Art helped Charles Barber get through prison and gives him hope
By Katie Scarvey
Charles Barber is ready to leave his old life behind, and that’s understandable.
For the past 10 years, Barber has been in prison. Before that, he was a crack addict.
He doesn’t want to be known as either one of those now.
What he wants to be ó and what he is ó is an artist. – – –
Barber, 44, grew up in East Spencer.
His mother was “a rolling stone” and not a strong presence in his life, Barber says. She had 15 children. He was number 13.
“Mom wasn’t there,” he says simply. When he was 5, she dropped him off with his father’s sister, who raised him and another one of his brothers.
His father, who was an alcoholic, Barber says, died when he was 7.
Around the second grade, Barber ó who is often called “Peanut” ó began to draw and discovered he had a knack for it. He started out with animals, he says, and went on to human likenesses.
At North Rowan High School, he took art classes from Becky Burgin, who taught him a lot, he says. After graduating from high school, he began taking art classes at Central Piedmont Community College.
In a move he now regrets, he dropped out of college to devote more time to boxing.
He had grown up hearing his father’s drinking buddies reminisce to him, saying things like, “Boy, your daddy could box.”
Those words, however casually they may have been spoken, stuck with him. Although his father was dead, boxing seemed a way to connect with him.
“I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” he said.
Barber won a Tough Man contest in 1984. But his life was spiraling out of control. He was doing a lot of cocaine ó which helped numb him from the pain of being punched. At some point, he progressed to crack.
It became a life of drugs, arrests and gunshot wounds ó 11 of them, he says. He pulls up his T-shirt to reveal a puckered gunshot scar on his shoulder. An artificial hip is another reminder of a past that was painful not only emotionally but physically.
One day, on his way to get drugs at a crack house, he had a moment he won’t forget.
“Lord, put me in prison,” he prayed.
He had been addicted to drugs for 22 hard years, and he realized that if something didn’t tear him away from the dangerous road he was on, he would probably die.
After being convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon and assault inflicting serious injuries, Barber did get sent to prison. That was 1998. Before then, he’d been arrested numerous times, doing “baby time,” as he puts it.
This was different.
“The Lord had my attention,” he says.
Although God answered his prayer, he didn’t expect to get such a long sentence he says. He served 10 years and was released in September.
Although drugs are available even in prison, Barber says he was ready to quit.
He kept his mind on other things. He studied the Bible.
“I had a lot of time,” he said. “I wanted to do something with it ó I didn’t want my time to be in vain.”
He would lie on his back in bed and draw using a graphite pencil. Oils weren’t allowed in prison, he says, because of the possibility that inmates would sniff them to get high.
In prison, Barber usually drew on white sheets or pillowcases, items fairly easy to obtain. He likes the depth that the fabric gives his drawings.
On weeknights, he had to stop drawing at 11 p.m. because of lights out; on weekends, he could work longer, he says.
He did a lot of portraits while in prison and sold them to his fellow prisoners, usually for $7. He kept busy, and the money helped keep him in supplies.
He’s got dozens of pieces of art that he created during his time in prison. He’s not quite sure yet what he’ll do with them. He’s hoping that perhaps he can exhibit his collection somewhere.
Now that he’s out, he focuses on staying straight and keeping out of trouble.
“I want to get it right this time,” he says. “Enough is enough.”
He says a lot of his old crack buddies aren’t around anymore ó drugs and AIDS have taken their toll. Still, he says he sees men daily in East Spencer who are headed for disaster.
“I don’t go around preaching to these guys,” he says. “You’ve got to want to change.”
“I’m in church every Sunday,” says Barber, who is a member at Southern City AME Zion. “I try not to get tempted. I don’t want to get trapped.”
Barber says he’d like to be an example of how a life can change for the better.
After his parole period is over, he plans to go to Atlanta. That’s because in 1999, he had a vision. He was in Atlanta, in a business suit, and people were working for him.
“God gave me a glimpse,” he says, of what could happen if he walked the right path.
Since returning from prison, Barber has already finished a painting project ó a mural at Kiddie Land day care center, done for owner Linda Peterson. The mural depicts several images of Rosa Woods, Peterson’s mother.
Barber tends to work from photos, giving an image his own spin. He likes to draw celebrities, like Missy Elliot, Venus and Serena Williams, James Brown. Religion is another area of interest.
His subjects look very much like the people they’re based on.
“I like making things look real,” he says. “I like to capture every feature I can.”
His recent favorite is a portrait of Barack Obama. He even had some T-shirts printed up, with the words “Most wanted” under the image of Obama.
Living life on the outside after being incarcerated for so long can be a challenge.
“I feel happy and free,” he says. “But not totally.”
It’s hard to adjust to life on “a longer chain,” he says.
He was surprised when he went to fast food restaurant recently and ordered a drink. When the clerk put an empty cup on the counter, Barber was mystified.
“I didn’t know that I was supposed to serve myself,” he says.
Barber hopes he can make a career for himself in art.
“I’m ready to draw and paint up the town,” he says.
If you’d like to talk to Barber about his art, call him at 704-633-5324 or 704-314-6621.