“I started all of this art with $10. That is why they call me the Tin Man. My grandmother and mother were artists. My great-grandfather was a blacksmith, my grandfather was a basketweaver and gunsmith. My dad was a mechanic. All of their skills I learned. I am an electrician and plumber. I can build a house and hotrod cars. I have done all of it.
I made things at three years old. I was four or five and running and fell on a can of Spam and cut my thumb off and my mom stitched it back on because she was a quilt maker. She went in the house, reached in the stove and got out some of the suit and spiderwebs to stop the bleeding.
I didn’t do well in school because I had too much in my head and I got behind because I couldn’t go to school during picking seasons. I only went to the 4th grade. My teacher sent my mom a note and said, y’all need to do something with Charlie. My mom got a little upset and went to the teacher and said that is the best one of my kids. The teacher said, if that is the best one, what are the other ones like? There were 14 of us in the house. At 7 years old I was cooking for 20 people and taking care of four kids. They couldn’t take little kids in the fields to work and I was useless in the fields because I was always making something from the cotton. The didn’t want that, they just wanted me to put it in the basket and keep working.
My family did not know what to do with me. I left home at 13. I left home with two kids, $2.50, a jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers. I lived in the street or in abandoned houses and with friends. I left because people were mean to me. Kids picked on me at school, teachers were rough to me, and I couldn’t deal with my relatives at home. My mom told me if I could see all of that all of that then I ought to make my own decisions, so I did. I went off on my own and was making things out of wire and anything I could find. People tore them up or threw the out of the way because they didn’t know what they were and I didn’t know how to inject energy into people to help them see the art in what I was doing.
In the 60’s there was a lot going on in Selma and Montgomery but I would tell people you have a problem, but it isn’t with me. My daddy was half white. I don’t consider myself black or white, I am just me. I also have Indian and Chinese mixed in me. You should never put a label on the outside of yourself because you will isolate yourself from so many people. I don’t do that. There is no such thing as saying one race is better than another race. I had two kids when I was 13. Their mom was white. I loved her and wanted her to be my wife but back then a black man couldn’t be with a white woman. They would have punished me and made me into a necktie. She went North and I went South.
God showed me a vision in 1985. I was cleaning off my property because I wanted a whole new life. I fell off of my truck and broke my back and was paralyzed. I went to God and said if He would give me a talent I would be his humble servant in it. I thought that was the end of my life but it was the beginning and God gave me a vision of my whole life. The next morning, I told my wife I was going to lose her, my kids were going to walk away, and people were going to take advantage of me but I was going to write and teach and travel the world. They tried to put me in a mental hospital because they thought I had lost my mind. The vision was right. My wife left me 107 times and took my babies from me. I cried and made things, cried and made things. There were 42 people living on my property. I was a big caretaker. When you are on a journey to do something, not many people understand. I have traveled the world with my art and even teach at Yale.
This piece was made in 1985 and shows when Mother Nature takes the world back because man abused her body. Man cut down the trees so the birds don’t have a place to lay their eggs. Man has treated Mother Nature like she is a prostitute. I don’t pay much attention to the news because I already know what is going to happen.
We need to get a grip on life. We are all struggling against something. I struggle with dyslexia. When I read it won’t sit still with me. I am looking at it almost like a caveman would have seen it. There is no cure for it so I had to figure out how to use it. I can tell you how to build a house and how much wood you need, but I can’t write it out. I am very good at math. When I drive through the country, I drive with numbers. All highways have numbers. I can get where I want to go. Dyslexia doesn’t upset me. I have learned how to make it work.
In my discipline, I have to create something new every day. I see it as making toys. Creating them is the only time I want to play with them because when they are done, they are out of my head and the next one comes along and I can make it as raunchy as it wants to be. I wish I could shut it off. I have five acres of sculptures in Prattville and my studio there is like a playhouse with sliding boards and teeter totters in it. I live like a kid. The Tin Man is a kid. Very few people get to live their life over again.
We don’t want to take time and humble ourselves. When you are educated from the inside, you know what is there. You don’t have to worry about making it look pretty for someone. People ask me why I don’t wear suits. I don’t need those things. I polish myself every day and I can walk out in the world and be honest with myself. I don’t have to worry about anything in the back or the front of me. I am living this day. Tomorrow is icing on the cake. It is just me and my dog now and she is cheaper than a wife.
I have taught art to over 3,000 kids. Here kids dig into the box to find their treasures to make art. My grandmama did me the same way. It is making art fun and that is and the first step to making things. Kids are ready for something new because they are used to playing video games. Let them crank themselves up and stand there and say yes, yes, yes.
I had the privilege of living next door to Katherine Tucker Windham. She was never an old lady, she was just a step older than me. We used to go dumpster diving and fishing. She rode in my hotrod and we ate lunch in the graveyard. She did not grow up either
Death is not going to erase me. I am in the Alabama history books. I want someone to put all of this artwork in a building and I will give the work to them. I just want the proceeds to go to foster kids and breast cancer. Then I want to die gracefully.”