The respected artist was also a beloved Pied Piper of an educator whose career spanned six decades at Virginia Commonwealth University and Richmond Professional Institute before that. Shamanlike, he made meaningful connections between often baffling late-20th-century artworks and the minds and imaginations of thousands of students, young and older alike, who filled his stimulating classroom.
"He was someone I could always call on to help make the links between abstract and contemporary art we were presenting and the public," said Ron Epps, adult program coordinator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
"He's had an impact on any number of people, including lawyers, businessmen and others," Beverly Reynolds of the Reynolds Gallery once said. "He makes contemporary art real and vital to people who aren't necessarily comfortable with it."
"I'd put him in the genius category," said Epps.
Although Carlyon retired from VCU in 1996 after teaching there for 41 years, he continued to lecture and develop his own work until his recent illness.
Late last year he was the subject of a retrospective at the Reynolds Gallery, and in December VCU presented him the Presidential Medallion, his alma mater's highest honor.
Born in the fishing and steel town of Dunkirk, N.Y., Carlyon found his way to Richmond for college and was captivated by the city's avant-garde. He was one of the last links with Henry Hibbs, VCU's founder, who hired him in 1955 to teach dance (Carlyon had studied with Martha Graham in New York). From there he taught choreography, drawing, painting, lettering, sculpture, art history and graphic design. Usually, his approach was interdisciplinary. "He and the personality of the School of the Arts developed together," observed Aaron Shoon, one of Carlyon's former students.
One of his most popular courses was contemporary art.
"He was always up on the most recent developments and able to communicate them," said Bruce Koplin, chair emeritus of VCU's art history department. "His classes were always full. Students would have to agree to sit on the floor in order to get into them. If you were late, you went on the floor."
He began to develop his eye as a child: According to his sister, as a boy he traded his fishing pole for a camera. He observed things closely that much of the world might ignore. He reveled in the flora and fauna of his Fan District back yard, an Atlantic beach or a frenetic New York street scene with equal intensity.
But what fascinated him at the end of his teaching career was the pace of cultural and informational change: "Today students are overloaded with information," he said in 1996. "They have millions and millions of images in their heads: from television, from film, from video, from computers all the technological processes of images accompanied by sound. They are sensitive to audio input. And they don't know what to do with all that. It's happening very fast."
But he loved the intensity: "Life is like an unannounced performance that goes on all day long.
As Carlyon's son, Jason, said in his eulogy at the memorial service, "He lived in the moment."
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