There is no better response to the loss of control than gaining the freedom of self-expression. Art as a therapeutic method has long helped people who have dealt with casualties and dark times — people like Stanley Carr Jr. After overcoming the disabilities and deaths in his own life, Carr, a local artist, learned how to harness his craft by painting through his pain.
The Old City Jewish Art Center will display his artwork in the exhibit “Art that Heals and Transforms the Soul” from March 4 to 28.
Carr, 43, grew up with a large, tight-knit family — nine aunts and about 40 cousins, to be exact — but didn’t always fit in outside of his home.
It wasn’t until late in school that he realized he had a reading disability, which occasionally caused him to act out or be a “little knucklehead,” as he described his younger self.
In order to keep him out of trouble, Carr’s grandmother cut up pieces of paper bags for him to draw or sketch on.
But growing up on the same street as his extended family in Clayton, N.J., he felt like an outcast among his talented cousins who were also gifted in music and visual arts.
“I was also just trying to find my thing, and sometimes, you get lost in doing that,” he explained.
Because he had to take extra reading classes in school, Carr missed out on the opportunity to explore his artistic side.
“In getting a lot of extra help, that took away from my extracurriculars in school,” he recalled. “Where a lot of people got to do electives in school like art, music, library time, woodshop, I went to extra reading classes and comprehension classes.”
But Carr still found time to get in trouble by defacing desks with doodles, calling himself a “quiet nuisance” with his attention-seeking behavior.
“I used to draw on absolutely everything and get kicked out of class,” he laughed. Classmates would give him book covers to draw on or jeans on which he could paint cartoons.
Then one day, Carr forgot his doodle-covered textbooks in the cafeteria. The high school’s art teacher, Francis Chauncy, found them — and was astonished by Carr’s work.
Chauncy started out slowly with Carr, giving him computer paper to draw on, which became a positive outlet for him.
“Once I stopped getting in trouble, once I started talking to [Chauncy] more, the deal was that every time I stayed out of trouble I went to the art class during my prep or lunch period,” Carr remembered.
That relationship lasted all throughout high school. Chauncy even encouraged Carr to go to the library, too, “to look at pictures, even though I couldn’t really understand the words.”
Later in Carr’s life, he found himself buffeted by multiple family members passing on, mostly from cancer.
From March 2015 to 2016, he lost four relatives to the disease: an aunt, older cousin, godsister and, most recently, his oldest cousin, whose birthday falls on the show’s opening night.
“When you come from a big family, you have a lot of people to lose,” he explained.
In 2004, he lost an aunt two weeks before Christmas, a time when he was losing a lot of the women under 50 in his family.
After an unrelated artistic break, it just came to him the following March that painting would make him feel better, so he grabbed some canvases he received for Christmas and got to work.
“Same thing as high school — I had to learn how to channel the negative energy with the rapid fire of these deaths,” he added.
From there, painting through the pain had a snowball effect.
“When I’m feeling down, that’s when I paint the most. When I’m in a state of flux or confusion, that’s when I paint,” he said.
Carr is self-taught, using mixed media — with acrylic, oil and ink — to create surreal and abstract portraits. He draws inspiration from other artists such as Horace Pippin, Purvis Young, Minnie Evans and Norman Lewis.
“When people look at my artwork, I want them to see whatever emotion that I was going through, that the person can feel and see something in it,” he said.
Carr works full-time for KenCrest in Eastern Montgomery County as a community home supervisor, a nonprofit that helps children and adults with mental and developmental disabilities.
That’s actually how Rabbi Zalman Wircberg, director of the Old City Jewish Art Center, discovered Carr.
Carr would pick up prescriptions for KenCrest members. Wircberg’s grandfather-in-law, who is a pharmacist in the Elkins Park area, saw something in Carr that was different from the rest of his customers.
They started talking, and Carr displayed some of his work from his cellphone.
“My grandfather was really taken aback by seeing his talent right away,” Wircberg said. “Part of the mission of our gallery is to give artists like that a chance to show, get their foot in the door and, especially for locals, give them some press coverage.”
Although Carr is not Jewish, Wircberg said his work has a universal and timely message.
In this month of Adar, he added, there is a focus on trying to turn pain and sorrow into joy, which comes from the Book of Esther.
“Bringing that message of transformation and art as a form of therapy that can heal is very relevant to everyone,” he continued. “It’s exciting to get a chance from all walks of life to be exposed to what we feel is very relevant. There are timeless messages, and a lot of it is very universal, which we feel shouldn’t be stuck in books or stuck by one nation; it should be a light to the nations. It’s our responsibility to promote and explore that.”
Carr echoed that message, saying there is a balance of emotions in his artwork.
“I believe in getting over things, and the only way you can do that is to find a closer relationship to something supreme,” he said. “Regardless of what you’re going through, a brighter day is coming tomorrow.”