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The real Charles Alexander

By |2008-05-29T09:00:00-04:00May 29th, 2008|News|

by Jessica Carreras

Charles Alexander has told lies about strippers.
But it was his job, he says, defending his not-so-factual work for Guest Magazine in the early ’60s. “Back then, Detroit was a big stripper town,” he explains. “I’d have to make up things about strippers – what their personal lives were like. I’d have to fabricate things.”

When considering Alexander, the scenario doesn’t seem so strange. A lifelong Detroiter, he is a gay artist with a passion for poetry and enough out-there stories to make James Frey’s fabrications look ho-hum. He’s 72 but acts like he’s 25, biking and weight lifting daily. He’s always good for a joke and moves about a group gathering with the ease of a upper-class socialite. Ask him how he stays so spry and he’ll likely give all credit to his “good gay genes.” Charles Alexander is someone who everyone wants to know.
And as far as art goes, this summer is his summer.
Go to Affirmations. The Detroit Institute of Arts. The Scarab Club. The Majestic Cafe. The homes of many of Alexander’s friends and admirers. If you’re in the area, chances are you’ll see his work.
Alexander will be in the Scarab Club’s Spring Show, as well as have his own show there in July called “All Art is Carpal Tunnel.” His work will be displayed at the Majestic Cafe throughout the summer and, in honor of pride month, he’ll be a demonstrating artist at the DIA on June 21 from 1-5 p.m.

A lesson in art history

Although many know of Alexander’s work, few are aware of just how deep his roots in arts go. “In kindergarten I was asked by the kindergarten teacher to paint a mural on the blackboard,” he reminisces. “I recall having painted a train. At an early age, there must have been some indication of art talent.”
That talent turned into a portfolio from Cass Technical Institute. “At that time,” he says, “with a portfolio from Cass tech, you could get into any art school in the country.”
But instead, Alexander went on to be an operating room technician at Harper Hospital. During his senior year of high school, Alexander was coming out as a gay man – a process that consumed much of his time and thoughts, leaving little room to think about the next step toward his future. “I was fortunate in that there were other gay art students and gay music students there (at Cass Tech),” he explains. “As such, we were allowed a certain amount of tolerance for ‘eccentricity’ or flamboyance.
“Back then in the 50s, coming out was an entirely different process. You simply identified with others that you knew to be gay. They knew that you were gay and you had that sharing. But for the most part, you pretended to be straight. You had to, to survive.”
In 1959, Alexandar began attending what is now Wayne State University, during which time he learned of his other passion: Writing. He did public relations and journalism work (including his stint with Guest Magazine) while in school, as well as substitute teaching and writing radio copy. .
Eventually, Alexander went to work for Detroit Public Schools as the head of the communications department and media center, as well as a substitute teacher. He stayed there for almost 30 years, retiring in 1997.
Throughout it all, however, his passion for art remained. Though there were times when he was not always a practicing artist, Alexander kept that artistic spark around him, whether it was through the people he kept company with or how he spent his time.
There were several decades where Alexander didn’t so much as touch a paintbrush or collage. Instead, he spent his time drinking, partying and enjoying the club scene. Finally, it became too much and he entered a hospital for alcoholism. The healing process did more than make him healthy; it gave him a renewed interest in creating art. “I got into my art really in the process of recovery from alcohol back in 1982,” he recalls, citing elaborate collages that he created out of pictures cut from a magazine.
After his full recovery, Alexander dove simultaneously into activism and artwork, tying LGBT issues into both. “It all just seemed to fall into place following my recovery from alcoholism,” he confesses. “Interesting thing was, when I was drinking and clubbing and so forth, I never did a lick of art.”

‘Tremendously prolific’

Oh, how times have changed.
Now, Alexander works constantly, churning out artwork like a Ford Factory – on acid. His work is highly detailed, bright and abstract. His creative process is meticulous – and yet allows for extreme creativity.
He starts with markers and ink and then works with Xerox reproductions and color reversals. From there, he makes a collage of that material and gets a print out of the collage and works from that. “It’s a process I perfected myself,” he boasts. “Usually, I can turn out a new piece of art in five or six hours. It flows. It absolutely flows.”
As such, Alexander’s home looks like an art gallery storage space. “I’m tremendously prolific. My studio is inundated with art pieces that I’ve done.”
He even keeps an updated gallery on his iPhone – one of the few pieces of technology that he confesses to have succumbed to. There, in full color, Alexander can show off the full details of his latest pieces.
It’s hard to catch Alexander at a time when he’s not doing art – except, of course, when he is doing LGBT advocacy work. He has served on the board for Affirmations, the Michigan Advocates Exchange and the Metropolitan Community Church. Currently, he serves on the Triangle Foundation’s board of advisors, and is the curator for the Affirmations Pitman-Puckett Art Gallery, where he shamelessly promotes other LGBT and gay-friendly artists.
Melding advocacy and art together, however, has yielded some of the most rewarding experiences. Over the years, Alexander has donated pieces at numerous fundraisers and silent auctions. By his estimate, his art has raised over $60,000 for various LGBT-related organizations – a fact that Alexander is quite proud of. “Using one’s art for support of the community, to me, that’s very, very important,” he says. “Sharing your art is very, very important, too. I give a lot of art as gifts and so on.”
Ultimately, Alexander wants to find a permanent home for his collection of art. “I have literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pieces of art,” he says. “It’s like having children. You want to see that they’re taken care of.”
Besides the task of uncluttering his living room, Alexander isn’t exactly sure where he wants to go from here. With all he’s done in his life, it’s the one question that makes him pause for a minute – and even shoot out an e-mail later in the day revising his answer. Traveling, he says, almost impulsively. Alexander has never been out of the U.S. and wants to use his fluency in French in the actual country.
Later on, his focus is on creating a collection of his artwork, littered with some of his Parting Glances columns published in Between The Lines and poems. “If I could get funding from an LGBT funding source, a portion of the proceeds from my book collections would be donated to Affirmations, Triangle, Michigan Equality, or Unity Michigan – all worthwhile organizations,” he explains.
But for now, Alexander’s focus is on the tasks at hand: Picking pieces for his solo show, preparing for the next two exhibits at the Affirmations gallery and thinking of what he will say about his artwork to crowds of people at the DIA.
It’s a lot of work – even for someone with good gay genes.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.