Portrait of the Artist as a Killer

The Art of Murder or How to Take a Friend's Life Without Really Trying. Acclaimed artist Carl Wesley, a.k.a. Inmate 198369, wrote the book.

In 1962 Carl's mother and her sister Mary were dating managers at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Just 4 years old, Carl would tag along to matinees and see Ray Charles swaying, James Brown sweating a storm, and Diana Ross in all her early glory. In a series of collages Wesley finished between 1993 and 1997, "Harlem Flavor," he recalls those times. Using blown-up photos of his favorite Apollo musicians, the artist forever preserved their youth and celebrates their stature in a vibrant wash of color.

Wesley's first taste of attention for his artistic talent came early on, in kindergarten, when a teacher praised his finger painting. The regard was addictive. "I remember liking the tactile experience, soiling my hands, using them as a brush," he recalls. "But I think what really pushed me over the edge was that I got all kinds of praise. I realized it was something I could do."

By second grade, the family had relocated to Stamford, Conn., following his stepfather Leonard, an auto mechanic Wesley remembers as an abusive philanderer. The extent of the mistreatment isn't clear, but it serves Wesley's recurring autobiographical thesis: From the start, his life was always a struggle, and he was the victim. After the move, the childhood details are vivid, and repetitive: girls and growing pains, fights with parents, getaways back to the city. One memory stands out from the rest, though.

While Wesley went to public school, his young cousins Hector and Timothy attended a private Catholic school in New York. Hector had his heart set on becoming an altar boy. Timothy, on the other hand, was prone to mischief, and flirted with trouble even as a young kid. To Wesley, they were the family's Cain and Abel. One afternoon, on their way to church, the two brothers got into a snowball fight. Retreating from a round of Timothy's hits, Hector stumbled on a curb and his body was severed in half by a passing coal truck.

To this day, Wesley believes Timothy always blamed himself for Hector's death--that he never recovered from the accident. Kicked out of school a short while later, Wesley's surviving cousin spent the bulk of his teenage years shuffling from one juvenile home to another. Once he hit 18, crime turned into a full-time job. He hawked heroin on the streets of Harlem, then graduated to armed robbery. Timothy is currently serving time for armed robbery in upstate New York. In Wesley's imagination, still, the blameless angel died in innocence, while the culpable one fell from grace; good can't last, evil endures.

"The discussion of criminal activity is not new to me. In fact, it's fascinating to me," Wesley says. "I'm used to the talk. It's just the activity that is so alien. I mean, I have a cousin who's doing 25 to life. He's a stickup kid. How could I not have been at least a little fascinated with the idea?"

Two months before the crime, Wesley borrowed money from his wife's parents to take out an ad in The Directory of Illustration, a thick promotional guide art directors from magazines all over the country use to hire illustrators. Seven examples of Wesley's best work fill the spread: a poster for the St. Paul Saints baseball team, made up of black-and-white photos from the Negro League; a collage of rave reviews designed for the cover of the Jesse Johnson CD Bare My Naked Soul; a gallery work, "Mogambo" (street slang for sex), featuring an archival photo of Ray Charles; and a piece from Wesley's "Clocker" series. Dominated by a likeness of Timothy, his twentysomething face hardened into a vacant stare, "Clocker" documents, in icy greens and blood reds, Wesley's obsession with his cousin's tortured soul.

The directory, published by Serbin Communications, wasn't sent out until after Wesley was arrested. In the year since, it stands as an absurd reminder of what might have been. Barbara still gets phone calls from art directors at magazines--Vibe called last winter--hoping to hire her husband. She politely tells them Carl is in prison.

The lost opportunities are nothing new. In 1976, Wesley began a four-year stint at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Those classmates at the prestigious institute who remember Wesley say he was driven, yet unassuming. Quiet and polite. From there, he spent a year at Southeastern Massachusetts University before receiving a scholarship to study art at Harvard University.

"I lived in Harlem and went to Harvard. Not many people do that. That was the problem," Wesley says. "I was singled out from the people I was most comfortable being around, the people I grew up with--relatives and friends. There was a point when I was sitting at Harvard Yard during commencement and feeling such a relief that this education thing was over with. The thought crept into my mind about de-educating myself. Not that I want to be a dummy. But everyone had these expectations."

Leaving Boston to live with Uncle Jacinto in New York, Wesley began to develop a portfolio by working for trade publications, daily newspapers, alternative weeklies, and national magazines, including Esquire. "In the 20 years I've been doing editorial design work, I'd say Carl's had a uniquely personal character," says Twin Cities designer Kathleen Timmerman, who has followed Wesley's progress as a friend and colleague for more than a decade. "The medium that he uses--airbrush and photo collage--isn't overly literal. His work doesn't follow the trends. It's a very personal style for him, and a number of people have tried to copy it. He's genuine."

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