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Novel Work in Plastic Shapes Career of Artist

Times Staff Writer

On busy Rosecrans Avenue just east of the railroad tracks in Compton, traffic rumbles past a shapeless, one-story building that would go unnoticed in the landscape of gasoline stations and fast-food restaurants were it not for the brightly colored murals that artist Elliott Pinckney, a neighbor, painted on the walls.

Inside the nearly 4,500-square-foot building, which once housed an automobile upholstery shop, Charles Dickson pursues the passion that consumed him even as a young boy when he sat in his mother’s kitchen carving boats and airplanes with table knives.

For Dickson, a sculptor, it is difficult to imagine life without art.

“I fought so hard to do art,” he said, recalling the years of financial uncertainty and the asthma that often interrupted his work.

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Now, at 40, Dickson is gaining the kind of artistic recognition for which he has worked all his life. He is the only Californian among seven artists whose work is featured in the Afro-American Museum exhibit, “Emerging Artists: Figurative Abstraction.” It is on view until Jan. 1 at the museum in Exposition Park in Los Angeles.

Artistic Heroes

Dickson, who was reared in Los Angeles and moved to Compton in his early 20s, does not have an art school education. His teachers at Gompers Junior High School and Fremont High School, where he studied woodworking to become a cabinetmaker, gave him the classroom training he has in art.

His artistic heroes, he says, were white men--Picasso, Giacometti, Michelangelo--because most teachers made little effort to acquaint black children with black artists.

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“I remember them telling us that black people in this country didn’t develop or do anything culturally,” Dickson said, speaking about the majority of his teachers.

It was not until the end of his high school years, he said, that he became aware of such black artists as Charles White and Danny Johnson, the last artist to study with Giacometti.

His mother and father, Dickson said, had as much to do with nurturing his artistic talent as anyone. His father was a master baker who would do elaborate cake decorations. His mother had a flair for color and interior design, he said.

On trips back and forth to Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles, where as a boy Dickson received asthma treatments, she would stop by department stores and study the display windows. Watching her recreate at home what she had seen in the windows, he said, encouraged him to turn his own mental images into reality.

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Among the Dickson works in the museum exhibit is “Uprooted,” a towering, 13-foot monument to the agony of slavery. The ebony configuration, suspended just off the floor, extends upward from a tree stump whose gaping roots appear to screech in shock.

Moving upward from the roots, the tree’s trunk is a mass of human figures and faces lashed together in chains and culminating in a lynching scene. The only sign of hope on this sculpture of suffering is the bit of green sprouting at the top of the tree, which, Dickson says, expresses his belief in an Almighty.

High-Tech Pioneer

Like almost all of Dickson’s figures, those in “Uprooted” are classical, largely female, nudes made from plaster bandage casts of models. The material Dickson uses to mold his sculptures, however, makes him a high-tech pioneer in the art world.

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“Uprooted” is sheathed in ABS, which Dickson describes as a high-impact plastic. Using a heat gun of his own invention, Dickson melts and molds the hard plastic sheets over and around the core of the sculpture--which includes the plaster casts, a real tree root and a bone--until it is as seamless as a slab of marble.

“I’m an inventor,” Dickson said.

His medical problems forced him to be inventive. An asthma sufferer since he was 6 months old, he was told at 31 to give up sculpting, which at the time he was doing largely with wood. Doctors said resins in the wood were toxic to him.

Unable to abandon his drive to create, Dickson began exploring new materials for his sculptures. (Recently, in a striking mix of the primitive and the high tech, he chiseled from thick slabs of Lucite elongated figures that look just like African Senufu tribal art.)

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Molded With Heat

He also has pioneered with a material he calls HISPUF (high-impact styrene plastic urethane foam core), which, like ABS, comes in 4-by-8-foot sheets and is melted and molded with a heat gun.

“Blossom,” another of his works in the museum exhibit, is made of HISPUF. Like a high-tech “Birth of Venus,” Blossom is depicted emerging from a shell. But unlike the shell in Botticelli’s famous painting, Blossom’s shell is a made of high-impact plastic.

The most important invention Dickson conceived was an air mask that allows him to work with wood and other materials. The mask, hooked up to a compressor, filters out much of the dust and toxins from the air he breathes while working.

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The warehouse-like space in which Dickson works also houses his studio and his home, which he shares with his wife of 15 years, Darlene, who works at Xerox Corp.

“I’ve had support from my family and my wife,” Dickson said, by way of explaining that their moral and financial support kept him sculpting during the years before his talent as an artist became recognized. Today, his sculptures are owned by such admirers as Stevie Wonder, Gregory Hines and Ella Fitzgerald.


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