Carl was born on July 27, 1931, in Washington, D.C. In 1978, he moved to Nelson County, Virginia, with his wife Esther and son Coltrane, where he built their home and began his long-time avocation of beekeeping. In the 1990's, painting became his primary interest.
Above all, Carl thought of himself as a writer. He was a specifications writer for the Coast Guard and a technical editor at Vitro Labs in Silver Spring, MD. Between the two jobs he went to New York to get into advertising. He got some interviews but no job. He left Vitro in 1969 because he had a contract with Doubleday to write a book (ultimately unpublished), and he had a newborn son and no babysitter. It made more sense for him to stay home with his son and write while Esther went back to her Navy Department job. Published credits include The Star Spangled Hustle by Robert Lee Grant with Carl Gardner (Lippincott, 1972); Andrew Young, a biography by Carl Gardner (Drake, 1978); and various articles produced as a freelance magazine writer. In 2019 Carl was working on his autobiography until he became too ill to continue.
Carl’s first paintings, created in 1964, were abstracts, which he disliked and later destroyed. He was working on the large blue Torii painting when he met Esther. The work appeared in an African-American art show in 1966 and was printed in a D.C. newspaper review. He worked mostly in oils or acrylics on masonite.
According to Esther: "At first Carl cut the glass by hand because he didn't want to splurge on equipment. His first piece was lovely - a small window mountainscape with lots of curves - but he wasted a lot of glass. My mother happened to be visiting from Florida. When she saw Carl struggling, she gave him $300 to buy a glass cutter and he was off and running. He started out using patterns that he ordered from vendors, but soon graduated to his own designs."
In Esther's words, "Carl started keeping bees in our backyard in Northeast Washington, D.C., in the late 1970's. Our neighbors grumbled a bit, so he moved the hives out to our friends Leonard and Marsha Eggert, who had five acres in Springfield, Virginia. After we bought our land in Tye River in 1976 we eventually brought the hives (two at a time) down from northern Virginia in our VW squareback. Carl made his name in Nelson County as a beekeeper. The Red Clay Food Co-op bought our honey, as did numerous other individuals. At its peak, Carl's beekeeping enterprise totaled 125 hives in various bee yards. One year he processed over three tons of honey. "
Chess was one of Carl's life-long passions. In the late 1940's, he taught himself and practiced with friends. His high point in competition was placing second in speed chess at the National Junior Chess Championship in Philadelphia when he was 19. He achieved rankings of Class A Amateur (1,900-1,999 points) and Expert (over 2,000) in the U.S. Chess Federation. When Carl walked into a white chess club in D.C., they let him play a few games but told him that, although he was an excellent player, the lease on the club's rented space prohibited black players from membership.
In Esther's words: "Before building our home in Tye River, Carl had practiced by remodeling the kitchen and basement in our house in D.C. In 1978, he bought a pattern for a shed assembled with bolts, built the shed in our backyard, dismantled it, brought it to Nelson County in a U-Haul, and reassembled it on our land. This provided us a place to stay on weekends instead of having to camp out. Carl then started building our house using posts and beams made from green oak, which is very heavy wood to work with. He managed to get the job done with as little help as possible. If he couldn't figure out how to lift something alone, he would wait until I came home on weekends, to help.
In Esther's words: "Carl attended Howard University part-time in 1950, taking one or two classes per semester. He interrupted school for four years to serve in the Air Force (1952-56). He returned to Howard in 1956 and, with financial aid from the GI Bill, graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1959 with a B.A. in English literature. Carl then began work on a masters degree. His mentor was Sterling Brown, a well-known African-American poet, who encouraged him to submit a novel for his thesis. The head of the English Department rejected the idea, reasoning that a novel was not appropriate for a masters thesis. Carl then read and researched William Faulkner for a thesis but lost heart and didn't finish."
Carl was a world traveler. From 1952 to 1956, the Air Force took him to Goose Bay, Labrador; Greenland; Nebraska; California; and Okinawa. In 1959, Howard University awarded him a fellowship to study Japanese theater. For three months, he traveled the country attending Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet theater) plays. Esther tells us: “Carl always wanted to return to Japan, and in 1966 we went together on our honeymoon and stayed for two months. First we drove to California to board a Japanese freighter, which only had six cabins for passengers. After returning to the States, we took up camping and visited as many national parks in the U.S. and Canada as we could reach in our '63 VW bug (and later VW squareback). In 1968, we drove to Niagara Falls, crossed into Canada, and took the TransCanada highway on the way to Alaska.”
Copyright © 2019 Esther Gardner - All Rights Reserved.
Photography: Kathy Versluys & Stephanie Gross