Q&A: Former NBA All-Star Joe Barry Carroll takes his art to the heights

Former NBA star and self-taught artist Joe Barry Carroll gives his works brief stories: For "Man" he writes: "I came here because this is the only place I know ..."

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Former NBA star and self-taught artist Joe Barry Carroll gives his works brief stories: For "Man" he writes: "I came here because this is the only place I know ..."

“Come on up here!”

That’s the “corny old-man greeting” Joe Barry Carroll extends to friends before pulling them into a hug. “For that brief moment,” says Carroll, “as they reach up to hug my neck, I am guessing they may very well wonder what it must be like to be a giant.”

When you stand 7-feet tall and weigh 300 pounds, being inconspicuous is not an option. Nor is being oblivious to other people’s reactions to the way you’re constructed — whether telegraphed through a furtive glance or saucer-eyed stare.

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Carroll’s 7-foot height inspired the title of his art exhibit. (Photo by Tara Coyt)

Credit: Tara Coyt

Carroll’s 7-foot height inspired the title of his art exhibit. (Photo by Tara Coyt)

Credit: Tara Coyt

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Carroll’s 7-foot height inspired the title of his art exhibit. (Photo by Tara Coyt)

Credit: Tara Coyt

Credit: Tara Coyt

My View From Seven Feet,” the title of Carroll’s solo show at the Hammonds House Museum, is a playful wink that he’s in on the joke. Primarily, though, he hopes the takeaway for visitors will be that his physicality does not preclude his humanity.

A natural-born observer, thinker and dreamer, Carroll was introduced to the art of storytelling by his father, Frederick Douglass Williams, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The pair spent countless hours in front of an old open-faced gas heater in the winter, or on the front porch during the summer months, where Carroll sat enthralled by his daddy’s words.

Now he’s continuing the tradition by picking up a paintbrush and telling stories in honey-hued abstract and figurative paintings that invite the viewer to see the world from his point of view.

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“Sue” is about a dog. “For 12 years, Sue and I lived a fun-filled and eventful life,” Carroll writes. “In later years, there came a time that my dear Sue could no longer run fast or jump high (nor could I). Sue-girl remained my dear little puppy dog, no matter her age or condition.”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

“Sue” is about a dog. “For 12 years, Sue and I lived a fun-filled and eventful life,” Carroll writes. “In later years, there came a time that my dear Sue could no longer run fast or jump high (nor could I). Sue-girl remained my dear little puppy dog, no matter her age or condition.”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

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“Sue” is about a dog. “For 12 years, Sue and I lived a fun-filled and eventful life,” Carroll writes. “In later years, there came a time that my dear Sue could no longer run fast or jump high (nor could I). Sue-girl remained my dear little puppy dog, no matter her age or condition.”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

His Hammonds House exhibit is on view through September 18. In advance of his talk about the companion coffee-table book, “My View From Seven Feet,” on July 28, Carroll spoke to ArtsATL about the benefit of being a self-taught artist, the childlike qualities that endear him to little kids and finding gratitude in the clutch.

Q: Leatrice Ellzy Wright, who resigned as executive director of Hammonds House in May of 2021 to become senior director of programming at the Apollo Theater, curated “My View From Seven Feet.” Was your exhibition planned prior to her departure?

A: Yes. I had conversations with Leatrice and Donna Watts-Nunn [the museum’s managing director] about doing a show at Hammonds House; then the pandemic came. Earlier this year, they circled back, visited my studio, looked at the work I was doing and decided it was a go. Leatrice is still at the Apollo, but she has family ties to Atlanta and remains a friend of the museum.

Q: You were the number one draft pick in the NBA in 1980 and played professional basketball for 11 years, spending much of your downtime in galleries and museums. Was there a turning point that marked your shift from wanting to look at art to wanting to make art?

A: Little things moved me forward. For example, I was on a flight with Tony Bennett once, but he wasn’t coming to town for a concert. He was coming to exhibit his artwork. I was impressed not only that this cat painted, but that he was still reaching for something. Ernie Barnes, a football player, wound up being more famous for the wonderful expression he gave us with his paintings than what he accomplished in the NFL. Miles Davis is another example of someone who was so good at one thing, then chose to do another thing and became just as good. That’s attractive to me.

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“Bow” — Writes Carroll: ‘During my workday, there are times that I retreat to the kitchen while I wait for the stock market to settle down if I am working as an investor, or for paint to dry if I am in the middle of a composition . . .”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

“Bow” — Writes Carroll: ‘During my workday, there are times that I retreat to the kitchen while I wait for the stock market to settle down if I am working as an investor, or for paint to dry if I am in the middle of a composition . . .”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

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“Bow” — Writes Carroll: ‘During my workday, there are times that I retreat to the kitchen while I wait for the stock market to settle down if I am working as an investor, or for paint to dry if I am in the middle of a composition . . .”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

Q: As a self-taught artist, did your accumulated knowledge make it easier or more difficult to stare at a blank canvas and start painting?

A: Living a public life has taught me that some people will praise you, and others won’t be so impressed. The risk of failing is no reason to forfeit trying something new. Worst case, it doesn’t work out — which often directs me to the next thing.

I try to approach subjects in a way that makes others want to draw near, pull up a chair, look and listen. I try to make subjects relatable, by focusing on our shared values and our shared human experience.

Q: The show is comprised of 37 paintings and one photograph of a quilt. What’s the significance of the quilt?

A: My father died when I was almost 10 years old and that hand-stitched quilt with Dutch maidens was my only inheritance from him. It’s tattered because I carried it from place to place — Pine Bluff to Denver to Indiana when I went to Perdue, and to San Francisco when I was playing professional ball. I almost carried it around the world like a little binky.

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Says Carroll: “I like quilts as a metaphor for our lives. With a quilt, you are connecting existing pieces to create a whole new thing. In our lives, we don’t really get to start over.”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

Says Carroll: “I like quilts as a metaphor for our lives. With a quilt, you are connecting existing pieces to create a whole new thing. In our lives, we don’t really get to start over.”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

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Says Carroll: “I like quilts as a metaphor for our lives. With a quilt, you are connecting existing pieces to create a whole new thing. In our lives, we don’t really get to start over.”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Barry Carroll

Leatrice wanted to put it in the show but it’s too fragile to be on exhibit in a public place. So, I gave her carte blanche to display it however she saw fit.

Q: The last thing I expected to find in a coffee-table book about art were recipes. What possessed you to throw in tips for making your prized Bolognese sauce, gumbo and peach cobbler, along with wine pairings?

A: I am a self-published author because I didn’t want to argue with an editor about what belongs in an art book. It’s the same with my art. One of the reasons I’m not trying to get any fine education around art is because I’m not sure if I’m willing to accept someone else’s rules on self-expression.

Recently, a man of letters looked at one of my paintings and said, “Hey, I like that! Maybe it’s good you didn’t go to university [and study fine art] because you would never have painted like this if you had been trained properly.”

Q: Your art-making workshops for children are so popular. What is it about your 7-foot frame that’s so enchanting to very small children?

A: I’m number 10 of 13 children in my family, so I’m very familiar with the culture of childhood. I’m childish myself and I clown with kids. They’re surprised that I’m paying as close attention to them as I am.

I think they look at me as their little mascot. They’re fascinated by [my height]. I went to visit a classmate a while back, and he brought his daughter to pick me up at the airport.

When we pulled up their house, she jumped out of the car and yelled, “Mommy, come quick! The tallest man in the world is here!” [Laughs.]

Q: Which scenario is most anxiety-inducing: entering an NBA draft, or entering an exhibition space with a room full of strangers who have gathered to look at your paintings?

A: Neither scenario makes me anxious. I’m just grateful for the opportunities.

They’ve filled the entire Hammonds House with my work. It’s a big deal because the museum is historically significant ... almost a sacred space. I’d like to try to be cool about it, but I’m beside myself. I’m really excited about the potential and thrilled to welcome guests.

But I always joke with them that if they like it, tell everybody. If they don’t like it, they should keep it to themselves because nobody likes a gossip.

VISUAL ART PREVIEW

Joe Barry Carroll: “My View From Seven Feet”

Through Sept. 18. $10; $7 senior citizens; $5 students. Hammonds House Museum, 503 Peeples St. SW, Atlanta. hammondshouse.org.


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Credit: ArtsATL

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