Local Arts

The Love Influence: A ‘perpetually pregnant’ Charlotte artist defying categorization

What has influenced this influential Charlotte artist?

John W. Love Jr. talks about what's intrigued him, what's driven him and how his work has developed over the decades.
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John W. Love Jr. talks about what's intrigued him, what's driven him and how his work has developed over the decades.

This is part of an Observer series about people who have had significant and sustained influence on Charlotte’s arts world.

John W. Love Jr. is:

A. An artist

B. A guru

C. Foul-mouthed

D. A nice guy

E. All of the above

The autonomous Mr. Love

On a weeknight in June, dozens of people packed into the New Gallery of Modern Art in uptown Charlotte. Artwork surrounded them, but their focus was the woolly-bearded African-American man in the throne-like armchair – the evening’s speaker, John W. Love Jr.

Love, 56, wore one of his favorite summer looks, white Adidas track pants with a white long-sleeved Columbia-brand shirt, which he prizes for both its functionality and aesthetic. He also wore a heavy scarf, as he often does, yellow-brown, artfully tied in a bow at his neck. It matched the sunflower bouquet on the table beside him. The gallery had few seats, so nearly everyone stood, gathered around Love like cocktail-holding acolytes.

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Love as the Perpetually Pregnant Man. Moye Photography

John Love has long been one of the city’s most original talents. Last year, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, an imprimatur most artists only dream about. He lives to bring his creative dreams to fruition, not unlike The Perpetually Pregnant Man, a character he plays wearing a pregnancy belly adorned with oversized sequins.

But describing Love solely as an actor or performance artist doesn’t capture his impact. In Charlotte, his hometown, he pushes boundaries, providing an antidote to committees, task forces, and Scots-Irish Presbyterian tendencies, to old constructs about race, sexuality and gender, all while leaving a jolly trail of expletives in his wake. If that weren’t enough, people pay to attend his guided meditations and receive his counsel. To many admirers, John Love isn’t just an artist. He’s a sage.

On this evening, the gallery had asked Love to speak to celebrate an exhibition of 50 black artists. His talk, focused on “the quixotic path of the visionary,” was a primer on living the artist’s life – nurturing a creative vision, enduring failure and insisting on autonomy, “picking and choosing the unvarnished life we want to live and owning it.” It was, in a nutshell, a description of his own path.

From afar, Love’s path is full of fantastical costumes, entertaining media interviews, fellowships, residencies, awards. Up-close reality is less glamorous. Love spends most of his time alone, owns little and relies on side hustles to pay the bills. He’s not complaining. As he told the crowd that night: “If you yearn for something enough, you can’t not do it.”

Mirth, and magnitude

Love’s performances and gallery installations are sporadic, but clips on the Internet offer a sense of his artistic range. On the lighter side, there’s the bus scene at the end of the 2006 comedy “Talladega Nights.” Love plays a guy who tells off NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell.) “I don’t want to hear about your damn problems,” he rants. “Everybody got problems. My mama got problems. She just lost her leg. My cousin Pookie just lost his testicle. My dog just threw up a finger.” He ad-libbed the rant, and pronounces that last word fanger.

There’s also “Ooo, girl, Anchorage,” a series of video monologues he recorded on his phone during a 2014 artist’s residency in Alaska. In one, he describes his response to the frigid weather: “I’m not saying I’m dressing for the tundra. But I am more layered than a Viola Davis performance.” His facial expressions, including “the half-lidded side eye,” as the Guggenheim Foundation puts it, are as delightful as the punch lines.

x15 Love Screen Fecund Tongue
A screen capture from Love’s “Fecund: Night”; videography/effects by Tony Elwood. Courtesy of the artist

But Love’s most ambitious project, called “Fecund,” is heavier and darker. This ongoing interdisciplinary work, populated by characters of Love’s creation, is narrated by his Perpetually Pregnant Man, who wears the sequined pregnancy belly and a giant cotton-y-ball headpiece. He’s ever pregnant, he explains, because he has ceased aborting his dreams.

In 2010, Love debuted a precursor to “Fecund” at the city’s first TEDx event, a conference dedicated to discovery and new ideas. The 20-minute monologue was surreal, poetic, disturbing. The Perpetually Pregnant Man channeled several characters, including Billy, born with tiny black lilies unfurling from his feet, and his sister, Neequa, who had “a splay of pins and needles running down her back from crown to crack.” Their mother, Neema, turned their father into a bird every time he threatened to leave her.

The conference had solicited Love’s participation, but never previewed his work, which included profanity and descriptions of sex. It so rattled organizers that they cut the Internet livestream mid-performance. When Love found out, he posted a statement on Facebook decrying the censorship. Its title: “Somebody’s always got to s--- in the punchbowl.”

That TEDx piece led to awards and fellowships he used to develop “Fecund,” the work that became central to his receipt of the Guggenheim.

Growing into Love

at 7 IMG_2286
Love – captioned “Buddy” on the photo’s back – at 7 years old. Of this photo, Love says: “I literally weep from overwhelm if I look at the 7-year-old for long. He is so sweet, vibrant, beautiful, and bubbling over with joy.” Courtesy of John W. Love Jr.

Love grew up in west Charlotte. His parents married as teenagers, and lived for several years in Fairview Homes, a public housing development, before moving with Love and his sister into a house of their own.

He was reading by age 4. Around that age, he also began noting his responses to and feelings about boys and men. Gradually, he came to understand he wasn’t heterosexual, though he says the term gay doesn’t adequately describe him. He’s “beyond gay,” he says, and “doesn’t fit neatly in any box.”

By age 8, after discovering a book on basic yoga poses, he was practicing headstands and full lotus poses in the family living room. In middle school, while other boys played basketball, he was making a comparative study of the Bible, Koran and The Three Pillars of Zen.

“My estimation was they were all saying the same thing,” he says. He absorbed from each one lessons of love, kindness and compassion. He came to see everything as spiritual, a belief that still guides him.

This was the 1970s, when being a different kind of kid, one who practiced yoga and read the Koran, might have been even harder than it is now.

Was he bullied? “There were attempts to bully me,” he says, “but they were unsuccessful.”

He fought once, he says, in elementary school, with a boy named Derrick who disliked Love and was determined to fight. “Long story short,” Love says, “Derrick ended up getting his ass beat.”

Love says he was fortunate to have parents who encouraged his creativity. He also had a steely sense of self and an innate understanding of what he needed to thrive. He was a good kid. But also: “I am nobody’s victim.”

At Piedmont Open Middle School, he played the Artful Dodger in “Oliver Twist,” the villain in “The Drunkard.” His drama teacher, Irene Horowitz, now retired in Florida, recalls him as hardworking, handsome, “remarkably and confidently showy,” already adept at inhabiting the life of characters. Also, he had a terrific singing voice.

Larry and John
When Love, “a dear old friend and playmate,” was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2017, Larry Tobias posted this photo on Facebook: “I submit a photo of the two of us killin’ it, age 12.” This was 1974 or ’75, at Charlotte’s Piedmont Open Middle School, the New York-based actor/musician/director now recounts. It was “Oliver!”: “John played The Artful Dodger, and I played Oliver Twist. We had a pretty amazing group of kids, terrifically dedicated and inspiring teachers, and an awful lot of fun in the early days of Charlotte’s Open Schools. I’ve always admired John for his fearlessness, his willingness to go further and with more commitment to his craft than many his peers (though, in my opinion, he is actually peerless). Even when we were kids together, it was pretty obvious he was bound for greatness.” Courtesy of Lawrence Tobias

At West Charlotte High, he played John the Baptist in “Godspell,” marched with his saxophone in the band, served as both student council and senior class president. He graduated in the top of his class in 1980, during an era when West Charlotte was nationally lauded for its successful integration.

From there, he studied acting at UNC Greensboro. Says Andrew Leavitt, one of his professors: “He walked into the room, and you felt him.”

In the 1980s and ’90s, he built an acting career, starting with the N.C. Shakespeare Festival, landing roles in many North Carolina productions – “Dreamgirls,” “Miss Evers’ Boys,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” where he played Dr. Frank N. Furter. In a 1992 Charlotte Observer profile, an Atlanta composer who knew Love’s work praised him as electrifying and world class, and wondered why he was still in Charlotte.

The profile was pegged to the opening of his “Picture Perfect Images from the Mocha Regions of a Chocolate Boy’s Reality.” This one-man show was a turning point, when he began playing characters he’d written, when he became a performance artist.

On paper, Love’s career trajectory appears ever upward. But like most artists, he has always juggled – applying for grants, being rejected; auditioning, being rejected; doing side jobs to pay the bills. He has penned brochures for law practices, helped companies name new products, written copy for the North Carolina brick industry. “I probably know more about the latest and greatest in cosmetic surgery procedures than anyone should,” he told me, “because when you do that copywriting thing, you learn a lot.”

In his early 30s, exhausted, he considered getting a regular job. But only briefly. The thought of abandoning his creative life made him physically ill.

A ‘huge light’...

Ever since learning relaxation exercises in his middle-school acting class, Love has led meditations.

Also, he has long been a trusted advisor to friends. Many describe his empathy, wisdom and ability to pinpoint a problem’s essence. One friend told me Love literally saved her life with his advice. Another said he telephones Love “if I have something troubling my soul.”

About 15 years ago, when he began charging for these services, several friends declared it was about time. The meditations blend his art and spiritual life, relying on two of his assets – his voice and imagination.

In July, I sat in on a group session, $10 per person, at the Charlotte home of Shannon Farrell and her husband. Farrell, who’d attended her first Love meditation at a yoga studio, liked it so much she suggested he use her house for weekly sessions. That was more than a year ago.

“John was this huge light for me,” she told me. He’s helped her manage job stress and make life changes. “I do look at him as a spiritual guru,” she said.

At Farrell’s house, Love arranged himself cross-legged on a sofa. Participants – 10 of us – sat or lay nearby. Some in the group had known Love for years. One young woman, attending for the first time, called him “Dr. Love” until he gently corrected her.

Blinds were drawn. A eucalyptus candle scented the air. When Love called for closed eyes, our chatter quieted.

He directed us to breathe, richly and deeply. As we relaxed, he began a surreal tale, taking us to a river where we meet an ancient woman. His voice, a lyrical baritone, rose and fell, drawing out certain words, pausing for effect. John Love’s voice could make a grocery list sound mesmerizing.

x07 Love REM
An Alaska-era portrait. TimRemick Tim Remick

For 45 minutes, Love unspooled a meditation disguised as performance art, or maybe vice versa. The story unfolded slowly but here’s the upshot: The old woman turns into a 13-year-old girl, then a 5-year-old, then eventually sprouts blood-red wings and flies into infinity.

Later, Love told me he’d never describe himself as someone’s guru, but if others do, he respects their experience. “Now, I will own up to the fact that I can be sage-like,” he said. “But what I do offer – and I say this definitively – I offer clarity. I’m very good at offering clarity.”

... And raging introvert

We met for a lunch interview at a Panera restaurant. Love, who spent 19 years as a raw foodist, has recently broadened his consumption, though he’s careful about what he eats. When I’d asked his friend Mark Woods, president of New River Dramatists, if Love had any faults, Woods could only name one: “In a retreat setting, he’s a pain in the ass to feed.”

At Panera, Love again wore the white outfit and scarf. It’s a kind of uniform that lets him look nice without investing excessive thought. He checked the menu, considered a quinoa bowl, quizzed an employee about the ingredients, then quietly settled for herbal tea.

We talked about his daily routine – meditation, writing, editing. “There’s an illusion I’m an extrovert, but I’m really not,” he said. “I describe myself as a raging introvert. I probably spend 80 to 90 percent of time alone. Silence, solitude, stillness have always, always been important to me.”

Parts of Love’s works in progress. Video still by Basic Cable

The Guggenheim funds have allowed him to rent a new work space. He’s not revealing the award amount. “I can just tell you that it’s cute,” he told the audience at his gallery talk. “It’s the cutest amount I’ve ever gotten.” But daily life hasn’t much changed. Side jobs help pay the bills, and he shares the west Charlotte house where he grew up with his parents, a retired nurse and newspaper circulation manager.

When I asked why he remains in Charlotte, he said life dictates certain things. His family is a big part of it. That’s all he wants to say.

It seems likely Love could succeed anywhere, be a bigger star than he is. “If that mattered to him at all, we’d know it,” Mark Woods says. “We can all be a little grateful that it doesn’t.”

Instead, he chases his vision – characters and concepts that insinuate themselves into his consciousness in early morning, or while he’s driving, or during a meditation. He pulls out a notebook, jots, considers. Well, that’s something, he tells himself.

He’s planning an audio series of guided meditations. He’s working on new monologues exploring what he calls “toothy gems of human behavior.” Of course, there’s “Fecund,” the dreamlike world likely to occupy him for the rest of his life.

Also, he’s bringing back his Salt Daddy character, the narrator in a 2016 installation at the McColl Center. This audio piece was an artistic rebuke of HB2, the controversial legislation, now repealed, that dictated which bathrooms transgender people had to use. “Your parts, your business,” Salt Daddy declares. “Your parts, your m-----f------ business.”

The public may like these new creations, and if so, wonderful. But if Salt Daddy, for instance, is too salty for some audiences, that’s fine, too.

“Sometimes, oftentimes, what you’re presenting, the room just isn’t ready for. And that’s OK,” he told attendees at the gallery talk.

“You continue to show up.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.