Sculptor Charles Pilkey is one of Mint Hill's best kept secrets. Living in a quiet subdivision off Bartlett Road, the artist draws and paints in his living room in the mornings and sculpts in his backyard shed afternoons and weekends.
“It's a lot easier to make paintings at 4 in the morning in a subdivision than it is to go out and grind steel,” says Pilkey.
He sculpts in wood, stone, steel, bronze, clay and other natural materials. The geologist/artist doesn't deal in plastics or polyester resins.
“Each material has a voice. Wood connects us to the forest, a living thing. Stone connects us to the earth. Bronze is an unusual material in that you work with clay and then cast it in bronze. Clay is the earth and water together,” says Pilkey.
At 50, his travels have taken him across the world. Along the way, he's created sculptures now residing in Japan, China, Korea, Turkey and Italy, as well as at home in the United States.
Born in Seattle, Pilkey spent most of his childhood in Hillsborough, where his parents still live.
He earned a bachelor's degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin, then went to work for an oil company in Texas. After a few years, he bought a boat and sailed up and down the East Coast. When the boat broke, he came ashore at Wrightsville Beach and tended bar. While there, he took a sculpture class at UNC Wilmington, and he was hooked.
“I had an epiphany. I realized that sculpture was what I had wanted to do all along,” says Pilkey.
After earning a bachelor's degree in fine arts from East Carolina University, he went back to Seattle and settled into a small studio. After a year, he went to Japan for a two-week visit that turned into a 15-year stay, with time back in the States to earn his master's in fine arts at the University of Missouri.
He learned Japanese and taught at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fujuoka, near Nagasaki. There, he met his wife, Yuko.
After a while, the couple decided to move back to the States to be near Pilkey's parents. They packed up their son, Kensho, and landed in Charlotte.
Yuko now works for the Japanese Association of Charlotte. Kensho is a kindergartner at Bain Elementary School, and Pilkey teaches part time at Central Piedmont Community College and Spartanburg Community College.
But his first love is his art.
Says Pilkey, “The materials of sculpture connect us to nature. We must develop a more respectful, loving attitude towards nature and we have to learn to live in greater harmony with the world.”