education. The writing is an opportunity to try a new art form, or to combine several art forms: sculpture, architecture, and fiction.

This is a project that is counter-intuitive in that one should be an expert in a foreign language to write well in it. The study of the French language and an immersion in French culture make a wonderful adventure for my wife and me , but I have, by no means, become an expert in French. Nevertheless, we have a French tutor who is helping me, reading and constantly correcting my work for me. I'm committed to writing in French so as to learn the language. Nonetheless, in the end, I have to translate the French into English to fully understand what I have said in French. The French is then modified by the English, where understandably I am more proficient at expressing myself! In the end there are two versions: a French and an English one. This project is an experiment. It is not evident yet whether it will be successful, but it is a lot of fun, a exciting new direction with an artistic purpose.

I am just starting to make a landscape sculpture-- lit from within, and without-- of a familiar Paris scene. Perhaps I will make more.

I continue, as always, to search to integrate in new ways all aspects of my life—my love of music, reading and the outdoors, for example-- into my work as an architect and a sculptor.

Dickson Carroll
Feb. 6, 2015

CV

born 1940, New Haven, CT

education
1972 Art and Architecture Tour of India
1966 Yale School of Art and Architecture, New Haven, CT, M.F.A.
1962 Yale College, New Haven, CT. B.A.

works in public collections
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
The Dimock Gallery, George Washington University, DC
The Renwick Gallery, Washington DC

Reviews

Dickson Carroll at Addison/Ripley Fine Art
The Washington Post
by Mark Jenkins 01.28.11


GALLERY OPENING OF THE WEEK

The term "wood sculpture" suggests rough-hewn pieces, featuring rough textures and natural hues. But Dickson Carroll's work is exuberantly unnatural, with sleek curvilinear lines and candy-colored surfaces. His recent work, on display at an Addison/Ripley Fine Art show that has its opening reception Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m., is about as rustic as a Pokemon cartoon.

Carroll, a longtime Washingtonian, is also an architect and furniture designer. His craftsmanship is evident, even when he has made something of no practical value. His abstract pieces appear more solid than a lot of recently constructed houses, and their multicolored depths are very inviting. Such sculptures as "Intersection" and "Busy at Work" look as if they'd be fine homes for small-statured anime characters.



The Washington Post/Home
Happenings: Design- A Public Plaything
Thursday, October 22, 1998
by Patricia Dane Rogers


Dickson Caroll on artline
Busy at Work
Dickson Caroll on artline
Macomb Street Park Gazebo
(Model)


Dickson Carroll

Whimsy is invading Cleveland Park. A thirty-foot-tall public parasol bedecked with orange, pink and chartreuse curlicues and topped with a bright blue squiggle of a weathervane is to be the centerpiece for a rundown playground being spruced up by neighborhood volunteers.

The design for the playful gazebo was donated by architect and sculptor Dickson Carroll, a longtime Cleveland Park resident.
When the structure is completed—ETA is sometime between now and Thanksgiving—kids will scramble over its three-tier, hexagonal base and watchful parents and nannies will find covered seating under its domed roof.

The cedar shelter is costing $32,000. to construct says Laine Kaufman, co-chair of the volunteer group that has raised $160,000. of the $200,000. needed to complete the rehab of the acre-and-a-quarter Macomb Street park. Some of the work is being paid for by District funds but most of the money has been raised among Cleveland Park residents

“The gazebo sold everyone on the project. You mention new play equipment, storm drains and bushes” and prospective contributors go ‘yeh,Yeh,yeh,’ says Kaufman. “Dickson’s model blew them away. It put a smile on their faces.”

It also got them to reach deep into their wallets, One $20,000. Check was earmarked for the gazebo.

Carroll whose work is prominently featured on the rooftop of Sheridan School in Northwest Washington and in many private collections, has been making fantasy sculptures resembling mini gazebos for more than two decades. But a full-scale version was always in the back of his mind, “I thought a playground would be a perfect setting for the real thing.” Says the architect “I can’t believe I finally got to build one.”

http://www.artline.com/artists/dealers_artists/index.php?artist=carroll-dickson#essay_monograph


The World and I: Art/Craft (Washington Times Corporation)
Oh Those Polychrome Biomorphic Shapes: Dickson Carroll Brings Disney and the Space Age to Furniture
December 1987
by Louise Sheldon, p. 255


Dickson Caroll on artline
Stereo Cabinet
Dickson Caroll on artline
Clock Tower
(Model)


Extravagant fantasy and ebullient humor have invaded a field rarely treated with such verve. The objects we use in everyday life, the very furnishings of our homes, have become a significant art form.

Within every trained architect, painter, or sculptor, it seems there is a craftsman struggling to break out of the confines of his profession. A growing tendency to indulge in alternative creative pursuits has brought about an interplay among disciplines and a cross-fertilization among talented professionals. The result has been a lively surge in the number of handcrafted objects made for the home. The creations of the new breed of designers can now be found in galleries that were once the austere domain of painting and sculpture.

Even for the developing field, the sculpted furniture of Dickson Carroll of Washington, D.C., stands out as unique in concept and design. Carroll’s polychrome biomorphic shapes find their niche somewhere between the Disneyesque and the space age, with a dose of Art Deco thrown in. His bed sprouts halo and wings, his pink and purple-accented dresser recalls an old-time Wurlitzer, his stereo cabinet, with its bulging polyps and amoeba-like protrusions resembles a street vendor thrusting out a huge purple tongue. A Carroll model for a public sculpture combines a clock tower in the shape of a witch’s had with a pagoda-like gazebo.

Despite the fantasy of his designs, Carroll’s craft is rooted in our national tradition. Hand-wrought wooden furniture is as American as the great forests that once stretched across our land. In fact one of the original attractions of this continent was its wood, already a vanishing resource in the Old World.

In the eighteenth century, almost everything a man needed was made of wood. William Penn described wood as “a substance with a soul,” for every chip parades its autobiography in its grain and consistency. Given its certain feel and the fact that it can be carved by hand, man has always found pleasure working with wood.

The current crafts revival harks back to the nineteenth-century revolt against academicism and to a search for spiritual values to combat the effects of industrialization of daily life. The English Arts and crafts Movement was led by William Morris, proponent of the idea that art should be not only beautiful, but useful. Reversing this theory, the famous Austrian painter Gustav Klimt proclaimed, “No sphere of human life is too insignificant or mean to offer scope for artistic endeavor.” Art Nouveau, that transformer of style and taste, swept across Europe and the United States, permeating textile, glass and furniture design. In this country, the elegant and attenuated forms, as well as Art Nouveau’s predominant “whiplash’ line, were introduced in objects used in daily living by artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Utilitarian Forms

During the 1920’s, the Bauhaus school of architecture strove to reconcile artistic design with the commercial demands of mass production. Architects like Le Corbusier, who admired airplane and turbine engine design, stressed utilitarian form over aesthetics.

Thus, for a century, priority in design has oscillated between the beautiful and the functional. The two-way pull continues in the art furniture boom of today. Many contemporary designers have deliberately sacrificed the practical for the artistic, rejecting the severe Bauhaus line. During the 1960’s, craftsmen in various media, such as Peter Voulkos, Wendell Castle, and Harvey Littleton stressed the sculptural element. A decade later, design was influenced by Minimalist sculptors like Donald Judd who de-emphasized the artist’s role by concentrating the viewer’s attention on materials shaped in ascetically simplified forms. Today, art furniture emporiums in new York, such as Art et Industrie and the Gallery of Applied Arts, reflect the heady influence of the Italian Memphis collective, introduced in 1981, with its wild mix of colors, styles, and media.

The impetus for a return to wood-working had long since been implemented by the arrival in America after world War II of high-quality, light furniture from Scandinavia. A Dane named Tage Frid began to teach furniture making at the Rhode Island School of Design, and a generation of craftsmen was born. By 1975, a veritable renaissance of handmade wooden furniture was in full swing.

Belying the flamboyant appearance of his work, Carroll sides with the practical in the art-versus-function argument. “Many pieces of furniture handcrafted today look like art and are mock-functional. It seems perverse to me. Why make something that doesn’t work?” He cites as an example the fashionable, solid stone chairs of Scott Burton, which are interesting as sculpture, but are neither comfortable nor functional. “You’d need to reinforce the floor to bring them into the house,” says Carroll.

Carroll’s furniture is designed to be used. The bed is meant to be slept in, the secretary to be written on, the dresser to hold clothing in its numerous cleverly concealed drawers. Basically an architect, trained at Yale’s prestigious School of Art and Architecture, Carroll admits to being an admirer of Le Corbusier, who initiated the bold use of color in buildings and designed sculpture and furniture as well.

“When I started out as an architect,” says Carroll, “I had an initial flurry of commissions. I felt I needed to balance architecture with something else. I admired Le Corbusier’s sculpture and that was a starting point.”

Fantastic Creations

Carroll’s fantastic creations have many sources of inspiration. He has traveled in Europe and India and liked what he saw. The architecture of China and Japan has long fascinated him. The sea and its creatures seem to mesmerize him, as can be see in many examples of his work.

A modest man who talks little about his work, Carroll refuses to pinpoint any predominant influence or style. Nonetheless, the sensuous rhythms of Indian statuary seem to flow through his work, and the influence of the Far East is clearly evident in his pagoda roofs and jutting curlicues. Although the European past is evoked in the clock-tower model, much of his furniture reflects the sleek elegance of Art Deco.

At least half of Carroll’s production is pure sculpture with no given purpose. He prefers not to ponder the possible inspiration for a form or concept “Ideas are fantasies that simply arrive. Natural objects appeal. I just start sketching and doodling,” Carroll says.


Dickson Caroll on artline
Beautiful Swimmer
Dickson Caroll on artline
Stage with Instruments
Symphony Series



Consider the tall, abstract piece Carroll calls Beautiful Swimmer in honor of the Chesapeake Bay crab. To someone else it might not look like a marine creature at all, but perhaps a composition of oriental arabesques. Three stringed wall sculptures, titled Three Movements from the Symphony series, very freely represent various components of an orchestra. The “instruments” are abstract shapes vaguely reminiscent of a violin, a harp, or a brass piece, but might also be seen as a bone, a stone, and a snail. The whole conveys a sense of rhythm and musicality.

The hallmarks of Carroll’s work are finely detailed craftsmanship and a loving attention to his material. Since it is difficult to find blocks of wood free of “checks” (cracks or flaws) he buys precut lumber boards, using a variety of available woods, although not particularly exotic ones. He uses poplar and ash for the painted portions. He prefers the warm browns of mahogany and fir and high-grained oak for surfaces that will be lightly stained.

The first cutting is done with a fixed table saw or hand-held saber saw. The thick, bulbous sections Carroll fancies are carved from large blocks he has made by laminating several pieces of precut lumber sawed roughly to size. This technique was developed by Wendell Castle to increase the strength of the block and enhance it aesthetically with ribbed sections.

How does Carroll obtain the biomorphic look that makes his pieces seem to pulse with life? “My work is very low-tech in that no planer, joiner, or lathe is used. It is impossible to get the irregular asymmetrical shapes I want with mechanical tools,” he says.

The craftsman relies mainly on chisels, gouges, and rasps for shaping and hollowing, rarely resorting to a router. Even the smallest drawer pull has an organic off-centered look, with the burl curling, lifelike, through the center.

No Shortcuts

There are no shortcuts in Carroll’s work. He will avoid using a nail if there is a possibility of its being visible. Every piece is meticulously finished by Carroll himself, down to the last interior detail. The insides of drawers reveal delightfully surprising colors, contrasting with those used on the exterior. As one admirer says, his precision is in what you don’t see; all the hidden parts are perfectly finished.

If the enamel paints Carroll uses are not bright enough for is taste, he throws in an occasional touch of fire-engine red acrylic. He admits his pieces are a bit flamboyant and overpowering for the average home. People who commission his work tend to favor the extravagant. Fitting a Carroll piece into the home is somewhat like hanging a giant Miró in the living room. The best solution may be to move the rest of the furniture out.

Carroll is unperturbed by such comments, He simply wants to pro- duce the sort of sculpture he likes. “I never thought of myself as an artist. But once I was set up as an architect and commissions began to flow in, I found that architecture is concerned mainly with solving functional problems. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the result can end up being a good deal less that what one had originally hoped for.”

Carroll has settled for a life divided between art and architecture. Architecture pays the bills. It involves the real world, necessitates interacting with people and meeting specific requirements. Carroll has designed and built a number of homes in the Washington area and receives frequent request for remodeling and designing additions to existing homes, but he limits the commissions he will accept.

The return for the many hours invested in his sculptured pieces may be financially “infinitesimal” and the work solitary, he admits. But the rewards for artistic freedom are priceless.

Carroll’s models for public structures, such as the fanciful gazebo and the arches adorned with curlicues in an oriental mode, have not been commissioned. He thinks this is too bad, as they can fill an important function. He takes as an example the recently installed Chinese-red gateway to Washington’s Chinatown. “It is disturbing that landmarks like this are thought of as nonessential items. I feel such art makes a contribution, simply because people enjoy seeing it. The Chinese gateway is used every day. It is experienced by any people as a work of art.”

One of Carroll’s most delightful models illustrates this philosophy. It is titled Memorial. In the cutout opening of a sort of anthropomorphic gourd, tiny stick figures place offerings, One cannot help but feel that his welcoming form may convey a happier image of death than the traditional tombstone.

Dickson Caroll on artline
Memorial
In his dual role as master of the art of whimsy and thriving architect, Dickson Carroll is surely living proof that the best way to happiness is making others happy. Will urban planners realize one day there may be a case for public art that makes us smile?





Bibliography

MAGAZINE AND NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

2011, Sept./Oct. Home and Design, "A Dual Career," Tina Copeland

1999, Fall, Kitchen and Bath Ideas, "Courageous Color," Sarah Wolf

1998, Oct.22, Washington Post—Home, "Design," Patricia Diane Rogers

1996, Fall, Washington Home and Garden, "Earthy Humor," Constance Stapleton

1990, Nov. 29, The Washington Post—Home, "Making It," Constance Stapleton

1987, Dec., The World and I, ('Wash. Times Corp.), "Oh, Those Biomorphic Shapes," Louise Sheldon

1987, Feb. 25, Baltimore Sun, "Mind's-eye Architecture," John Dorsey

1986, Feb. 6, Washington Post, "Remodeling": "At Home with Dickson Carroll's Colorful Cutouts," Patricia Diane Rogers

1983, Oct. 2, Washington Post Magazine, "Dream Homes," Andy Leon Harney

1980, May/June, Art Voices South, "Washington D.C.," Mary Swift

1980, Feb. 3, Washington Star—Home Life, "the Inventive Designs of Dickson Carroll," Patsy Rogers

1978, Sept. 17, Washington Star Magazine—Home Life, "A Down-to-earth Hillside House," Patsy Rogers

1978, Sept. 17 Washington Star Magazine—Home Life, "Architecture": "A Rural Barn Grows Up," Patsy Rogers

1977, fall/winter, Building, a House and Garden Guide, "Houses for Today," : "New Angles, Varied Heights, " photos by Robert Lautman



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