Charlie Lucas is a world-renowned artist, known for turning scrap metal from the junkyard into powerful sculptures that speak of life in a realistic sense – from the most painful to the happiest of moments. I recently had the opportunity to meet Charlie and tour his Tin Man Art Gallery in Selma, Alabama. It was a meeting I will never forget.

The diversity of Charlie’s artwork speaks to the unique life he has lived. As one of fourteen children, his family lived a poor and challenging life. He was born in 1951 and spent his formative years in a period of intense racism, violence and upheaval in the State of Alabama. From an early age, he worked to provide for his large family. This forced Charlie out of school early, and he seemed destined for a life of poverty. In his spare time, and with the support of his great grandfather, he began assembling artwork – which he thought of as toys – using pieces of scrap metal from the junkyard. His creativity ran wild.

John Morris posing with Charlie Lucas, in the artist's Selma, Alabama gallery
John Morris posing with Charlie Lucas, in the artist’s Selma, Alabama gallery.

Into his thirties, he worked on the family farm and took on a series of odd jobs, until he was temporarily sidelined by a work-related back injury in 1984. It was then that he found the courage to step back and forge a new path as an artist. He recalled turning to God and asking for the ability to become the “Tin Man” of his dreams, promising not to waste the opportunity.

Now, more than thirty years later, he has received wide acclaim for his work in the United States and beyond. Some of my favorite pieces are photographed below:

Facing Space, by Charlie Lucas
Facing Space, by Charlie Lucas.

This piece, Facing Space, was constructed using the floor of an abandoned automobile. Hubcaps are used for eyes, and the expression seen on the face is striking.

Mummy on the Sofa, by Charlie Lucas
Mummy on the Sofa, by Charlie Lucas.

Most of Charlie’s work is created using only a handful of unique pieces, but Mummy on the Sofa was composed of just about everything you might find in a trash can. The sofa, torn down to its frame, represents the deterioration you might expect of a poorly mummified corpse.

Baby Sitter, by Charlie Lucas.

Perhaps I photographed Baby Sitter from the wrong angle. What I discovered of the Tin Man’s work is that it must be viewed from multiple perspectives. High and low, from the right or left, head tilted sideways, etc. If you keep an open mind, and ignore your first assumption, you’ll be able to discern the true meaning. I tried to do this with each piece before looking at the work’s title.

Father and Son, by Charlie Lucas
Father and Son, by Charlie Lucas.

Displayed in what Charlie referred to as the “Spirits Room,” Father and Son had the greatest depth of them all, in my opinion. Charlie said of the piece, “He is showing him the change of life.” What you’ll need need to decide, then, is which is the father? Is “he” the father, or the son? Complex pieces are the ones that “trick” the observer, or at least require us to consider all of the artist’s possible intentions.

As Charlie guided me through his gallery, I was able to ask him questions about his life and work. In describing the man, I would say that he is humble. The Tin Man is the salt of the earth. His passion – his thirst for creativity and expression – was contagious. And, most importantly, the love he expressed for his community, family and friends was genuine. I left his presence inspired, but able to vocalize it with only one word – “wow.”

If you’d like to learn more about Charlie’s life and journey to becoming an internationally recognized folk artist, please consider purchasing his book on Amazon.

Special thanks to the Selma Chamber of Commerce, with support from Alabama Black Belt Adventures, for organizing what was a memorable afternoon meeting Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas.

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