His parents wish he’d stuck with his day job, he says — working at the computer lab at Morgan State University. But Charles Mason III wanted something more.
“I want to live,” said Mason, 26, sitting at a shared table in Mount Vernon’s Bun Shop. He wore a jean jacket with patches on the arm, and a smile. “I want to be one of the greatest artists there is.”
Studying art in the past, Mason says, he rarely heard about black artists. “[Jean-Michel] Basquiat, but that’s not enough.” His new exhibition, and his own budding career, may help change the landscape.
Next week, “Two Lane Stories,” an exhibition he curated featuring the paintings and photography of six black male artists in Maryland, will open in Greenmount West at Gallery CA. The title refers to the idea that there’s no one way to become an artist.
"There’s no linear way of making it," he said. His own path included.
In August, he'll head to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to pursue an MFA.
This isn’t Mason’s first time going to art school. He got his BFA at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. And a few years ago he studied at Parsons in New York City.
“It was the best three months of my life,” Mason said. But then “Mike Brown happened.” In the midst of Ferguson and the protests that followed, he dropped out and returned to Baltimore.
“I wanted my feet on the ground. I wanted to feel like I was actually doing something,” Mason said.
He took part in protests following the death of Freddie Gray, he volunteered. He continued to paint and showed his work.
The period made his work more powerful, said M. Anthony, 35, a friend and fellow artist who participated in the “Two Lane” project. When Mason doubted what to do with his career, Anthony said, “My response to him was always to do what he knows he’s meant to do.”
Over time, Mason said, he realized he could be an artist with a purpose. “I can still be part of the action. I can still be part of these changes. School isn’t going to hinder that.”
Mason, who lives in Pikesville, said the exhibition will be kind of a going-away party before he leaves Baltimore. But he plans to keep his home city close to his heart.
“Baltimore teaches you how to survive anywhere,” Mason said. “I’m never going to forget about Baltimore.”
Participants in "Two Lane Stories" include younger artists like M. Anthony as well as some more established names like Ernest Shaw, 47, who has painted murals around the city.
"I'm kind of giddy that I can be in the same space as these guys," said Anthony. "I feel like I'm still a baby compared to them, career-wise."
In a video Mason filmed over the past year, which will play at the exhibition’s opening, the artists comment about their obstacles and artistic purpose, as well as whether they identify with the label “black art.”
"I don’t know what 'black art' is,” Anthony said on camera. (He thinks it’s a vague term, connoting over-sexualized images.) "Do I do 'black art?' No. I am an artist and I paint. I just happen to be black.”
In the next shot, artist Jeffrey Kent says, “I’m definitely making black art. … That’s the way society has made it.”
Mason said he hopes the exhibition will inspire new dialogue about the issue — and encourage people to see the complexities within the black community.
“The black community is not monolithic,” said Shaw in a phone interview. The video, he said, “exhibits the multifaceted, multilayered, very nuanced thing we call ‘black art.’ ”
In polarized times, Shaw said of Mason, “it’s nice to meet a young man that is willing to engage the community in dialogue. … Charles is doing the work that I’m sure his ancestors are happy he’s doing.”
If you go
"Two Lane Stories" opens July 14 and runs through the middle of August at Gallery CA, 440 E. Oliver St. Opening reception takes place 7 p.m.-9 p.m. July 14. Call 410-528-9239.