Downtown Crowd

The Art of Staying Free: Carter J. Gaston’s Collection Moves to Open Books

By: Dakota Parks

Known by many as a creative pillar in the Brownsville neighborhood determined to help uplift and empower others through art, Carter J. Gaston first started drawing in the timeout corner as a child. His mother, an avid reader and supporter of his art, kept a notepad and pencil in every room of the house that he would use to practice spelling words and doodling cartoons. Gaston grew up in Atlanta, GA, where his art interests shifted from performing arts, staring in theater performances, a few movies and commercials to drawing on train cars and painting portraits for traveling money to challenging himself to complete a new exhibit or art show once a year. 

Pensacola artist Carter J. Gaston discussing his artwork.

When he moved to Pensacola six years ago, Gaston started making a name for himself and networking by painting and drawing portraits at Pensacola Beach and Gallery Night downtown. Now, his art can be seen throughout the entire city, including dozens of murals, food trucks, children’s book illustrations, art classes and even the new Brownsville community sign on W. and Cervantes Street that he helped design in collaboration with the Renaissance Man. 

COVID-19 has not slowed down the creative juices flowing out of Gaston’s art studio on V Street. In August, he released his newest untitled collection as the first exhibit on display at the recently opened Gordon Community Art Center located at 306 N DeVilliers Street. The collection features 14 acrylic painted portraits covered in a polyurethane clear gloss. 

“Community is really important to me,” Gaston said. “You can see black history and culture in a lot of my murals. There is a lot happening in Belmont-DeVilliers, and I just wanted to capture the power of that community in my art. Gentrification is a tough topic, but I think we have to be a part of the change. We can’t just watch it happen. We have to use our gifts, skills and voices, which the community needs in order to grow.”

Gaston’s painting of beloved Pensacola historian Teníadé Broughton.

As Gaston explained, he was eager to finish the collection for the Gordon and even posted on social media asking which influential figures he should paint next. He received over 200 responses. The subjects of the portraits include both famous influential figures like Malcolm X, Kobe Bryant, Prince, Black Thought, Pop Smoke and Robin Williams, as well as people from the community that have inspired him like Scott Satterwhite, Geraldine Vaurigaud, Teníadé Broughton and his own girlfriend, Cat. 

His painting process starts with his phone in his left hand and a pencil in the right hand. “I roughly sketch out a portrait, then start painting eyes, nose, mouth, chin then hair. I spend a lot of time mixing colors for skin tone and background,” Gaston said. “The paint splatters that overlay this collection were just another way for me to try something new and mix colors.” 

The overlay paint shapes prison bars across canvases, spells out words like “be kind, be nice” and works to tie color pallets together. Below the pink swirls on the Robin Williams portrait, you can see Gaston’s life motto painted onto his shirt: Stay Free. For Gaston, the motto is a spiritual reminder to stay free from all forms of oppression, suppression and depression. 

Gaston enjoys painting influential leaders like Malcolm X.

Gaston has painted several murals in schools and around the city that follow the same message of empowerment. At the Camelot Academy, he painted a mural featuring landmarks from the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood, figures like General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. and Pensacola-born professional boxer Roy Jones Jr., as well as children enamored in reading, learning and lending a helping hand to one another. His mural “Paying it Forward” at the Neighborhood Ice Cream Parlor was inspired by the artist Ernie Barnes and shows figures dancing as each one passes money forward in line to the front. Another recent project he just finished for a school classroom was painting individual ceiling tiles to look like front book covers of black authors and poets to inspire children looking up. 

“Most of all, I want people to feel represented and seen in my art—especially kids,” Gaston said. “They’re the ones that need to see images of leaders, historical figures and people that look like themselves so they can feel empowered. We need to be lifting each other up. I love seeing the kids in my neighborhood. I go up to them, high five them and ask them what they drew today, just to keep reminding them that they can create and that there’s power in that. I want that message to permeate throughout communities.”

Gaston paints community leaders who inspire him such as UWF Professor and owner of Open Books, Scott Satterwhite.

Gaston has worked as an art teacher at a local school, teaches private painting lessons and regularly hosts community paint parties. He’s a firm believer in networking and building good relationships in the community. When he’s not commissioned to work on murals and projects, he loves painting his girlfriend and family members. His collection of portraits will be on display for the public at Open Books through the month of October. You can keep up with him on social media @smarterj.