By Rita Mitchell
Sidney Carter’s career was waiting for him. He’d had a “brush” with it as a youth and dabbled in it occasionally, but when the time came to make a decision, he chose football over art. Like other young athletes, he hoped to play professionally.
“It’s funny how you work in these different places and look for a job,” says the Atlanta artist. “God already gave me my job. I just had to learn to listen.”
Carter grew up in Florida the youngest of 10 children. He credits two of his brothers for the love of both art and football. Randall, a U.S. Department of Agriculture interior designer, would draw while his younger brother watched. “He’s responsible for getting me into painting and drawing,” Sidney Carter recalls. “He would bring me up to Washington and enter me into contests.” As a result of that exposure, Carter was even offered a scholarship to the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., “but I chose to go on and pursue football,” he says.
Another brother, Hunter, an engineer who had played football at UT Martin, secured a tryout for Sidney that resulted in a walk-on football scholarship. Sidney Carter, who had previously attended two other colleges, graduated from UT Martin in 1989 with a B.S. in arts and sciences.
He sold his first artwork at age 12 to the mother of one of his lifelong friends. At UT Martin, he did “little drawings for people. I would ask twenty dollars, fifty dollars, whatever. I knew then that I could make a living at it—could probably do well at it.”
When he graduated, he took a computer graphics job in Knoxville. “I would leave on Fridays and go to art festivals, and pretty soon my art started making more money than I was making on the job. In a few months I left, and everything has been climbing since then. About ten years later, I had my own art gallery.”
Three themes guide his artwork—faith, family, and his African American heritage. When he launched his professional career, Carter admits he had a one-track mind. “People are not as into it now, but when I first started, black art really started taking off. My goal was to be one of the best-known black artists. I realized later that I was limiting myself. So now I characterize myself as just a fine artist. I do it all.”
His favorite subjects are family and everyday life. “I come from a big family, so that’s what I can really relate to.”
That’s also where Norman Rockwell—his favorite artist as a young painter—came in. Rockwell was a favorite because his paintings depicted people in familiar settings. “I used to do a lot of people, and I would try to give a message through my paintings,” Carter says. “That’s what Rockwell did. He spoke through his paintings. He had a lot of humor in it, but it was everyday life.”
Carter still gets inspiration from Rockwell and other artists. “But as I grew, I wanted to be known for what I do. What every artist tries to find, I think, is themselves and something they can be known for. So that’s where I am now,” he says.
He has several modes of painting. While he waits for his next inspiration, there’s no down time. He paints musical instruments. “When I have a break, that’s what I do because it doesn’t take a lot of thought. While I’m creating these, my next detailed painting will come to me. I try not to waste time because once you enter a career, and this is what you do for a living, it’s up to you to pay your bills. I’ve got to keep working at all times.”
Working includes painting, building canvases, and framing—a skill he learned early on while working at a craft shop—along with operating and promoting a gallery and traveling to art shows.
Carter gets some of his best ideas while driving hours to shows and exhibitions. “I have plenty of time to think.” He carries two small leather books all the time and makes quick sketches or studies when he has an idea.
He has a drafting table in his basement so he can work at home and a studio in the gallery. On a typical day, he gets up early and paints until time to take sons, Sidney, 14, and Anthony, 12, to school. Then he heads to the gym to work out before going to the gallery to paint until 3 p.m., when it’s time to pick up his sons and drop them off at home. He then returns to the gallery studio to work.
“I always tell people I don’t work. I don’t have a job, because this is heaven to get to do what I want to do—to wake up and paint. I’m free. That’s when I’m at my happiest, when I’m painting. I turn on some music and paint all day long.”
Ask Sidney if he has a favorite painting and he’ll laugh, “The one that sells first.” But seriously, he’ll tell you it’s Grandma’s Hands, prints of which he no longer sells. It was an early piece, before his artwork “took off.” He gave a reproduction of it to his UT Martin assistant football coach, Jerry Reese, now New York Giants senior vice-president and general manager.
A large Sidney Carter mural graces the University of Maryland Nyumburu Cultural Center in College Park. Those who’ve purchased his paintings include former National Basketball Association player Alonzo Mourning, Tra Thomas of the National Football League, motion picture director Spike Lee, and actor Dorian Harewood. John Jacob, former National Urban League president, who retired as Anheuser Busch executive vice-president of global communications, met Carter and bought three of his paintings at an art show last year. Recently Jacob returned to the same art show to say hello to Carter and see if there was another painting he and his wife “must have,” and they purchased another one. “Sidney’s work somehow just speaks to me and my wife,” he says.
In recent years, Carter was surprised to see a couple of his college classmates at an art show. They had asked him to do some drawings for them while in college. They told him that they held onto them all these years and said they knew he was going to be an artist. He adds, “Since I started doing my artwork professionally, a lot of my UT Martin teammates have supported me.”
Knowing that teammates and classmates remember his art reminds Carter that UT Martin “was a little different” from the other colleges he attended.
“I wasn’t a very studious person, and that was one of the things that kept me from being successful at the other schools.” At UT Martin, he says he was encouraged to succeed off and on the field.
“It wasn’t just about football,” he says, recalling former UTM coach Don McLeary and others. “Even when we won the conference championship, those guys who wanted to go on and continue getting their degree, he made sure they finished. So with UT Martin, I know there was some caring. That’s what I took with me.”
His wife, Cheryl Anthony Carter (Martin ’84), and his sons also provide abundant support. While he wants Sidney and Anthony to be well rounded academically, musically, and in extracurricular activities, he involves them in his world of art. The two sketchbooks that hold all his ideas will someday be theirs. All his paintings, regardless of whether he decided to reproduce and sell them, are saved on CDs. If something happens to him, his family “has those to go to and create and still make a living,” he says.
“Right before Christmas, I took my kids to an art show with me. They get a kick out of people coming up and buying artwork.” He also shares his awards and prize money when he returns from shows. “I make them a part of it. I tell them ‘we’ won.” Now, when he returns from a show, they ask, “How are ‘we’ doing?”
Carter tries to pass on that type of caring by mentoring young artists and helping them pursue their careers in art. “I have this thing that I say: If I’m so fortunate to make it to the gates of heaven, and I can see God standing there and He says ‘Job well done, but who did you bring with you?’ That’s real success.”