View one Milwaukee gay man's private collection of Charles Dix art.
Known for his bold color and innovative techniques, award-winning artist Charles Dix earned a national reputation from his home and studio in Delafield. While not extremely open about it (because of his fear that it could damage his reputation and hamper sales of artwork), Dix was in fact a gay man who enjoyed lifelong friendships with other gay men and ex-boyfriends. On the occasions of widely advertised public openings of new artwork at his Delafield studio, Dix would typically also host a private event for a few close male friends giving them a sneak preview and opportunity to buy new and older artwork. (Even his closest friends always called him "Charles", never a nickname.)
Dix's immense output in artwork ranged from placid, nature-inspired watercolors to flamboyant visions of an inter-galactic future. In between were cloudlike abstractions, executed in repeated washes of acrylic on canvas, as well as metallic-bronze abstracts and landscapes that became his trademark.
Moonwalk, a combined house and gallery in Delafield, was the artist's home for some 30 years. With five acres of assiduously tended gardens and upward of 6,000 square feet of display space for art, Moonwalk was for many years one of the Delafield area's prime tourist destinations. It drew chartered buses by the dozen, along with famous folks like the two Vans (Johnson and Cliburn), comedian Robert Q. Lewis, art maven Peg Bradley, orchestra conductor Harry John Brown, and members of the Heil and Uihlein families. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performed in its lantern-strewn gardens. Elegant parties raised thousands of dollars for worthy non-profits like the American Diabetes Association and the American Cancer Society.
Dix, at 6 feet 2 inches tall and rail-thin, suffered from childhood-onset diabetes, and in later life this caused many health complications. The worst of these was problems with his feet; an injury and subsequent infection in one foot caused Dix to hobble around for the last several years of his life, perhaps from a partial amputation. Even with this however, Dix continued his prodigious production of artwork, producing work of new and different themes almost until his death. He also traveled extensively: for inspiration, relaxation, and to promote his work.
Dix was the subject of numerous articles in local newspapers and magazines over the years. Recent articles included the following (viewable on the various publications' websites):
The following biography was constructed mainly from an article in the February 5, 2005 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shortly after his death, along with personal knowledge of Charles:
Dix was first raised in Wauwatosa, moving with his family to a lake home in the Dousman area. In 1956, he was featured in The Milwaukee Journal student art calendar. He briefly studied at the old Layton School of Art and then at the Rhode Island School of Design.
By age 20, he was exhibiting and selling his work, including at a one-man show. He was soon represented by galleries in San Francisco and New York. Largely self-taught, his original love was watercolor. He next moved into oils and acrylics, then began experimenting with metallic powders. He created formulas to liquefy the powders, artfully alternating layers of acrylic and metal.
In a way, it was a natural evolution for the watercolorist. He produced stunning images with a satiny gloss and amazing depth, a mirrorlike reflectivity that one critic said could not be duplicated.
Over the years, his subjects ranged from purely abstract pieces to more geometric designs. He also became known for his representations of space phenomena and for landscapes, the latter abstract in detail but realistic in feeling.
"He did pictures of things in space way before space was explored," said one collector. "He was always exploring, pushing the boundaries of his art," she said. "It was always changing, evolving."
A deeply spiritual man, Dix tried to explain his relationship with God. "I see him everywhere and in everything I see, so there's no reason to formalize the relationship," he said.
Dix's original studio/ gallery, a timeworn farmhouse just off the Hartland-Wales interchange, was demolished in 1971 in a planned burn by the local fire department. He then built a combined home and gallery in Delafield, known as Moonwalk. A byzantine exercise in Mies van der Rohe-style modernism, Moonwalk became a showcase for Dix's work, which evolved into larger and more abstract paintings. His landscapes also included the real thing, acres and acres surrounding the home studio, long a destination stop for both art and gardening enthusiasts.
Moonwalk was surrounded by another of Dix' passions, his gardens. He long opened his gardens to the public during studio hours but finally had to close them for all but special events. Galas there raised money for the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the last performing on the sculpted grounds.
"It's a full-time job," Dix said of his gardens. "The gardens are very important to my life, but not because I want to spend my whole life working on them. Still, it's a marvelous combination. One is working with color, and the time process is important, too. In some ways it's like doing a painting."
Dix owned a second home in Tucson for some years, spending much of the cold Wisconsin winters in the warmer climate of Arizona. His Delafield, Wisconsin home continued to be his primary studio however.
Over the years, development in the Delafield area made his property prone to flooding, ruining dozens of paintings and causing other damage. Dix agreed to sell in 2004, clearing the way for a storm-water retention pond there. As Dix regretfully made plans to leave Moonwalk, he spoke with his trademark good humor. "Too many problems," he sighed. "So far I've had water and fire to remove me. I'm not waiting for the wind."
Dix bought another house a few miles away in Genesee. The major landscaping was completed in fall 2004, and groundbreaking for the studio was scheduled for March 2005.
The best guess is that Dix produced 6,000 to 7,000 paintings in his lifetime, many hung in galleries and museums, as well as producing some jewelry and specialty items. According to another collector, "He just loved people having his paintings. The money was always secondary, though they commanded a good price."
Dix, 65, died of a heart attack Wednesday February 2, 2005 at a Tucson, Ariz., medical facility, following an earlier heart attack.
Credits: contents a combination of extensive excerpts from various articles in Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel,
and personal recollections of a friend, Don Schwamb;
Last updated: June-2007.