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Murders, He Drew : San Diego Homicide Detective Paints Art With Different Strokes

May 16, 1993|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — A cop goes to a murder scene and sees blood and a body and lots of human tragedy.

Rick Carlson, a homicide detective for the San Diego Police Department, sees all these things and something else too.

He sees the makings of art.

For the last year, Carlson has been going home after his shift and furiously painting murder scenes: murder scenes he remembers from his days as a rookie, murder scenes he is still investigating, murder scenes from San Diego history.

"Sometimes I get obsessed about it," he said.

Carlson's body of work has been collected for a one-officer show, "Murders, He Drew," at Sinbad's Coffee Co. and Gallery in downtown San Diego. Brilliant colors fairly jump off the 20 canvasses, the subjects seemingly more vivid in death than in life.

"I want each one of these victims to tell a story," Carlson said. "I want the public to go beyond the yellow tape (at crime scenes) and see the terror in these people's faces and see what happened to them in the last moments of life.

"For a lot of these people I'm sure it was a relief to die. They were in so much agony, horror or pain that it was a relief."

Carlson became interested in the painterly persuasion while teaching an artist how to use firearms. The artist figured turnabout was fair play, one thing led to another and Carlson began painting.

He was given standard advice: Paint what you know.

That was easy. Death has been his life for several years.

As Carlson leads a visitor on a private tour of his "Murder" show, the artist explains his art.

He points to his first effort, a recollection of his first dead man, a crumpled figure he discovered early one morning two decades ago in a run-down part of town. The man had been stabbed about midnight and slowly bled to death on the pavement.

"It always bothered me," Carlson says, matter-of-factly. "Here was a guy in his 60s, a transient. He died such a lonely death. There all night long, nobody to tell his story to."

He moves to something more current, a husband-and-wife murder-suicide, seen from overhead, the pair slouched in their convertible sports car. "They were both sitting in the car when the family came home and found them," Carlson said. "It was pretty sad."

He continues, a docent of death.

"This one over here, it's another in my medical examiner series," he said. "It's a person who was lying on the examining table and they were measuring a bullet wound in his chin."

There are several in the medical examiner series.

In one, a nude body is being rolled over on the metal table. The body was that of a woman who was stabbed and had her throat slashed by a jealous boyfriend.

"It always seemed strange to see one human being holding another human being that way," he said. "They do it to photograph the wounds on the back of the body. The public never sees that, but the guys in the medical examiner's office do it every day."

The medical examiner series includes a woman whose thumb was nearly severed while trying to fend off her knife-wielding attacker, and a portrait of a man who died with one eye open, one eye shut and two bullets in his head.

"People don't realize that people don't always die with their eyes both open or both closed," Carlson says. "He's my favorite, because of the artistic value of it."

There is also the painting of a young woman who was raped and killed by a stalker in her condominium:

"He carried her down and put her into the trunk of her car. This was her lying in the trunk of the car. She was a nice lady, nice family, and now there's nothing but a lot of sorrow left behind."

Carlson sees a moral, even didactic, purpose for his art, a working man's "Guernica." He wants teen-agers, would-be gangbangers maybe, to see his paintings. He would love to find a museum with a pro-law enforcement bent to hang his art permanently.

He works from sketches or photographs. He uses bright oil pigments and washes the surface with India ink. The canvas is bathed in clear varnish as a sealer and to enhance the colors.

He has been known to paint all night after a day investigating human slaughter. "It just kind of relieves you of all that tension," he said.

He has two paintings of historic events. One is a shootout that lives in San Diego police lore, a 1965 pawnshop holdup in which officers fired 1,000 rounds at a barricaded gunman.

The other is the Broderick killing, the 1989 bedroom slaying of attorney Dan Broderick and his new wife, Linda, by Dan's ex-wife, Betty. There have been books and made-for-TV movies but, until now, no painting.

"Dan was shot but managed to reach for the phone and fall out of bed before he died," Carlson said.

He said he would not be averse to selling a work or two, but he realizes the chances are slim. "I don't figure many people would want these kinds of things hanging in their house as everyday art," he said.

Carlson, 46, a police officer for 24 years, is a restless sort. He builds coffins for pets. He restores antique cars. He devised a computerized shoot/don't shoot training exercise used by several police agencies.

He has done "stunt shooting" for the soap operas "Days of Our Lives" and "Generations," where his hand is seen pulling the trigger. He was a bodyguard for Barbra Streisand when she wanted to sneak into a theater to assess audience reaction to her movie "Nuts."

He hopes to display his art at the Del Mar Fair. He is branching out in subject matter; his wife loves his painting of a hummingbird and a hibiscus.

But Carlson's major subject for artistic expression will remain that which he knows best.

"There's always plenty of subject matter when you talk about murder," he said.

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