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Mobtown Beat

Charles T. Newton Jr.


By David Morley | Posted 8/6/2003

There is little doubt in the minds of the hundreds of people who knew Charlie Newton that he was, unequivocally, an icon of free-spiritedness. The 74-year-old artist, known to frequent Fells Point watering holes like Miss Irene's, the Cat's Eye Pub, John Steven Ltd., and other (in his own words) "seedy waterfront joints," eked out an existence many twentysomethings only dream of. He made his living by making art, supported solely by sales of his paintings and drawings since the mid-1960s--even though, he once said, there were times he found himself "living off Pepsi cola and corn flakes."

Newton, a graduate of Baltimore's Forest Park High School and the University of Alaska at Anchorage, served two stints in the military--first in the Army, then in the Air Force--and even saw some action during the end of World War II. He hit the road in 1948, in true beatnik style, traveling across the country, taking odd jobs here and there, and hanging 'round in bars making sketches of the people and places he saw. His son William Newton says his father "jumped off a shrimp boat" on which he was a deckhand in Cuba in 1956 so he could fight in the Cuban Revolution. But he was arrested and was shipped back to Key West by the Cuban government seven months later. In the late '50s, he signed up for the Air Force and, upon his discharge in 1961, resumed his job-hopping, traveling, and painting before settling down to be a full-time artist in Baltimore.

Most evenings in the recent past, Newton could be found at one of a number of bars around Fells Point, smoking "diet cigarettes" (the ones with filters) and drinking Coors Light. He was a well-known character in the neighborhood, but often understated and unrecognized was his intensely disciplined, meticulous side--the one he kept inside his little rowhouse home and studio on Regester Street.

"I just get up in the morning and play with my crayons," he would tell people who asked about his life. What he wouldn't mention is that in his 74 years he produced thousands of paintings and drawings and hundreds of volumes of photographs, including a day-by-day diary of the occupation of Japan in the late 1940s. "We're taking truckloads [of artwork] out of his house," William Newton says.

Most of Newton's later artwork was on two themes: the maritime images of the Fells Point waterfront and evening bar scenes. The snapshot quality of his work gave it sophistication--drawing after drawing, painting after painting, the pieces present life as it appears, rather than what it means. In filmmaker Isaac Cynkar's short documentary on him Newton says, "I want people to look at a painting and say, 'I know where that is.'"

Newton's public persona was generous, and one anonymous bar regular at John Steven Ltd. remembers that "if you couldn't afford to buy his artwork, he would give it to you, or just have you pay for it over time." Another patron remembers that Newton once gave her a handful of pen-and-ink drawings in exchange for "six bottles of Coors Light."

He is also remembered for what Cynkar called his "dry, good-natured sense of humor, which wasn't always so good-natured."

Warren Newcomb, chef at the Whistling Oyster on South Broadway, remembers that "25 years ago, Charlie told me, 'I can't wait till I turn 50.' I said, 'Why is that?' He said, 'So I can tell people I'm a half-century old.'"

Even the last words he said to his son, as he was struggling for breath, carried Newton's dry wit: "Make sure I become rich and famous like most artists after they're gone."

Charlie Newton died in hospice of cancer on July 29. He will be missed by many: as a friend, as an artist, and as an inspiration to live an independent life.

Charlie Newton's family is taking contributions for his final arrangements; call William Newton at (410) 429-5115. Patrons and employees of Newton's favorite taverns will celebrate the "life and legend of Picture Painter Charlie Newton" on Saturday, Aug. 9, at 2 p.m. at the Dead End Saloon, 935 Fell St., (410) 732-3602.

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