Wife’s Life with Artist is Gilded and Rich in Memories

In the years Barbara has spent with Michael John Carter, she has mothered their two children, earned a teaching certificate and a Masters Degree in German Literature. She lectured at the University of Louisville, learned to gild frames, did the family bookkeeping, made and repaired Oriental rugs, helped renovate their homes, designed and sewed or knitted their children’s clothing, painted in gouache, ran a business, and let a few of her own dreams wait in order to further their joint goals. She is now pursuing some of her own creative dreams while looking forward to many more projects together as a couple.

Our first houseGrowing up in Europe I was always exposed to art. It was my favorite subject in school and I always drew and painted. When I met my husband John Michael Carter, I was 26 yrs. old. I was impressed with Michael’s ability to draw and paint. I wanted to learn from him. He lived in a beautiful, run-down old building constructed in the late 1800s. His studio was on the second floor. It was once the L&N railroad headquarters. This building had hardwood floors, cast iron fireplaces, vaults and beautiful woodwork. It was totally neglected in those days. The ceilings were so high that the two huge rooms he rented also contained a loft each. In winter heating expenses cost twice the rent. The bathroom sink served also as the kitchen sink. Michael had a pay phone on the wall. The door was always open and in a couple of instances a street person would just walk in, to my horror. Michael knew them by name and told me not to worry. I never had imagined marrying someone who lived like that nor did I know such a lifestyle existed. Michael built everything himself and I soon learned how to fix cracks in walls, hang drywall, sand floors etc. We lived there when we married in 1979 and my father and sister came from Germany for our wedding.

oriental rug I madeI was substitute teaching and repairing dusty oriental rugs for a rug dealer after a morning’s worth of abuse by students. The University of Louisville offered a three-day seminar on oriental rug-making. I also went back to school to get my teaching certificate to teach German. We both worked till late at night, often past midnight. Michael made his living from shows and portraits. Portraits kept things stable. He made not much money and neither did I. We got by, and with the help of my parents we had the great luck to go travel in Europe for six weeks or more a couple of summers. My dad furnished the car and gas money. We camped and stayed in youth hostels. One trip, we went to the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France. Trips were more important than health insurance! The second time we went to Italy, and southern France. Michael sold the paintings that resulted from the trip, very well.

In 1981, our daughter was born. We had started to exhibit with Talisman Gallery in Bartlesville, Oklahoma for a few years and our financial situation improved a bit. Jody Kirberger, the gallery owner, was solely to credit that we had enough money to buy a house in old Louisville, a neighborhood close to the university that was at best ‘sketchy’ then. This victorian house could have a studio on the third floor where a window could be installed that faced north. Michael was always very picky about natural light for his painting. The house was a complete mess. The plaster wall in the kitchen was falling apart. One night we heard a terrible bang and thought there was a burglar in the house. It was one of the walls in the dining room. The entire wall had fallen down. We renovated the entire house while my daughter and son were little. Michael painted during the day and worked on the house with me till late. At one point, we hired drywallers for the studio because the studio ceiling was so high. Unfortunately, there was gambling and drinking in the back of the liquor store across the street and the drywallers did not make it back after lunch. The rest of the job was up to us. In May of 1983, my husband went to Italy with his father. I was supposed to go, but I was pregnant with my second child and could not fly. There was a terrible storm while he was away. We needed a new roof but were financially not quite ready yet to have it put on. I heard the tap, tap of water. I put buckets under the leaks. The latex paint on the ceiling started to stretch into a downward funnel. It broke and there was water everywhere. In 1988/89 we learned that the city was going to expand the airport to accommodate UPS. One of the runways was going to go over Fourth Street, two streets over from us. There were practice over-flights and the noise was unbelievable. We were told that planes would be outfitted with “hush kits” but the noise we heard told us of things to come. We sold our house and recovered the money we had put in, but nothing for our labor. We lived in that neighborhood for ten years.

2nd house where we live now

In 1991, we bought a huge, run-down house in an area that had started to become popular. The last thing I wanted was to renovate again. We worked on this house for 17 years and now are re-doing parts that need remodeling. Michael started to get better fees for his portraits and won several national prizes. In the back of this property was a dilapidated garage. Landmarks permitted us to tear it down and build a wonderful studio with a huge window up high facing north. Our street, one street over from “restaurant row” is very popular today. It is tree-lined and almost all the buildings are historic.

When we had moved, my mother-in-law pretty much told me that our kids should go to a private school. Since there was one close by we enrolled my daughter and then my son. In addition to renovating the 4,000 square foot house, the private school costs meant all our resources went to those two things and there was little else. When my daughter came home and told me that some girls told her she could not belong to their club I decided to take both kids out. I wanted them to have good self-confidence and feel part of the general student body and not like the poor kids on the block. Michael was always very patient (not I) so it was he who worked with the kids if they needed help with schoolwork. Michael has a great sense of humor and made learning more fun. Since we both worked at home our children were always closely supervised and watched. When they graduated from high school they were both offered a president’s Scholarship to the University of Louisville. My son ended up becoming a doctor and my daughter, after finishing her electrical engineering degree at UL, attended John’s Hopkins. She received her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering there.

I learned early on that numbers and bookkeeping weren’t Michael’s ‘thing.’ I started doing that as soon as I saw his system of throwing receipts in a box. I can say today that I am quite proficient at it.

At one point, my husband was asked to paint an important politician. He had an appointment to show the almost-finished portrait to its subject and carried the huge canvas to the man’s downtown office. Upon getting there, Michael found out that the gentleman and his wife had gone to lunch with business friends and forgotten about the appointment or just stood us up. We needed regular cash flow and who knows when the next opportunity would come up to show the painting and get approval so Michael caught up with the group and was asked to show the painting in the restaurant. He was told the mouth was too thin and that the gentleman looked “mean.” The politician’s wife came to Michaels rescue saying, “But that is how you look …” Michael came home humiliated and upset, telling me that the man, his wife, and entourage were coming to the house after they finished lunch. No one came by. We waited and waited. A couple of years later the same person asked Michael to do another portrait. The wife’s designer bought the frame.The portrait was presented to the man at his birthday party by his wife. He called us the next day and demanded, “Who told you to paint that painting?” That is when we started using contracts. Michael took on all sorts of commissions because we had to pay the bills.

One day Michael asked me if I could learn to gild frames with real gold leaf. Good artists had good frames. We bought a few such frames in the 90s, but the price was a killer and often good paintings sat around because we were not able to buy frames for them right away. That hampers cash flow. I bought a VHS tape and started working on metal leaf frames. By 1998 when I stopped teaching I knew how to gild. Michael is a fantastic designer and builder and knew how to carve wood without lessons. He plays with his grandfather’s old tools and electric gadgets. His grandfather was an electrical engineer and Michael spent a lot of time with him in his workshop when he was young. As other artists saw Michael’s frames I was asked if we would make frames for other people. I started making their frames. It became apparent very quickly that I needed help and so I hired a carver and trained a woman to gild. All of the work was done in my home in the basement and in the gilding room upstairs. It was all very expensive.

Carter Family picture

I followed the advice of a good friend and went to China with her son who was in the furniture business. He took me to a factory where he said the owner was honest. Since my kids were out of the house, we gambled and mortgaged our house to buy frames from there. When I look back now I think we were pretty reckless. Luckily it worked out and a whole new world opened up to me – adventures in China, aggravations, good product, batches that were deficient, difficult customers who pressured me to give them a deal, when I already was the best deal around. Too many aggravations made me decide to sell out and be done at age 61.

In addition to his many artistic talents, Michael loves classical music and knows a lot about the composers and the different movements. He loves history and architecture. Being around Mike never gets boring and I love working on projects together chatting about this or that.

Michael has done well for years now but there are always tight times and it is good to have some savings to go to. He has always come through, but I have been worrying from day one. Living from what your husband creates is very scary. Having to help out changed my life from being an artist to being a business person. Michael never has phases where he is not in the mood to paint or does not produce. He paints all day while I do all the other things that need to be done. I now also look forward to painting a bit and to restoring antique frames I once bought. I want to make another oriental rug and I have some other projects to look forward to. We have been organizing the house and are getting close to starting on a fun project or two together. We have some very old French frames that need restoring. We also have a French screen that needs re-gilding and Mike will paint panels for it.

Living with an artist makes for an interesting life, not an easy one. As we have gotten older we also realize that having to work hard together to make it, made for a better marriage.

my garden in late June

To learn more about this author visit www.barbaracarterfineart.com

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