Terrell Carter has lived many lives. Raised as a Christian, he has served as a pastor for most of his adult life. He’s also an artist, having relied on a creative outlet from a young age, and a writer with many published books under his wing. He works full-time in higher education administration and makes frequent media appearances to address issues around race within religious groups, community engagement, and more. And finally, in addition to being a devoted pastor, artist, writer, and educator, he is also a retired police officer, an experience that has influenced much of his artistic vision and activism today.
Picture This Post (PTP) interviewed Terrell Carter (TC) about how his varied experiences have influenced his art, faith, and ideology.
(PTP) In one of your works, you depict a police officer struggling to hold up a large orb. Does it symbolize that police officers are asked to do too much?
(TC) I appreciate the fact that you recognized the meaning of that image. It is titled Everybody’s Atlas and is based on the Atlas myth in Greek and Roman mythology. Atlas was the one tabbed to hold the world upon his shoulders and one day he tricked Hercules into replacing him in his duty. As a police officer, I felt like Atlas because my job was to try to fix everyone else’s problems.
Symbolism is important to me. Using it in my artwork encourages a deeper layer of creativity in my work and opens the door for viewers to see multiple people and life experiences within my work. It does not have to only be about a police officer and the pressure they feel. It can be about someone else whom the world depends on to make life better for others.
To backtrack a little, please tell our readers about your background. Can you explain how you became a police officer, a pastor, and an artist?
I became an artist as a child. I have a twin brother and our father was not a participant in our lives. Our parents were teen parents and their relationship did not last. As we grew up without our father, like most little boys, we both wanted to be like our father in some respect. I saw a series of drawings he made of faces. After seeing those drawings, I decided I was going to be an artist like my father. My grandparents, who raised me and my twin brother, were supportive and encouraged me to follow this dream. They instilled a discipline in me that helped me realize that if I was going to be an artist, I had to create art daily. So, I made a schedule to follow where I created 2-3 comic strips or comic book pages per week. That laid the foundation for working in a studio on a regular basis when I got older.
I answered my call to “ministry” when I was 16 years old. We were raised in a household of Christian faith. We went to church regularly and had intentional conversations about our faith. Also, both my grandfathers, a great-grandfather, and a great-great-grandfather were all active in ministry as pastors. I joke that serving in ministry is part of the family business. I answered my call to ministry, not to do what someone else was doing, but because I had a deep, sincere belief that God was urging me to serve humankind in tangible ways. I “accepted” this call to do more in my teens and subsequently divided my experiences within higher learning between art courses, to become a high school art teacher, and seminary. Ultimately, I completed an MFA and other degrees in theology and religion.
I did not become a police officer because it was something I always wanted to do. I got married at 21 years old. When I turned 23, my wife became pregnant. I was working a low paying construction job while I was still completing college courses. I knew that I needed a better job to be able to adequately provide for my family. After my wife told me she was pregnant, I walked into another room and prayed for a better job. Two days later I heard a promotion on the radio for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. My thought was, “This cannot be the answer to my prayer,” because I had not had many positive interactions with police growing up. I knew one person who was a “good” police officer. I asked him for advice, and he walked me through the good and the bad of being an officer. I applied and was accepted to the academy.
Being a police officer was a job. Being an artist and serving in ministry is who I am at my core. If I am alive, I will make art and serve others, regardless of what my employment is.
Across the country, people are calling for the defunding, and even the abolition, of the police. As an ex-police officer, what are your thoughts on this debate?
I do not like the word defund. I do not believe that it is clear. It does not convey the best ideas for how to fund/control funding for law enforcement. One of the overall problems in America is that we have asked police to be the catch-all for everything. We ask them to be social workers, family and marital counselors, and even dog catchers. No one can be all things to all people. To me, defunding police means creatively reallocating resources, so police only must do one or two jobs while people who are more qualified to handle other things are given the opportunity to do so. Instead of giving police $1 million to buy a tank use that $1 million to develop a partnership with a social service agency that can be on call 24 hours a day so that when an officer goes to a call with someone who has mental health concerns, police do not take that person to jail, but instead transport that person to a mental health facility that is ready to serve the needs of that citizen.
I learned first-hand that policing is not about helping people. It is about protecting the system of policing and rewarding those who feed the system arrest statistics. Knowing this, I will always try to help people understand that this conversation is much bigger than they can understand, unless they have done the job themselves. Not every police officer is bad, but every police officer can do bad and ruin someone else’s life. I also want people to understand what the system of policing in most cities is like so they can be prepared to try to change it from the inside and outside.
What has the role of art been in your life?
I started making art when I was in 1st grade after seeing a series of drawings that my father completed. I have always made art. My art always reflects whatever station I am occupying in life. I created a series of images based on my experiences as an officer. They were an attempt to let other people understand what police officers go through. I have also created images based on my service to the church, my experiences as a father, and social commentary about the controversies that have occurred after Black athletes began taking a knee during the national anthem.
Where do you find inspiration, and how do you turn that into a piece? Are there specific mediums you’re drawn to?
I create art that revolves around my life experiences. As a young Black man who was experiencing people judging me simply because of the color of my skin, my art reflected this. This was true when I was a construction worker, police officer, new father, and now as one who seeks to speak out against discrimination in its multiple forms.
My artistic style is influenced by the bright colors of the Harlem Renaissance and the abstract figurative process of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. I interpret my experiences through those two lenses. When I begin to work on an image or series of images, I think about how I can use bright colors that reflect my Black heritage and combine them with the abstract figurative painting and drawing process of the Bay Area Figurative Movement.
The Harlem Renaissance was my introduction to the fact that there were Black artists in the world. Up to that point, as a child, the only artists I knew about were white artists. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance looked like me, and many of them had similar backgrounds as mine. They all overcame those circumstances to achieve a certain level of success. I wanted to do the same thing.
I primarily work in oil pastel and oil sticks. I was introduced to them while in high school. Oil pastel was much cheaper than traditional paints, so I could afford to buy them as a broke college student. They also allowed me to work through an idea more quickly than traditional paints because they did not need the longer timeframes to dry. I could create an entire image in a day instead of a week to allow for paint to dry.
I am very interested in mixed media. The 10 Commandments series is made of monoprints and mixed media. I made ink monoprints that I cut out into human figures and attached them to paper. The lined/ruled paper came from my experiences from elementary school where if we got into trouble in school, our teachers would make us write lines 50-100 times. If you talked too much in class, you would have to write, I will not talk in class. And so on. When interacting/thinking through the comments I read and hear from white people about their thoughts about Black culture and Black response to discrimination or police brutality, I felt like the line motif would be an impactful aspect to incorporate into my art.
Please tell our readers about your recent work 10 Commandments and your thoughts on how race and faith affect both your work and outlook.
Love, forgiveness, grace, and justice are supposed to be the hallmarks of anyone who claims to be a Christian. Unfortunately, in America, that is not always true. In America, Christian faith has become as much a political option as it is a sincere lifestyle based on the belief in a certain Creator who has a plan for all people and creation. Statistics show that most white evangelicals view their faith through a political lens first, and if someone does not fit that political lens, many evangelicals will question that person’s faith and inherent worth. I have written about this phenomenon in two academic books: Healing Racial Divides: Finding Strength in our Diversity and Police on a Pedestal and Responsible Policing in a Culture of Worship. In both of those books I outline how, historically, white Christians in America have used their faith to control and/or ostracize most minority groups.
I serve as the pastor to a historically white congregation. I do not talk to them about Black Lives Matter (BLM). Not because they do not care about Black lives, because they do. In general, they see themselves as a color blind group, meaning they interact with anyone based on their character, etc. They see their life calling as treating everyone like their lives matter. Although there are multiple responses to this type of reasoning, I respect them and love them, and they respect me and love me and my family. They live into the idea of loving their neighbor as they love themselves.
For more information on the artist’s work and media appearances, please visit the Terrell Carter website.
Images courtesy of Terrell Carter