A highly sentient soul, Myles Carter loves fiercely, be it his family, mastery of the brush stroke or an elegantly prepared and plated meal. He lives in sensory call and response: he touches and is touched in return. The enamored husband, delighted father and adoring son revels in cherished exchanges with his loved ones. The artist takes great pleasure in the expression on the face of someone who truly digs his painting. The chef enjoys the applause of sated, grateful diners. The self-described “goofball” loves to laugh — his own a mischievous staccato — and to evoke laughter. Though he is serious about his work, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
I spoke with the man of many gifts as he riffed from his backyard in Cambridge, Massachusetts on coming of age in pre-sanitized New York City and his Paris years. On evolving from expressing his creative impulse through tunnel crawling with aerosol colors to harnessing the power of the paintbrush in legal expression and his other and equal passion, cooking.
With a gallerist and Studio Museum of Harlem (SMH) founding trustee for a mother, an esteemed jazz bassist and distinguished professor for a father and a certain legendary trumpeter as godfather, he is indeed proud of his heritage but doesn’t flaunt his “pedigree.”
A member of Miles Davis’ famed 1960’s second quintet, Ron Carter and his wife Janet named their second son after the celebrated bandleader. Baby Myles was born “right in the heart of Harlem at Sydenham Hospital,” he says, but developed an early love of Francophone countries. “R.J. (brother Ron Jr.) and I had a Haitian babysitter, Raoul who would teach us French whenever he watched us. We had a big slate table so he’d write the lessons in chalk. I guess I was fluent by the time I was five and I never forgot it.”
He speaks fondly of his mother’s impeccable taste: “from A to Z, from floor to ceiling,” and their art-filled home on the Upper West Side. “I remember going to my godfather’s house just a couple of blocks away on 77th Street and playing with McCoy Tyner’s kids and Freddie Hubbard’s kids,” he says. “If my dad did a gig nearby in Philly or DC or even Boston, he sometimes took me with him. Occasionally we went on tour with him out of the country.” He recalled an arcade in Senegal and the unsettling sight of soldiers with machine guns in the trees of Port-au-Prince.
Obviously, music held a prominent spot in his life as did art, his late mother’s passion. She helped found SMH when he was a toddler and operated the Janet Carter Gallery as he was growing up. “My mom was a driving force in contemporary African art being shown at value,” he says proudly. She showed mostly paintings and some sculpture, championing the original work coming out of Africa to be as viable and as valuable as that of contemporary Western artists. Her commitment to art was hugely influential on her baby boy. Because his father toured frequently and “R.J. was older and away a lot, it was basically me and my mom,” Myles says.
After attending the Bank Street School, Myles was accepted into JHS 104 on East 21st Street which required a portfolio submission and passing an entrance exam for admittance. High school followed at Music and Art, the last class before the 135th Street school merged with LaGuardia. Additionally, he went to the Art Students League “for drawing nudes and still lifes,” he says. Closer to home, 74th Street provided commercial art classes in the iconic Ansonia building and pottery classes at Pot Luck.
Of this foundation, he says, “That was my artistic root. Parallel to all of that structured art instruction I also was a graffiti writer.” He had an awareness of graffiti through the tagged subway cars of the early 1970’s. “From the IND to the IRT to the BMT, I started to recognize style, particularly calligraphy style which was what first attracted me; it was a whole different look at fonts and calligraphy. I was already doing my commercial art stuff with the press type letters,” he says. His infatuation with letterforms informed his writing as the youngest member of Rolling Thunder Writers (RTW) a graff crew known for their stylized lettering. The ambitious 11-year-old was introduced to an impressed RTW founder and president, "BILROCK-161". Also the son of a jazz musician and a former classmate of RJ’s, he was, at the time “writing SAGE,” Myles recalls. Some thirty years later BILROCK would contribute to a Skoto Gallery catalogue on Myles’ evolution to works on canvas:
His works flow with images which spark all those memories of our old New York, our Upper West Side…He is still the incredible, spirited talent who used to sit in my room, doing his thing…rocking the black books.
Charles Harmon a.k.a "BILROCK-161".
Though Rolling Thunder Writers were infamous for their “outside pieces,” Myles, writing "METRO," then "MET’S" concentrated on "insides since I couldn’t take a picture of it anyway,” he says. “If my father had found a picture, it would’ve been all over.” So he watched his back, tagged the interiors of subway cars and “became king of certain lines.”
By the time he was 16 and into girls, he stopped “for the same reason I never was a breakdancer — I didn’t want to get dirty. You got your newest sneakers, and you’d have your new pants all clean and ironed and creased and then to roll around on the ground in the cigarette butts, and the spit and the dog doo somebody tracked in — no thank you. As much as I love to watch it and appreciate it, I just wasn’t getting down in the dirt.” Nor was he taking his girl out with ink under his nails and paint on his clothes.
And there were the consequences to consider. “I never got busted, but there were special graffiti detectives on the MTA, and they had files.” His prolific tagging with one of the era’s leading crews put him on the radar. “I suppose at one point I was on their list and it just didn’t seem worth the consequence. If I do something stupid, who are they gonna look for? Ron Carter’s son.”
The spatter-free graduate of Music and Art went to the Art Institute of Philadelphia and then Pratt Institute before heading to the City of Lights, where he had spent his eighth-grade year living with family friends and attending a bilingual school.
When he arrived in Paris in 1987, he returned to graffiti. “I saw that it was pretty wide open. It wasn’t written up all over the place, though graffiti was there and they’d developed their own Paris style.” So he entered this domain with an approach to differentiate between the strong writers already making their marks and what he was bringing to the table. He went freestyle, abstract, bringing it back to his painting and eventually using only a paintbrush. “A brush stroke is so strong, so powerful,” he says. No longer limited to “insides,” there were vast walls to appropriate, and his murals garnered much respect.
Over the course of a decade in Paris, Myles became a father and a graffiti legend. He’s not seeking accolades, but he knows that he played a part in the history of the form in both 70’s-80’s New York and 80’s-90’s Paris.
His tag, "METRO," evolved over time into "MEO," Mathematical Equation Of… “In my art, there’s a lot of mathematics.” In rapid-fire succession he runs it down: “I can put a number on the level of intensity between each color. What’s the drying time between these colors? How long is there between the times the police make their rounds in the train yards? How long do I have to run down the tracks before the next train comes? Not to mention the outside influence of the Five-Percent Nation on a young New Yorker…It’s all mathematics.”
It is no wonder then that the boy who spent countless hours in the kitchen with a mom who could burn (“She was accomplished; she took specialty classes at the New School.”) would also gravitate to yet another avocation that marries mathematics with a pronounced visual sensibility, cooking. We know that the formulas of time and temperature are paramount, but the art of the chef, he contends “is in the plating.”
His entrée to a culinary career was a position with a high-end caterer in Boston, where he settled after returning from France. “I soon realized I wouldn’t get anywhere if I didn’t get a diploma.” So he got a culinary arts degree from Newbury College and spent a couple of years making the rounds in Boston with Todd English Restaurants.
He found his niche when he was hired as personal chef for an MIT fraternity. He developed a balanced, healthful meal plan for the twenty-five young men and loved it. “That was a sweet, sweet job…doesn’t get much better than that,” he says. “But it’s a tough gig. Kitchen work is hard; stressful, physically demanding, hot all the time. I find it rewarding, though. It’s immediate gratification.”
He enjoys the challenge of presentation. “Not only does it have to taste really, really good, it also has to look marvelous, to look sexy on the plate. That’s my strong suit, recognized by Todd English himself I might add… I like the marriage of colors and flavor. They must mix well,” he asserts. He prides himself on his consistency: “If it is supposed to be served hot, then hot it will come to the table—in a timely manner.”
The notion of owning and operating a restaurant is alluring, but the all-consuming commitment that a successful restaurant requires is not. Myles is unwilling to sacrifice neither his family life nor his art for 80-100 hour work weeks. What does interest him, however, is more work as a personal chef and perhaps an interactive TV show wherein he would prepare viewer-submitted recipes “not Peking duck with a Russian twist and fish foam,” he laughs. Are you listening, Bravo? And in an ideal world, he’d continue to paint and provide outreach to underserved children “to teach them basic nutrition and introduce healthy foods outside of the cultural norm.”
The past year has been very busy for Myles with exhibitions in New York and Paris. Last fall’s show at Skoto Gallery, Myles Carter: Paintings 1989-2010 “was not billed as a graffiti show," he says. There was nothing graffiti about it except for my history.” In an essay for the show’s catalogue, respected curator/arts administrator Lowery Stokes Sims of the Museum of Art and Design lauds his “renderings of individual cuneiform gestures” evoking the “calligraphic and hieroglyphic” work of abstract expressionist Norman Lewis.
Concurrent with the Skoto exhibition, he contributed to a sneaker show wherein legendary graff artists were asked to adorn a Converse high-top Chuck Taylor with two requirements: to reproduce an earlier work and to somehow incorporate the New York Subway. MEO brought it back to the root.
However, he returned to Paris this spring for the first time since his late nineties departure. A fellow tagueur, Dominic suggested he come to celebrate the renaissance in graffiti there. ‘You earned your spot, and you should come claim it,’ Dominic said. The two mounted a show at graffiti gallery, Wild Stylerz in the eighth arrondissement. “It was a good show,” Myles says. “I put up 13 pieces and sold six.”
“They treated me like royalty,” he says. Awestruck young graffiti writers approached their hero with comments such as I used to watch you paint when I was ten. “And they’re standing there with a mustache and beard and a kid,” he laughs. They were wowed by his palette of fluorescents: “hot pink, turquoise, baby blue, school bus yellow, colors nobody was using together. I showed them how to gain maximum contrast without using black and white. I taught them the color wheel, complementary colors, and fading techniques.” Seeing his mentees integrate his advice successfully into their work was gratifying.
“My work is a reflection of what I see and experience on a daily basis. I can remember the giddy feeling of standing on 159 Street and Riverside Drive at sunset and looking across the Hudson River to the amusement park and thinking Wow we’re gonna go to Palisades Park!” And now more than 30 years later, the park is long gone, but he can recall the feeling and the colors associated with it: “ the red and yellow of a rollercoaster, white wood shapes in the distance and the shadows.” Without actually rendering the coaster, he’ll translate its essence, the anticipation, and the setting sun onto the canvas.
He’s been told that his work looks like sheet music. “Well, I grew up with music without being a musician.” Sound or even its absence can influence his work. “It could be a Talking Heads record or maybe Bachman Turner Overdrive or Otis Redding, even The Jackson Five,” that he interprets through color.
And of course, he has reverence for his father’s work. “My dad is the man. Proud of him? Pride is too small a word. Adoration. I put him on ten pedestals! He’s also my best friend. I can talk to him about anything and always look forward to it.” Now, as an artist and father of sons, his admiration for his father has intensified “only as I get older do I further grasp what his life was like. What he moved through.”
Not surprisingly, the joyful artist/chef's favorite things evoke a blissful joie de vivre. Myles' TROVE:
1. Bonding with Seen. With his own father Myles enjoyed the simple things like sitting together, reading. He too enjoys the simplest of pleasures--playing in the backyard or taking a walk with his youngest son.
2. Going airborne on a motorcycle. No Evel Knievel tricks for him, but a skyward lift is thrilling.
3. The sound of my children laughing. Nine years of laughter in unison: handsome twins Ronnie & Myles.
4. Cuddling with Lena. He and his beautiful wife as they awaited the birth of Seen. ”A hug, a kiss, a gaze, a joke. She’s my everything, ma raison d’être.”
5. Martinique. He first visited with his parents as a toddler, and spent many childhood summers there, beginning a life-long love affair with la fleur des Caraïbes and with body surfing. ”I love it, I love it, it’s heaven!”
6. Paris in the late Spring/early Summer. “It’s wonderful. All the trees are in bloom and the colors contrast the grey of concrete.“
7. Alaskan King Crab Legs with Butter. Plain and simple.
8. A standing ovation. As a chef, “it’s the best feeling ever!” Myles prepares an annual New Year’s four-course dinner that gets a standing O every time.
9. A funky drumbeat with a “phat” bassline. Approached by Q-Tip to record on A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album, Carter père deferred to Myles for the low down on the Low End Theory cats. As result, the seminal Verses from the Abstract “Thanks a lot Ron Carter on the bass, yes my man Ron Carter is on the bass.”
10. Silence. Another music Myles savors.
Personal photographs courtesy of Myles Carter.