My friend and fellow artist Charles Huntley Nelson, Jr. died on July 30th. Charles was one of the first artists I met and could go to who was always consistently about his work. I met him when I was a senior in college. He was an adjunct professor teaching painting. Charles stood out for two very poignant reasons; he was one of about 4 professors at the Atlanta College of Art who was black. The second reason was he was barely much older than me. As I soon learned, Charles had recently come to Atlanta after having received his MFA from Howard University and immediately began teaching. He may have been 25 or 26 at the time, so that should give you a clue about the kind of person he was. From the moment I met him he was always full of advice and guidance and always willing to offer his expertise and wisdom.
My first show out of college happened in part due to Charles’s influence. He introduced me to his succesor as artist-in-residence at the Hammonds House Museum which led to my inclusion in a group show at the Hammonds House. Throughout my career, Charles has been a fixture in the Atlanta art scene. We’ve worked together on projects, served together on committees, exhibited together and shared our concerns about life, our marriages and our children.
Today I attended Charles’s funeral. I sat in a room filled wall-to-wall with members of Atlanta’s art community, all still in disbelief that Charles and his opinions, jokes and presence will never again greet us at openings and art events. Our friend Karen described the mood as “surreal”.
Those of you closest to me know that I haven’t cried since 1987 but in my heart I am bawling. It probably doesnt help that even as I write this that Donnie McClurkin is on repeat reminding me that even saints fall down. I keep trying to shake off this sadness. I keep trying to ward off my fears about my sudden realization to the fragility of life. I keep thinking about how his wife and two young sons will be tomorrow. I can’t fight my feelings of inadequacy – wishing there was something more I could do, wishing I had spent more time getting to know Charles. The grief is a bit overwhelming.
I grew up going to church every Sunday. I sang in the choirs, delivered the church announcements during Sunday service. I was on the youth council and participated in a myriad of church related events. Of all my church experiences one of my most memorable is studying the story of Job. In fact, the story of Job is one of the very few things about church that I still refer to. During the service today, the pastor took his cues from the story of Job (which really touched a nerve) and spoke about how despite the trials and trauma which afflicted Job, he never gave up on God, in fact he downright refused to. Job accepted that though the way seemed bleak, though he was wrought with illness, overcome with grief, broken and forsaken, he knew that God had something greater for him. He took everything that came at him with humility and grace, holding steadfast to his faith, to hope. Job’s story resonated in me. I’ve never forgotten his story and have always tried to walk knowing that trials come to us all. That we are all tested from time to time and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Charles passing is a major blow to the arts community in Atlanta. He will be sorely missed. But he has left us with a legacy that can never be duplicated. His unwavering dedication to this community and his generosity of spirit is an example for all of us here to follow. We must remember that in giving, we will always get something greater, that when we build up those around us we in turn make ourselves stronger and better. And though Charles gave and gave never asked me for anything I want to be sure he knows that I will give everything I got, just like he did.
Rest well brother.