Filling a Void: Charles Albert’s Christmas Carol

The Artist’s Boots (2022). By Charles Albert.

In the village of Petrykivka in Ukraine, Maria Yanenko worried that bombs would obliterate her home and destroy her traditional folk art practised by women in her family for decades. She gathered 40 paintings of birds and flowers in blues and yellows, inserted them in mailing tubes, took them to the nearest functioning post office and dispatched them to a daughter in Oakland, California. Before long, they went up on a wall at Refugee Eye Gallery in the Mission District in San Francisco, California where hundreds of people saw them in a show called “Liminal.”

At about the same time at Canessa Gallery in the Financial District on the other side of the City, Charles Albert mounted an exhibit of his work. While it wasn’t threatened by bombs, his sketches and drawings are a testament to his own resilience and determination to bring art out of his own personal darkness. Like Yanenko’s flowers and birds, Albert’s work isn’t overtly political, but like her flowers and birds, his subjects have the power to heal.

“In January 2022, one or two evenings a week, I’d hang out in the kitchen, stir-fry something, listen to music and draw. No agenda, no masterpiece, just draw,” Albert told me. He added, “The act of drawing was calming. The focus of making a mark displaced most thought. It had a rhythm. Mark the paper, step back; see the mark next to all the other marks. Move in, mark again.”

Something ritualistic and healing about the creative process drew him to it. His drawings and sketches made with graphite and compressed charcoal on paper are on exhibit from now until the end of December. The exhibit is called “Dark and Light: Filling the Void.” The “Liminal” Exhibit at Refugee Eye is up until mid-January 2023. They’re both work seeing, both worth a trip to The City if you happen to live in the suburbs and beyond.

This Christmas, Albert will probably get out of town. Christmas 2021 was likely the darkest time in his life. Away from his children and his home of 17 years, he told me that he was “consumed with grief and loss.”

“I realized how important it was to have someone to just listen to me ramble, then simply say ‘it sucks, doesn’t it,’” he told me. “That meant so much more to me than words of hope. A commiserating shoulder was where I was at, rather than a redirect to a time and place I couldn’t imagine.” Tell that to the therapists and the psychologists who think they have the answers to holiday sadness and grief.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1963, not long before JFK’s assassination, Albert studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and became a designer who helped other people solve their problems. Then problems hit him hard. The designer had to design a solution for himself.

“The drawings I made helped fill the void,” he told me. He added that last Christmas, when he lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment, he experienced “a profound sense of grief.”

Of course, it’s not unusual for humans in the US in the 21st century to feel especially sad and lonely at the holidays, when they’re expected to be happy and to extend season’s greetings to friends, relatives and even strangers.

Drawing was an escape and a meditation. Like exercise, it required effort, and over time it produced results. Through experimentation, Albert found the medium that worked for him.  “Using just graphite became frustrating,” he said. “The more of it I’d put down on paper to produce black, it would insist on holding at ‘dark grey’ or worse, become shiny.” The answer turned out to be Conte Crayons, also known as compressed charcoal, that come in shades of grey, white and black. Just what he needed.

“Exquisite light absorbed the blackness and spread on paper like silk,” Albert explained. He moved from drawing lines, to blocking out fields of lights and darks, and then added details.

Some of the first sketches were of spheres and balls. Then came birds, including parrots, and a pair of shoes that might remind viewers of Vincent Van Gogh’s famous worn-out footwear.

Albert got into his art and his art got into him, including his skin and his fingernails. It took days to wash away the charcoal and the graphite.

Albert should have known that art would liberate him. After all, art runs in his family, in both directions and toward older and younger generations. His mother and grandmother were both artists and so are his two children. The show includes examples of their work, including a marvelous self-portrait by his daughter. “My grandmother learned to draw after her divorce,” Albert tells me. “She went on to become wildly successful.”

His inspiration came from close to home. Maybe this is a cheerful holiday story after all.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.