Life in Art: Charles Dwyer

How I came to photograph artist Charles Dwyer’s home was really quite simple. Milwaukee artist and friend Faythe Levine, and a few others suggested I take a look at his place. But before reaching out, I had the pleasure of meeting him by chance one afternoon (as so happens in this small city sometimes). And that was that. Coincidence it might have been, but the truth is, I was extremely lucky, realizing after the fact that Charles doesn’t exactly open up his home to strangers. And for good reason, his home is a tangible amalgamation of his hard work from the last 30 years of his life. If one’s home can reflect who they are, then Charles’ home reflects a youthful man with a lust for life, a deep respect and understanding of art, an incredible eye for beauty and design, a sense of humor and above all, an appreciation for nature and humanity. In other words, there truly is something special going on here.

Located on a nondescript street in quiet Bay View is a large brick building Charles has resided in for over ten years. Entering the former factory, one acknowledges a dream realized. When Charles and friend Tim Dixon, owner of the Iron Horse Hotel (which prominently features Charles’ work) first spotted the place, it wasn’t exactly an ideal place to build a home. Enlisting the help of Tim and an architect, Charles began building the interior of his home. Stunning cream city brick remained intact from years past and building on that as a foundation, they used reclaimed lumber to build out walls, a kitchen, bathroom, a second story loft, where the bedroom lives, and most important to Charles, an artist studio. “I kept fighting for more studio space but they [architects] wanted to cut it in half. I pushed for a little more and they gave it to me. But it all works together too because I’ll do artwork prep in the living room…but I could always use more studio space.”

Entering Charles’ home, you’re immediately greeted by a very cozy Midwestern-style kitchen, an interesting juxtaposition to the lofted warehouse space he inhabits

Hidden doors. Both the entrance and fridge doors are covered with memorabilia, clippings and photographs


The home office and entryway. The large wooden shelves house thousands of film negatives of Charles’ photography, yet to be shared publicly

Just beyond lies a sea of treasures

 

Charles’ work, which largely consists of figurative drawings and paintings of female figures colored in gorgeous hues and subtle patinas, has been displayed in galleries internationally. He’s also collaborated with unlikely individuals (like the homeless and schizophrenic) producing the Lucky Strike series with Gary Pollack and Sundae Girls with Jerry Pfeil. And over the years he’s done quite a bit more. Though many may not know as he hasn’t shown his photography publicly in the past, Charles is an incredibly skilled self-taught photographer, who painstakingly creates large, elaborate sets for his photoshoots. He once built a complete 1950s set in his studio from scratch, which included wallpapering and designing as well as sewing costumes. When asked why he has yet to show his photographs, he expounds “I wanted some nostalgia to happen to them, where they patina, and there’s time from when the girl or women were photographed until now.”

As a multi media artist with incredible talent in several mediums, like photography, set building and set design, printmaking and painting, Charles takes full advantage of every inch of studio space allotted to him. Though having studied fine art at the Milwaukee School of Art (now MIAD), it wasn’t until he landed a 12 year job with a Wisconsin restoration company that he truly delved into art and art history. The job gave him the opportunity to travel in his early adult years and sink his teeth into what would be a career as a successful artist. “I learned so much about decorative painting, gold leafing, stenciling and faux finishing. I learned how to paint and the history behind it,” he explains.

It’s inspiring to come across a person like Charles who can never seem to satiate his desire to learn and do, whether it be creating art, learning a new skill (like wood burning), reading the thousands of books he covets, or walking his beloved Napoleon along the shores of Lake Michigan. “It may be a curse to want to do everything. It might be better to focus yourself on one body of work, but I have more in me to share and more to challenge myself with.”

Tree stump found on a daily walk along Lake Michigan. Charles painted the appendages, reminding him of old ring toss games he played as a kid

“Remember that time you tap danced in my kitchen…”

Found Art. Tree was found along Lake Michigan in Bay View. With a little stain and paint, it’s perfectly at home among the equally tall windows

With the help of an architect and friend Tim Dixon (of the Iron Horse), Charles built a completely new interior structure in this old warehouse which now includes a second story

“Lucky Strike” painting is part of an collaboration between Charles and Gary Pollack, a homeless man he befriended

Collections. Charles has amassed an impressive library over the years. While on the road restoring art in his 20s and 30s, he purchased one book a week. To the left (top) of the bookcase is a petrified beehive from his sister’s backyard


The custom-built bookshelf is a recent addition to the home. Charles made it look dated and worn with stain, nail holes and lots of hammering

A wood furnace helps keeps the large, mostly brick and concrete space warm but also adds a rustic element. Homemade wood fire sticks (hanging – right) are functional and decorative


Bottom left: A toboggan from his childhood now hangs as a sculpture, with backward letters representing “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa” (a famed piece by Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini

After finding this gorgeous wood slab, Charles was inspired to learn the art of wood burning, resulting in this mighty cougar

Italian chandelier from Design Within Reach adds a refined quality to Charles’ rustic urban abode. “I love the eclectic quality of something beat up and something classy, like a really nice Edwardian-style home with an abstract work thrown into the mix.”

Furry friends. Charles with his cats, rescued during a trip in Arizona two weeks before opening his home to Napoleon, the incredibly warm and friendly Bouvier

The home was dubbed “The Tainted Loft” (a play on words from the song “Tainted Love”) by Charles’ friends. Gillian Welch photograph by friend and talented photographer Jim Herrington

Angel sconce (top left) once kept an eye out at Notre Dame University where Charles lived and worked for a year restoring murals and stained glass

View of the living area from top of the stairwell, leading into the lofted bedroom

A plastic horse Charles rescued from the garbage and painted “to give it a new life, another chance”

The eclectic mix of style makes the bedroom interesting while minimal furniture make it serene enough to lay your head at night

Napoleon (a friendly Bouvier–not a rug) finds warmth and comfort in the bathroom

Looking into to the spacious studio from the lofted bedroom

An assortment of colorful utensils used daily

Alchemy. A homemade collection of paint solutions, lacquers, mixtures, etc.

Charles in his studio working on a mixed media piece on stained paper. “If it’s new, I like to make it look old”– on his love of adding patina and age or “the human element” to just about everything

 

A female figure painted with watercolors and colored pencils, layered with fabrics, texture, symbols and words

29 thoughts on “Life in Art: Charles Dwyer

  1. Pingback: Weekist Links: week ending April 20 |

  2. I still love that print in the bedroom shot from his collaboration with Jerry Pfeil… “The Day is So Long, That Even Noisy Sparrows Fall Strangely Silent”…

  3. Very cool! I went to school with Chuck and was in awe of his work back then. Always knew he would do well as an artist!!

  4. Really excited to see this lovely piece about one of my favorite people. Too bad Charlie is such a crummy bowler though….

    • Dori!!! Of course you’d bowl with Charles. That’s so rad. The man can’t be great at everything, at least I’d hope not! p.s. Great show on WMSE yesterday, then again it’s always great. xo

  5. Oh my. This is inspiring!!! I always see him and his dog walking around the neighborhood. A few friends of mine know him from he places he patrons… Breathtaking! I will be staring at this photos for days.

    • Lisa, thanks for reading! When I first walked into his home I was literally in awe. It really is an inspiring place. You should say hi to him next time you see him walking his dog. He’s so incredibly nice!

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  7. What an amazing post. I love Charles Dwyer’s work , his home and lifestyle. I will visit is post many times again just to feast my eyes!Thank you for sharing.

    • Eva, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I agree, both his home and work are inspiring. Please do revisit–hopefully I’ll have a couple new posts in the near future for you and others to feast upon.

  8. In an image (angel sconce…… etc.) on the upper right side of the window, you see a copy of a bronze casted mask from San Zeno/Verona/Italy. I was lucky enough to exchange it with one of his early pastel artworks. I worked for a couple of weeks together with Chuck at the restoration company you mention in your article. A truly gifted person. Unfortunately I lost contact to him. So great to see this images.

    • Michael, thank you for the interesting bit of information and for reading and commenting. It’s much appreciated. How great that you had the chance to work with Chuck and were astute enough to trade for one of his paintings back then!

  9. Pingback: charles dwyer | art bite

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