First published: Summer 2014
Fred J. Carter was born in 1911 in Duffield, Virginia, on a farm that lacked electricity and had an outhouse. One of 11 children, he was impacted by his intellectual father, the Great Depression, and the infamous Harlan County coal mining union struggles. His uncle Ed came under sniper fire at Harlan, while an older brother – a communist union organiser – was beaten there and spent his life in and out of asylums.
After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and during the depression, it was not unusual for intellectual and liberal Americans to see communism leading to a “new world order.” Uncle Ed was such a man, and Carter was exposed to radical thinking through Ed and the prominent socialists Ed knew. At Ed’s urging, Carter attended Berea College, but he dropped out, possibly because he was teased for being a slow student.
Carter became a businessman who first worked in Ed’s hardware stores, and eventually owned his own hardware/home improvement business in the coal town of Clintwood, Virginia. But his progressive experiences and friendships with a wide range of people made him a worldly man with a deep social conscience. When a foot injury at age 50 left him temporarily homebound, a latent passion to express his beliefs in art was unleashed.
Carter spent the next 30 years, until his death in 1992, relentlessly giving artistic form to his convictions – many of which proved prescient. He developed a remarkable set of skills to express that vision. He collected pioneer tools and built the Cumberland Museum in Clintwood to display his “primitive things of toil and love.” He excelled at stonemasonry, landscape architecture, poetry, short story writing, painting, philosophy and, most notably, carving found wood. He would study the wood, seeing or letting a theme emerge, while incorporating the wood’s idiosyncratic shapes, imperfections and grain.
He built his home and studio at and onto Ghost Rocks, where legend has it that Indians massacred pioneers who passed between these two huge boulders. He covered the studio with stone faces and filled the house and museum with paintings and wood carvings. Carter’s prodigious self-taught talents turned him into a kind of Mountain Michelangelo who could have become a major figure in American, if not international, visionary art. But, ironically, his vision also contributed to his relative anonymity.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #82