“Oh, that’s good, I like that.” Carl Blair surveys a private gallery holding more than a dozen of his paintings. A small acrylic grabs his attention. He leans in to reacquaint himself, as if he’s found a long-lost friend. “I’d forgotten about that one,” he smiles, a twinkle in his eye. With thousands of works filling 2,500 private, public, and corporate collections, no one would expect the prolific, aging artist to recall every piece. But dementia and Parkinson’s now fill the horizon for the abstract landscape painter and sculptor. Family and the art community are racing to document the legacy of one South Carolina’s premier craftsmen in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of his arrival in Greenville.
Across six decades, this color-blind artist has brightened our world sharing his visions on canvas, in clay and carved wood. Never settling for one approach or style, he’s captured what others cannot see and produced certified masterpieces. Yet the 84-year-old has made an equally profound impact far beyond his personal compositions by championing the younger generation. As a member of the Modern Art Vanguard in South Carolina, he’s guided dozens of creative men and women to find their own unique aesthetic, ensuring a vibrant art community for years to come.
A Room of His Own // Carl Blair poses in his Paris Mountain studio, where the artist has created hundreds of works and fills the space with sticky-note Bible verses, Korean mementoes, and remembrances of his wife Margaret, who passed away in 2006.
While the rolling foothills of the Upstate have fueled hundreds of Blair’s paintings, the flat fields outside Atchison, Kansas, provided an early awakening. “I spent a lot of time in the woods, and studied plants and trees,” he reminisces of his boyhood in the Midwest. “I had to milk the cows early every morning. Oh, it was cold.” The only-child and his cousins, nicknamed The Wild Men, would climb the creekbank out back, hypnotize chickens, and harvest hay. Blair’s daughter, Ruthie Blair Lair, grew up listening to family stories. “They had a Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer kind of childhood,” she shares. “They were surrounded by nature and animals. My grandparents lived in the house, too, and different relatives were always staying there. They were extremely poor coming out of the Depression. My dad didn’t have his own bed until he went away to college.”
Ruthie points out it’s fortunate Blair made it to college, and praises early educators who recognized his talent and nurtured it. At Atchison High, Walter Yost became a life-long mentor. He escorted the teen to live-art demonstrations, and introduced him to faculty at the University of Kansas, where he helped secure admission. All of a sudden, the self-proclaimed dreamer was living his dream. “I’ve always drawn and painted as long as I can remember,” Blair says. “I always knew I wanted to be an artist.”
At K.U., Blair fell under the influence of Cézanne, Van Gogh, and professor Elden Tefft. A sculptor, and quite a bit older, Tefft remained a constant touchpoint in Blair’s life until he died a few years ago. The Army also directed his path, drafting the junior to serve in the Korean War. By 1956, the patriotic veteran had earned military medals, a fine arts degree, and the love of Margaret Ruble, who would bring him to Greenville.
“She was my greatest inspiration,” Carl says of his wife of almost 50 years. “Through the lean, tough years, she was a constant encourager. Margaret’s confidence in me and my work helped us overcome obstacles.” And there would be many.
The newlyweds needed jobs after Carl earned his master’s degree from the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design. Margaret, a Central Missouri State graduate, had originally attended Bob Jones University. She proposed they apply to teach at B.J.U. “She has been my rock,” Carl admits. “She is more of a visionary. She has a better grasp of looking ahead and planning. She can see way farther ahead than I can.” Even with 20/10 vision, Margaret could not have predicted the significant impact of her simple suggestion. Her utilitarian idea to return to the Upstate would eventually change the course of contemporary art across the Southeast. In the fall of 1957, Carl Blair first entered his closet-size office in the B.J.U. Art Department. Here, he spent 40 years brush-stroking canvas and young minds, mimicking his Midwestern mentors who preached the five Ds: dream, determination, drive, dedication, and discipline. “I tried to set the right atmosphere and then guide them,” he explains. “Art is hard work. You have to keep at it. It’s not something you do lightly, or casually.”
Over the years, Blair guided hundreds of students who attended his classes on-campus and off. Nights, weekends, and summers he taught special programs at the Greenville County Museum of Art, the Fine Arts Center, Furman University, and South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities. Artists and aficionados alike say the same of his instruction: Blair never molded students to imitate his style. He encouraged each to find their individual view and voice . . . just a few include Eric Benjamin, Matt Baumgardner, Diane Kilgore Condon, and Mark Mulfinger. By the mid-60s, Blair was part of a talented trio creating a powerhouse reputation for the university. With Darell Koons and Emery Bopp, Blair pushed for excellence and authenticity in visual arts, and eventually opened one of the first commercial galleries in the Upstate. Jack Morris, former executive director of the Greenville County Museum of Art, fondly describes the “Three Amigos”: “Darell was initially the most popular, doing realistic paintings people could understand. Bopp was more abstract, and Blair was very contemporary. But Blair was the foundation, the rock in that group.”
As it was, the rock wanted to roll, and bring art to the doorstep of those who’d never enter a museum. Blair teamed with Morris to build the state’s first student art-mobile. “We literally built that thing and did all the carpentry and wiring,” Morris recollects with a laugh. “Carl was kind of like an old cowboy. He was stronger than he looked, and able to figure things out. I was impressed with his ingenuity.” (In time, both men would be tapped to lead the South Carolina Arts Commission, working to make arts more accessible statewide.)
While Blair earned immediate praise for teaching during his early years in Greenville, success with his art took a bit longer to find. Ever the cheerleader, Margaret would not let Blair sell out. “She set high standards and said I was to be the best artist I could be. She wouldn’t let me compromise,” he reveals. Sales didn’t come until the ’70s, and even those were meager. Ruthie remembers a Christmas when one of her few gifts was a wrapped can of deodorant. But she said they all had deep-seeded faith in her father’s ability, and God.
Turns out, the abstract-oriented Blair arrived in the Palmetto State when collectors preferred realism. But by remaining true to himself, and his negative shapes and spacing, he cemented his position as a prominent leader in the region’s contemporary art movement. Morris lists the pillars of the new era saying, “William Halsey is probably the dean of contemporary artists, but Blair and J. Bardin are right there alongside him. They were the leading contemporary painters from the ’60s on.” They each pushed the new perspective with Halsey in Charleston, Bardin in Columbia, and Blair in Greenville. Whether reviewing Blair’s abstract Midwest landscapes, or Carolina-themed gouache on paper, critics praise his technical ability and distinct style, with its organic origin, solid structure, and trellis composition.
His early works appear somber and muted next to vivid pieces from the ’70s and ’80s, yet what’s amazing to all is that Carl Blair is color blind—a condition that went undetected until he was in college. Ruthie giggles recounting how her father almost got kicked out of Professor Green’s class for turning in a green self-portrait, as the professor thought Blair was making fun of his name. Contemporaries marveled at Blair’s unusual use of color, believing the artist’s visual limitation actually freed him from conventional combinations and hues.
As tastes matured across the area, Blair slowly started winning awards, competitions, and commissioned work, which led to exhibitions and showings as far away as Egypt, Italy, and Africa. In the mid-60s, when South Carolina started the State Art Collection, a Blair painting was one of the first acquisitions. Today, his creations hang permanently in more than 2,500 locations, from Greenville’s Chamber of Commerce to the Puerto Rico Ritz Carlton.
Character Study // At 84, Blair continues to find deep pleasure in creative life, but is battling both Parkinson’s and dementia. For nearly 60 years, he has been a tireless advocate and teacher, instrumental in guiding the careers of many Greenville artists including Diane Kilgore Condon, Eric Benjamin, Matt Baumgardner, and Mark Mulfinger.
“Here it is. This is it.” Dr. Carol Stilwell points to a brightly blocked painting on paper with Pumpkintown origins. “That is from my favorite period of his art,” she shares. Carol is not only a collector, but a longtime family friend. The widow has also become Carl’s confidant since Margaret’s passing in 2006 from ALS. Things were dark for a bit. “Sometimes he would paint the canvas black and then paint on top of it,” his sweetheart says, describing that stage. “He’d say, ‘Out of the darkness and into the marvelous light.’” Carol then witnessed his colors brightening, after he had cataracts removed. “The morning after the first cataract removal he said, ‘I can see! Everything’s bright. It’s not dark and cloudy anymore.’”
Even with dementia and Parkinson’s nipping at his abilities, Blair likes to “piddle around.” His studio, carved into the hillside below his home on Paris Mountain, features a table piled high with his favorite cadmium yellow and ultramarine blue paints. Saw blades, screwdrivers, and clamps hang from a peg-board, ready to make whimsical, wooden 3D animal sculptures. This space provides a rare glimpse inside the soul of one of Greenville’s foremost artists. Sticky-note Bible verses, Korean mementoes, and memories of Margaret fill the wall. Almost undetectable: a 2005 photo of Blair receiving the Verner Lifetime Achievement Award, South Carolina’s highest commendation for leaders in the arts.
Carol’s not surprised at the picture’s placement. “Carl is the most humble man you’ll meet,” she says. “I cannot express that enough. We see him as someone who has had a great impact, but he doesn’t see it that way. He loves the Lord. He’s grateful for his life. He’s used the skills God gave him and has always encouraged other people to do the same. That’s how he’ll be remembered: how encouraging and supportive he’s been of other artists.”
Mary Praytor repeats the sentiment. She’s proud to display Blair’s artwork, spanning his 60 years in Greenville, at her gallery on Main Street. “Several other artists here were students of Carl’s, and consider it such an honor to present their material alongside his,” she says. “He’s one of South Carolina’s greatest treasures.”
Originally published in May 2017. Mr. Blair passed away on January 22, 2018.