Falling in love is the most human thing a human being can do. Staying in love, suspended in that state of wonder, however, is a superhuman feat — which makes 92-year-old artist Charles McGee a bona fide superhuman.
Nearly as long as he’s been on this earth, Charles has cherished it. Relished in it. Praised it the only way he knew how to: by making art. By sketching and sculpting and painting beautiful worlds within an already painfully beautiful world in order to inspire others to see things with new eyes. To recognize the relationship of one thing to another. To find connection in the chaos. To fall in love.
“I don’t see what I do as outstanding,” said Charles. “I’m just doing what’s in my nature, to the best of my ability. Nature endows each of us with certain interests and proclivities, to bring something special to the table — therefore we all can eat.”
Nature is an important theme in Charles’ art. Born in South Carolina to a family of sharecroppers, he spent his childhood outdoors, in the elements. While helping his grandfather tend to the land, he observed firsthand the order and harmony that exists within nature. He recognized that there is no hierarchy among living things. Snakes, rats, insects, cats, dogs, humans — each is necessary, endowed with a unique purpose. And each has found a place on Charles’ canvas.
“I had no formal schooling until I moved to Detroit at the age of 10, but obviously I learned something not being in school — because life is school,” said Charles. “I learn something every time I move. Every time I go around a corner, something new is revealed to me.”
Drawing helps Charles make sense of the world around him. Each new environment and experience expands his understanding of the “order of things” and informs his art. The rural south. The automotive factories he worked in during his youth. Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped. Tumultuous Detroit at the height of civil unrest. Heartbreak. Fatherhood. A stroke.
“The seeds of artwork are everywhere, in everything,” said Charles. “Creating begins long before I get to the paper.”
Speaking of his creations, they can be found all around Detroit, including inside the People Mover’s Broadway Station and on permanent display at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. His latest work, a striking 11-story mural titled “Unity,” was recently installed downtown. In it, Charles breaks the world down into its most basic elements — line, shape, color, value, texture and tempo — in order to illustrate that we are one.
“Opposites create harmony,” said Charles. “To make music, you need the high notes and the low notes.”
“It’s so beautiful to me that nature makes us black and white, long and short, big and small. That’s what my art is about — that harmony and what we create when we all come together.”
When Charles came out of the service, the GI Bill allowed him to study art at what is now known as the College for Creative Studies. There he learned more about color theory and composition. He was able to experiment with different styles and materials, and he received the guidance and support he needed to evolve.
“We grow if we respect how we got to where we are — if we respect everything that comes to us, the way it comes to us,” said Charles. “If I didn’t go into the service, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to art school.”
In the same vein, Charles recognizes that most of the things we do were made possible, at least in part, by others.
“I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair if someone didn’t make it first. Someone made the road I travel on and someone made the car I travel in. Everything we have comes from various hands. We all put our little bits in there. That’s what life’s about to me. Respecting the order of things. Recognizing the magnificence of it all.”
A stroke in 2011 limited Charles’ mobility, but hasn’t slowed him down.
“The world keeps changing. Everything changes and that’s what I love about it,” said Charles.
“I’m unable to walk now. The stroke left me incapacitated. But within my new limits, I found new possibilities. I learned how to live with myself in these conditions and found new ways to create and contribute.”
Charles is not so much a romantic or an idealist, but a seeker of truth. At 92, he is still learning, still asking questions, still searching for new vistas and still drawing new conclusions.
Like someone in love, Charles moves through the world with an open heart and heightened senses. Absorbed by its details. Enchanted by its beauty. Moved by the genius of it. Acutely aware of his place in it.
“I’ve always felt comfortable in the world,” said Charles. “I guess because I see the good in things.”
Charles McGee is an artist, a curator, a professor, a founding member of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit and a Kresge Eminent Award Winner. But at the end of the day, he’s just a person who chose wonder — who fell in love and never looked back.