If you’ve ever driven along the levee in Old Algiers you’ve more than likely happened upon the residence of artist Charles Gillam. In fact, you can’t miss it. The simple blue converted double house boasts one of the most unusual gardens in the area. The entire front lawn is strewn with an array of Gillam’s Creations. This unique lawn party is quite often host to the likes of KoKo Taylor, Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, King Rex, Robert Johnson and a handful of very tall Jazz musicians. These life and oversized sculptures, carved busts, totems and cedar plaques are the result of Gillam’s life long dream to make a living as an artist. Many a passerby has stopped to admire the display and people often come to photograph the site.
Charles Gillam Sr., first arrived in New Orleans at the age of five when his family relocated from central Louisiana. They moved around a bit, which perhaps fostered his tendancy to roam about the city from his lower ninth ward neighborhood. He always had some sort of job or “hustle” on the side. He liked to dress and he loved women. The latter of these is what usually led to his frequenting those other neighborhoods. In those days there would be wars among the different wards and he would often have to fight as he traveled. He was well prepared. Instead of bikes and the usual childhood toys, his father had furnished him and his brothers with something else. “I could remember my first Jack Dempsey boxing gloves,” he says, ” We had to fight the whole neighborhood”
During his adolescent years he and his brother used to shine shoes in the French Market. He often spent many hours in the French Quarter and as he watched the artists paint he began to wonder what it took to be like them. One day he got up the nerve to ask someone for spare paint and old brushes. He went home and began to paint and paint and paint. He showed his creations to friends in the neighborhood who were impressed and purchased some of his work. It was also during this time the he met folk artist Willie White. The two became friends and White had an impact on Gillam’s becoming an artist.
By the time he was sixteen years old he was no longer living at home. His father had put him out of the house so he got an apartment with a couple of friends. One day he and his friends were out roaming through the Quarter and got the bright idea to enlist in the army. Unfortunately Gillam was the only one to pass the physical and ended up in Vietnam without his buddies. It was while serving in the army the he learned that his father was ill. He returned stateside and the two were able to reconcile. Gillam had always wondered why he and his father hadn’t been able to get along. “He always told me all his life, ‘Son, whatever you do, don’t be like I am. I was ignorant. I didn’t go to school. I had to learn the hard way out in the streets, but I was trying to show you the easy way.’ He told me ‘Son, Whatever you do, do the best you can do.'” The old man died in his arms shortly after Charles had given him a shave. The words stuck with him.
His father’s death left him feeling he had no role model. He thought of his mother, now left with seven kids and said to himself “what do I do now?” Though he admits having learned a lot in the army, he went AWOL after his father died and recieved a dishonorable discharge. He applied for clemecy and after twenty years had it upgraded to honorable.
Charles Gillam’s career as a fulltime artist began approximately five years ago (1994) when he went into Barrister’s Gallery to show some of his art. He was asked if he did any woodcarving. When he said yes, he was commissioned to do a bust of Blues artist Charlie Patton. He later created more “blues heads” and someone stacked them up on top of each other suggesting a totem. Gillam laughed and explained he’d made them that way in the first place. He had cut them apart because he didn’t realize there would be interest in them as a pole.
Through the years he continued to wonder why he and his father had never gotten along and why he had been kicked out of the house. When he eventually had kids of his own he began to see his father in a different light. “I think it was (that) he saw me in him. He was trying to show me a different way. I know I do that with my kids too. I used to say ‘wow man, my father workin’ on the riverfront for these 21 years and he hasn’t gotten anywhere.’ When my old man died he had fourteen cents in his pocket.” He now realizes that his father did the best he could. “He never did finish school, but tou could beat him out of a quarter; couldn’t beat him out of a dime.”
Gillam lives with is wife Susan, also an artist, and their two children; Tyrus, a budding artist and Mary, an actress (recently seen in the NORD Theater production, Babes in Arms). He will be featured in a show at The Folk Art Gallery on Julia Street beginning Septemeber 4.