'Zebra Man' uses paintings as words

Artist Carl Butler uses his works to express rage, inner conflicts

Artist Carl Butler uses his works to express rage, inner conflicts

January 23, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

Inside the small, extremely cold North Market Street gallery, smooth jazz emanates from a radio.

Lining the walls are a series of paintings, some with overt religious messages, others lighter, like a portrait of Marilyn Monroe.

On a couch are two fluffy pillows and a throw, each covered in a zebra's black and white stripes.

And in this simple artistic haven roams the Zebra Man.

"This is me. This is real," says Carl Butler, fingers intertwined and resting on his stomach. "I may not be a poet, maybe I'm not good with words, but these paintings are my words."

Through February at Spirit Art Gallery on North Market Street in Frederick, Md., Butler is letting his painting do his talking. His first show displays work ranging from his first painting, a 10-year-old's portrait of a squirrel monkey, to a whimsical, color-drenched canvas with a jar of paint brushes completed late last year.


A soft-spoken man who is deeply religious, Butler, 40, calls himself Zebra Man because of his mixed race, a combination of French, German, Scottish, Irish and Cherokee ancestry that led to teasing in school yet fuels his art.

Among his canvases in the show is one of three zebras drinking from a pond with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background. Of the three reflections in the water, one is his.

Other works deal with inner conflict. Many use his Christian beliefs to make sense out of tragedy, including one Sept. 11-inspired work of the World Trade Center towers featuring the face of evil in a smoky cloud while a sea of doves fly toward a Christ figure in the upper left corner of the canvas.

"I think they are very strong and very original," says John Holly, Spirit Art Gallery owner. "I've seen a lot of 9/11 work and Carl's are probably the most original I've seen so far."

Moved to paint on Sept. 12, the day after the terrorist attacks in 2001, Butler says he entered his studio - a spare room in his Brunswick, Md., area home - and put paint on canvas.

He's not too proud to admit he cried, and the images are his way of letting people know their loved ones are OK and are going home.

"I actually do pray before I paint," Butler says. "I ask for God's guidance with my brush basically ask him to paint through me and get across the meaning he would want people to understand. To give comfort, to give hope, just to know he is out there."

"Nothing's artful with Carl. It's all within his gut," Holly says. "The spirit moves him, and it's a very special thing. I believe in that too, and that's what speaks to me about his work, very much so."

Making a living in the art world is new to Butler. He attended the Maryland Institute College of Art but spent most of his last 20 years as a short order cook.

He painted sporadically, but only in the last three years, after much soul searching, did he decide to give himself fully to his art.

Having his own show has been intoxicating, an experience he hopes will soon come again.

But he also knows a gallery show is just one part of the creative process, which is why he takes pictures of works in progress to illustrate the entire creative process.

"I think it's interesting. You go to a gallery and you see a painting but you don't see the work it took to get to the final point," he says. "You start with a white canvas, which is kind of scary, and you have to make it come alive.

"People see the painting, but they forget that canvas was once white."

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