Feature Articles

June Issue 2002

SC State Museum in Columbia, SC, Features Works by L.C. Carson

L.C. Carson, builder, civic leader and self-taught artist, once wondered if the Concrete City he created in his backyard in Orangeburg, SC, was truly "worth keeping."

It was - and is. Carson's comment gave the name to Worth Keeping: Found Artists of the Carolinas, a 1981 show that was the first time his work was exhibited. His art also was included in Still Worth Keeping: Communities, Preservation and Self-taught Artists at the SC State Museum in Columbia, SC. But the most comprehensive exhibit of his work is Concrete Knowledge: Constructions and Carvings by L. C. Carson, which will be on view at the State Museum through Aug. 18, 2002.

Carson created 33 models of buildings from around the world. Nineteen of them are included in the exhibit, including the Parthenon, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Ramesses II Temple at Lake Aswan. It also will feature furniture and polychromed (multi-colored) relief carvings of figures from folklore, mythology and popular culture. Among them are the Lizard Man of Lee County, Mayan God and The Clinton Plan (President Bill Clinton).

Carson, who died in 1998, "couldn't be more of a SC artist," says Paul Matheny, curator of the exhibit. His ancestors emigrated from Scotland and Ireland in the mid-1700s and settled near what is now Livingston, SC. Carpenters and builders, they constructed many of the houses and barns in the new community. Carson continued the tradition. He owned construction and concrete businesses and built about 600 homes and other buildings in Orangeburg County.

When Carson retired in the early 1970s, Matheny says, he realized he needed something to do. Although he never attended college, Carson was interested in art, architecture and mythology. He read books and magazines about art, and he traveled. One particularly inspiring trip was to the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, AL. After seeing the models of churches and holy places created by Brother Joseph Zoettl, he decided to build what became his Concrete City.

"Most people are intimidated by art and think they don't know how to do it, so they don't," Matheny says. It is rare to find someone who can focus inside himself and figure exactly how and what to do. That is what Carson did.

He used the skills he developed in his businesses. He also used the materials. "All kinds of mixed-media," Matheny says. Fluted metal curtain rods, cultured marble, found objects, mass-produced figurines and, of course, concrete. With them he made buildings inspired by architecture around the world. Carson created the city for his own enjoyment, Matheny says. He didn't sell his art. However, Matheny says, Carson was excited when he learned it would become part of the State Museum's collection. "He wasn't interested in the fame of having the work exhibited. He was interested in his work being preserved for the future," Matheny says.

The preservation was made possible by the South Carolina Museum Foundation's 1997 annual fund, which also enabled the museum to commission a topiary by Pearl Fryar of Bishopville, SC.

Led by Tony Rajer, a conservator from Madison, WI, museum staff, art curators and University of SC students moved the city to the museum in 1998. Carson's family was so pleased that the city was saved that they donated the rest of Carson's work to the museum, Matheny says. Only one piece, a relief carving, is in a private collection outside the State Museum.

Carson's work is unique and genuine, Matheny says. "His life experiences dictated the kind of art he would produce." It is important to preserve it not only because of its value as art but because of Carson's ties to some of the earliest European settlers of what is now South Carolina, Matheny says. "It is an excellent example of how the public, through the annual fund, has helped us preserve important cultural material for the future."

Concrete Knowledge. Constructions and Carvings by L. C. Carson and a companion exhibit, Paperwork: Gene Merritt Drawings from the Permanent Collection can be seen on the museum's fourth floor until Aug. 18, 2002.

For more information check our SC Institutional Gallery listings, call the museum at 803/898-4952 or visit the museum's web site at (www.museum.state.sc.us).

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