guest blog post // Vessels From The Heart

To prepare an award nomination, Anne Lambert recently interviewed the artist Charles Farrar. The discussion covered Farrar’s contributions to his artistic tradition and impact in North Carolina. Below is the written piece that Anne compiled. 

WhiteHouseCollectionThere are two Charles Farrars—the first, a retiree enjoying his leisure time after a 25-year corporate career, and the second, a world-class North Carolina artisan and teacher whose finely crafted bowls and vases are spectacular examples of the art of woodturning, prized by museums and private collectors.

Charles Farrar Artist Statement:

My fascination with the many properties of wood began when I was a child growing up in Southern Virginia. I am happiest when creating from found woods that feature irregular grain patterns, knots, burls or voids, such that the finished work provokes a different commentary. I work using a custom built Nichols lathe and tools for the different stages of turning; shaping, hollowing, etc. Ecological sensibility prevents my harvesting living trees solely for the purpose of turning vessels. Some of my vessels are classical forms with finely finished surfaces. Others have hand carved, textured or pigmented surfaces. I’m reminded of my ancestors when I embellish the surface of a piece. While Sub-Saharan Africans were master carvers, it was the Egyptians in North Africa who gave to the world the process of turning wood using a lathe as early as the time of the great pyramids.

Since 1997, Farrar’s artwork has shown in major U.S. cities including Albuquerque, Charlotte, St. Paul, Richmond, Atlanta and New York. Work has been on permanent loan with the State Department at the United States Embassy in Madagascar. His recent exhibit schedule includes The Mary Martin Gallery, Charleston, SC; Old Courthouse Galleries, Concord, NC; Whitespace Gallery, Winston-Salem, NC; The American Association of Woodturners Invitational Exhibit, Albuquerque, NM; The Gregg Museum at NCSU School of Art and Design, Raleigh, NC; and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, Charlotte, NC. Among corporate commissions/purchasers are Bank of America, First Citizens Bank & Trust Company, and The David Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles.

Work is in the permanent collection of the Danville Museum of Fine Art, John & Vivian Hewitt Collection (at the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte), The Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia, Essence Magazine editor, Susan Taylor; actress, Debbie Allen; author and poet laureate, Dr. Maya Angelou; Former US Solicitor General, Walter Dellinger; Artist/Art Historian, David C. Driskell; The White House Collection, and The Archbishop of Canterbury.

Farrar’s studio is in Concord, NC. This is where he lives and creates his beautiful works of art. Farrar moved to the Charlotte area in 1974 when he began his career working for Southern Bell (now AT&T). He describes how he became interested in woodturning:

In about the twentieth year of my corporate career in Charlotte, North Carolina, I purchased a turned wood vessel from artist David Goines during the SpringFest street arts festival. I liked the Camphor wood vessel so much that the next year—maybe 1991—I went back to the festival hoping to find the same artist. I did and said to him, “I’m going to buy another vessel, but I wish I knew how you did this.” He understood my fascination with his vessels, and he said, “Come up the mountain next Saturday and I’ll show you everything I know about woodturning.” He was my first mentor. For half a year I would take the best examples of my work from the previous two-month period for him to critique. He was very direct in his criticisms; he drove home the point that wood art is collected for its line and form more than wood color. Goines always left me inspired and wanting to improve my skills. Turning wood was just a hobby for me at that point. A few years later I took an early retirement from my corporate job and had the time to immerse myself fully in my hobby. Within two years of my retirement, a very fine gallery in downtown Charlotte saw my work and offered me a solo exhibition. It is then that I began to think of myself as an artist.

The ‘very fine gallery’ in downtown Charlotte was owned by B.E. Noel, who first encouraged Farrar to sell his works. When B.E. told him she wanted to represent him, Farrar laughs, “I asked her ‘What does that mean?’” Within a year, Noel Gallery had sponsored a major exhibition of his work and he began displaying at art shows and festivals. B.E. Noel moved her gallery to New York in the mid 2000s, but continues her exclusive representation of Farrar to this day, although his work is also shown in galleries across the US, including Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta and Charlotte Fine Art Gallery.

Farrar describes the ancient threads and meticulous techniques that provide inspiration for his work:

I am drawn to hollow turned vessels, usually with walls about 3/16″ thick, where the inside wood chips have to be evacuated through the small opening at the top center. The challenge of hollowing large vessels through small openings is addictive. I am very much moved by shapes of ancient ceremonial and utilitarian vessels from the Motherland, if you will, and I am especially partial to the perennial egg shape, which works, no matter whether the pointed end is fashioned as top or bottom.

Not everyone knows that historians now agree that the woodturning device, the lathe, was given to the world by the Egyptians some 4,500 years ago, about the time of the Fourth Dynasty or the period of the great pyramids. When I teach the woodturning process at craft schools—i.e., Arrowmont or John C. Campbell—I also show hand-carved bowls that demonstrate how sub-Saharan Africans created beautifully formed and adorned vessels, using solely their skills as master carvers. In my collection is a large hand carved Senegalese bowl from a Fromager tree, perfectly round, except for delicate hand tool marks.

As a woodturner, I hope to create vessels that speak to people who have a love of this very ubiquitous and tactile medium. I hope that my audience will appreciate and enjoy my sometimes use of color and other enhancements on turned and/or carved vessels. I believe that wood happens to be my canvas, and that I have license and freedom to be as creative as the imagination allows. If line and form (design), surface texturing or carving is appropriately executed, then the work will appeal to the greatest number of admirers.

When asked about how he turns a piece of wood into a work of art, Farrar speaks with passion about his process:

It simply boggles the mind sometimes! Whenever I see a blank of wood and I put it in my lathe, soon, within a few hours or a day, the shape of the art begins to reveal itself. [After all these years] I am pretty much able to see the shape inside the wood before I start the process. Sometimes I will spend half a day just seeing the wood, rolling it around in my hand, seeing the grain pattern, or the knots or the void, seeing how I might be able to feature that knot or that void. I [often] go in the opposite direction of a museum quality piece of wood. I prefer those blanks with a flaw, because the flaw is where the character is and where the story is. The story can be as valuable as the piece itself.

Just as David Goines mentored him, Farrar feels compelled to teach others. He has taught at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC and at Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts in Gatlinburg, TN. “When the schools invite you,” Farrar says modestly, “it’s something of a comfort that your work is being recognized, and that they welcome your ability to share your art and your craft.”

Farrar is especially motivated to inspire young African-American artists. “There are so few blacks [who are practicing traditional crafts], yet we were the folks who first made our lives easier by creating and fashioning things that we could use that were also beautiful. But we didn’t carry it forward as we should have.” Farrar recalls attending a national conference for traditional craft making. “Out of 1,500 attendees, fewer than 10 looked like me [were African American], and that was an increase from five a few years before.”  Farrar also recognizes that few public high schools still offer shop and industrial arts programs, where students might have previously learned these specialized skills. As a result, Farrar feels obligated to “go back and give back…to excite these young folks” by exposing them to traditional crafts and wood turning. The first project he often gives high school students is to make a pen. “We make a pen, a usable, workable pen – and these students get so excited, their faces light up and they get a gleam in their eyes, they can’t believe that they have made something so beautiful and useful. They don’t want to stop creating art. I owe it to them to help them.”

Farrar was honored in 2010 when Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx presented President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama with a gift of one of his works, a turned hemlock vessel with a lid adorned by a filial. The work (featured in the photo above) is now part of the White House collection. Farrar’s work was also featured at an exhibition at the Harvey B. Gantt Center—Romancing the Eye: Louis Delsarte, Charles Farrar and Larry Lebby—from June 25 through September 3, 2010. A video of some of Farrar’s works from that exhibit can be found here. More information about Charles Farrar and his portfolio can be found here.


Anne Lamberttoday’s guest blogger, is an accomplished non-profit professional with more than 20 years of experience in fundraising, project planning and arts management. She has worked as a fundraiser, grant writer and development consultant for a variety of organizations, including Harvey B. Gantt Center, Carolina Raptor Center, North Carolina Dance Theatre, UNC Charlotte, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, Charlotte Country Day School and Foundation For The Carolinas. Anne also is an actor, director and producer and two-time Metrolina Theatre Award acting award winner. She has produced plays, theatrical events and fringe theater festivals in Charlotte, Atlanta and Philadelphia.

guest blog post // Respect, Love and Space: A Culture Revealed

Tonight, the nonprofit professional theatre company On Q Performing Arts, Inc. is hosting a fundraiser featuring the theatre legend Lou Bellamy. I serve on the board of On Q and am ecstatic to share this recent interview by Anne Lambert with Lou Bellamy on my blog. Enjoy!

Respect, Love and Space: A Culture Revealed
An interview with theatre legend Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of the renowned Penumbra Theatre Company

By Anne Lambert

on_q_logoSummer 2012, Charlotte’s Quentin “Q” Talley, founder and artistic director of On Q Performing Arts, Inc., became one of only six theatre professionals nationwide awarded a Leadership U fellowship. Made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Theatre Communications Group, the 2012-13 fellowship provides Q a residency at Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, MN and professional mentorship from Lou Bellamy, Penumbra’s founder.

An Obie Award-winning director, accomplished actor and sought-after scholar, Bellamy has led Penumbra in producing 23 world premieres, including August Wilson’s first professional production. Penumbra carries the proud distinction of having produced more of Wilson’s plays than any other theatre in the world. In addition to his theatre company, Bellamy has been a faculty member at the University of Minnesota for 32 years and is currently associate professor in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance.

Bellamy is traveling to Charlotte this week to participate in a dinner event, benefiting On Q Performing Arts. On the eve of his arrival, Bellamy generously responded to a series of questions I posed. My interview with him is below.

Q: How did you meet Q? How did you first learn about the Leadership U fellowship funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Theatre Communications Group?

I first met Q at a reception at the JCSU president’s residence. I was in Charlotte at Dr. Carter’s invitation. Dr. Carter and I were exploring ways to bring some of Penumbra’s programs to Charlotte and to JCSU. Dr. Carter introduced me to Q as a leader and representative of the theater community. Q and I hit it off early on. Being a founder of a mid-sized arts organization, I understood immediately the challenges he was addressing. As Penumbra and JCSU’s relationship evolved, so did my relationship with Q and On Q Performing Arts. We began to speak about making PTC’s educational programs available to JCSU students and to artists associated with On Q Performing Arts. Those discussions led to students from JCSU and from Davidson College coming to Minnesota to participate in PTC’s Summer Institute. At the same time, Q learned of the Leadership U fellowship and asked me if I would be interested in mentoring him if he applied and was accepted to the program.

Q: How is the fellowship structured? How do you and Q work together? Does he have ‘homework’ or assignments? Or is your partnership more loosely structured? How does the financial aspect of the grant work? Do you have benchmarks that you also have to reach?

The fellowship is structured to allow Q to explore and participate in both the artistic and administrative aspects of running a company. As we continue to structure the relationship, it is important that Q choose the areas he wants to develop. Once he chooses an area, we begin to chart out a strategy that will allow him to participate and/or observe that activity in a working professional company. He is an integral part of PTC’s administrative staff, complete with desk, computer, etc. He attends staff and production meetings and follows the process of creating art for the stage from the germination of an idea to full production. He is also a part of all other aspects of running a theater company (e.g. marketing, personnel, education, technical, audience development, granting, and production). He also assists me in direction and has assisted and traveled with me as I’ve directed plays at Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Q: What are the benefits of the fellowship for you? What are some of the unexpected aspects of the project and your relationship with Q? What advice would you give to artists who seek a mentor or a mentee?

PTC’s programs and approach to production have been developed over thirty-seven years of continuous production. The company is now in the position where it is important that this body of knowledge be shared with those interested in engaging their communities in similar manners. On Q Performing Arts and PTC are exploring ways that our programming can be shared in the other’s community. This could mean PTC programming in Charlotte and On Q Performing Arts programming in Minnesota. One of the unintended consequences of our interaction has been the refinement of my own artistic philosophy and practice. When I am forced to examine and explain actions and choices which have become almost instinctive for me, I begin to reexamine my own approach. I think the process has reinvigorated and expanded my repertoire.

Q: While you’re working with Q, I imagine you have thought about your own career path. Can you tell us more about how you got to where you are, where you went to school, how you broke into the world of directing, how you founded Penumbra Theatre, etc?

My career path has been largely dictated by the direction, growth and needs of my company.  When you are a company like On Q Performing Arts or Penumbra, your personal growth and development is inextricably tied to that of the company. When I came out of graduate school, I had been mainly trained as an actor. I had good directors already in my company, so the best way for me to contribute to the company was through acting and administration. As the company matured and directors began to be beckoned by the rest of the field, the needs of the company shifted and I began to move from acting to directing. Before founding PTC, I first broke into directing because of the demand I had created as an actor. Theaters wanted to hire me as an actor. I made deals with them that I would appear in their productions in their current seasons if they would hire me to direct in their next season. It worked. And I turned out to have something to say as a director. I founded PTC because I knew that there were stories from the African American experience that were not being told with truth and cultural authenticity. This approach to the drama necessitated both craft and textual exploration and refinement.  Fortunately, there were available excellent actors, writers, and directors who were similarly impelled. We all felt that African Americans should be in control of the images, stories and iconology that surround and defines their ethos. This authentic approach to the drama has resulted in an increased demand for the work and has irreversibly shaped American drama.

Q: Could you tell us about your professional philosophy and work style? How do you direct? What is important to you as a director? What do you want from actors? What does your experience tell you actors need from you? How do you work with playwrights? How do you work with designers?

My approach is to explore and represent the authentic African American experience. For me, this is best represented in ensemble production. I’ve found that the culture will reveal itself only when it is given respect, love, and space. One has to be intimately familiar with the culture to present it on stage. I want actors who are trained and well versed in the craft of theatre and who have (or want to) stud(y)ied the culture. I love and respect actors and feel a real responsibility to make sure they have clear expectations and a safe and nurturing atmosphere in which to create. I do best working with playwrights by attempting to supply the cultural nuance and rhythms that are the intent of the playwright. With designers, I’m intentionally vague. I want them to have a certain fidelity to the text, but leave room for them to imagine.

Q: Can you recall a specific black theatre production (either one of your own or a project in which you weren’t directly involved) that you have drawn significant inspiration from or weaves a story that you particularly identify with? In other words, what play moves you most? And why?

Three productions come to mind. Two of them I directed and the other was directed by another I acted in. The dramatic presentation and realization in all were instructive and the “whole” that emerged was definitely greater than the sum of the parts. I directed a production of Steve Tesich’s On the Open Road set in an African American post-apocalyptic reality whose images were so strong as to still be inspirational to me. I directed a production of Seven Guitars that was, to me, so well realized that I don’t think I want to ever try to reengage the text. I can’t imagine it ever being more perfect. Probably the most formative in my career was a production of Fences directed by Claude Purdy in which I played TROY MAXON opposite Rebecca Rice’s ROSE. Purdy’s direction continues to shape the choices and style of my directing and Rice’s honesty, beauty, and craft are carried in my heart and are templates for dramatic truth in everything I do. My study of African American culture and history form a context which informs each and every directing choice I make. Texts like The Drama of Nommo by Paul Carter Harrison, From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin, and Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett, Jr. are the bones of the skeleton that hold up the body of my work.

Q: Last fall, On Q Performing Arts hosted you, Joan Myers Brown (founder of Philadanco) and poet and playwright Amiri Baraka for a discussion called “Black Arts Movement: Present Condition, Future Vision.” What makes a play uniquely ‘African-American’ or ‘black’ and not just a work of theater, or American theater? Why is that distinction important to audiences? Or is it still an important distinction as our culture becomes increasingly diverse? Is radicalism or racial identity a required theme of ‘black’ theater? What, in your opinion, creates an ‘authentic’ theater experience?

I feel that the answers to these questions are somewhere addressed above. A black character in a play does not make it a “black play.” I could write, or talk, for days about this. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark is most instructive here. America’s view of “things African” are so colored and pulled out of shape that depictions of blacks in American literature not created by African Americans often bear little resemblance to that which I know to be true. Blacks in this context tend to be metaphors, representatives of the race, portrayed without the community that shapes them, represent bench marks for the development of white characters, provide comic relief or the opportunity to play out extreme violence or sexuality, etc. I’m interested in exposing the “human experience” through the lives and culture of African Americans. I believe that in so doing I can make the world a better place for us all.

Anne Lambert is a professional actress, writer and theatre producer. A longtime supporter of On Q Performing Arts, Lambert organized Lou, Q and You at e2, a benefit dinner event, and contributes generously to the theatre company.