Click the image above to view a video of Hamilton at work in his colorful house and studio in the south Hills of Charleston.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "I like to see the salt and pepper in us, the angels and the demons."
A little bit angel. A little bit demon. Lots of salt and pepper. His own words describe Charleston artist Charles Jupiter Hamilton and his work well.
Hamilton will be featured in a Curator's Choice exhibit at the Huntington Museum of Art from Oct. 16 through Jan. 2. Senior curator Jeanine Culligan said organizing the exhibit has been enlightening.
"You can't know Charly's work without getting to know Charly, and hear all the stories," Culligan said. "His work has always been narrative -- telling stories -- and somewhat autobiographical. He feeds off the energy of a person or a color, the vivacity of a place, a juicy news story or an imagined one."
For example, there's Hamilton's irreverent take on the Rev. J. Michael Flippo, convicted of murdering his wife in 1996 in Babcock State Park. Hamilton's translated the story into a work of art.
"They went to Cabin 13, see, right here," he said, pointing to the first panel of the multi-part carved and painted work. "He was having an affair with the choir director, you see," he continues, giving his devilish spin on the sordid tale. Then the angel in the artist speaks.
"I couldn't kill the wife. I couldn't kill a woman. I had a great drawing of her all cut up on the cabin floor, but I just couldn't do it," the gentle soul concluded. In typical Charly Hamilton style, he brings in a Bible salesman, and a later panel shows Flippo's wife and the salesman riding off in a big ol' Cadillac, Bibles flying and the wife drinking a martini.
His fascination with the news of the now-defunct Pink Pony men's club is revealed in the final panel, showing Flippo sitting in the "Pink Piggy Bar," eating pork chops.
There's a primal feeling to his art. He calls it catholic: with sin, redemption, lust, love, hell and heaven -- it appeals because it's childish with adult themes.
Hamilton talks freely about the price he's paid for his habits, mainly the demon of alcohol. He's in Alcohol Anonymous, and rehab and counseling at the VA hospital, where he chats about his U.S. Navy stint with other vets and draws ideas for his art.
There's a huge carving of a naval battle that will be in the Huntington show, "The Great Sea Battle of VA Rehab."
"It's a continuous sea battle -- a war battle -- these are things I used to doodle on the margins of test papers in school," Hamilton said. "And these were the sort of things that made the teacher say, 'That would be an F.'"
"I love the imagery of drinks and girls, but it's gotten me into trouble," Hamilton acknowledged. "Like Picasso said, 'Drink to me, drink to my health, I can't drink any more.'"
Born in 1948 in rural North Carolina, Hamilton always wanted to be a poet. Although a loner, his senior class voted him "most witty," along with a popular cheerleader he described as not having a humorous thought in her head.
The Vietnam War was raging. His Hungarian mother heard he was going to be drafted, so his father took him to enlist.
A lack of eyeglasses early in life caused a rift between Hamilton and his father, as he couldn't see to do what his dad wanted him to do, hunt. Once fitted with spectacles, he pleased his dad by becoming an excellent marksman. That success squashed his later dream of being a Navy medic.
"I was goofing up in every thing in the Navy, but then they took us to the shooting range. I could shoot like crazy. I even got to walk next to the squad commander," he said, mimicking a loping march. Marksmen were needed, so he went to gunners-mate school. After the Navy, he married a Japanese woman, the mother of his son.
His then-wife encouraged him to go to the University of North Carolina. He got a cable from her while he was out with the 7th Fleet, telling him he had been accepted into the school. He took three and a half years of literature and art classes on the GI Bill.
Another twisted turn in Hamilton's life was that he joined the Navy because he was a lifeguard, a good swimmer. He said he could never teach his son, Sandor, to swim. It haunts him that, in June 1992, his son drowned at age 21 in the New River.