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Vision Quest

Uncle Charlie is the best concert-poster artist in Houston — and he's legally blind.

Before Charlie Hardwick realized he was losing his vision, he had already almost died.

Hardwick, 40, is a lifelong Houstonian, former punk rocker, husband to a middle-school teacher/grad student and father to two young girls. As Uncle Charlie, he's one of the Southwest's leading concert graphic artists and averages eight to ten posters a month, mostly for House of Blues, the Continental Club and Warehouse Live.

Uncle Charlie's visually striking, color-saturated posters — inspired by the bold, blocky German and Italian modern art of the '30s and '40s, as well as prominent Pop Art figures like Peter Max and the collective that worked out of New York's Push Pin Studios in the '60s — are instantly recognizable, whether behind the glass of a House of Blues display case or adorning the walls of Sig's Lagoon (where he'll host an exhibition of his work Saturday night).

Alongside work by fellow Texans Frank Kozik, Lindsey Kuhn and Jermaine Rogers, Uncle Charlie's work is prominently featured in Paul Grushkin and Dennis King's 2004 contemporary rock-poster bible The Art of Modern Rock. He's quoted early in the book, attributing the "explosion" of rock poster art in the '90s to artists seeking other media when album covers fell by the wayside in the rise of CDs.

But in 2003, Charlie came down with pneumonia, only he didn't realize it until it was almost too late. Perhaps fooled by the longtime runner's expanded lung capacity, the holistic doctor Hardwick had been seeing (and liked) kept insisting he just had the flu. On his fourth office visit in about six weeks, the doctor finally recommended a chest X-ray.

"The next day, he called my cell phone and said, 'You've got pneumonia, buddy. You need to come in,'" Charlie remembers.

Hardwick checked himself into the hospital. When he got out, he was put on a regimen of intravenous steroids and antibiotics and fitted for a portacath, a small medical device doctors installed in his main artery to ease in administering medicine and drawing blood.

By the time the portacath was removed, Charlie remembers, "I was in bad shape — I was already a skinny guy, I didn't have any weight to lose. I was fuckin' paper-thin."

Things were about to get worse. Also suffering from cabin fever, Charlie convinced his supervisors at a Houston commercial graphic-design firm — he designed the packaging for Mission tortilla products for several years, and is responsible for the signature "wave" on Hi-C juice containers — to let him come back to work. One day, sitting at his desk, he started to feel dizzy.

"I don't know if you've ever passed out and you get that TV static that envelops your visual field," he says. "That's what started to happen. I just thought I was passing out, so I did the number where you put your head between your legs to get the blood to go up. I thought it would help, but it didn't."

Charlie went back to the hospital and underwent another barrage of tests. Doctors told him he had had a stroke, though they weren't sure what had caused it. He called a heart-surgeon friend of his, who told him several people who had been fitted for portacaths had subsequently come down with infections that affected various organs, including the brain. He still has the MRIs that show a series of lesions on his own.

In Uncle Charlie's case, as best he can tell — neither he nor the multitude of physicians and specialists he's seen since have ever been 100 percent sure — an infection worked its way into his central nervous system and seized on his optic nerve. Whatever happened, he slowly began to realize the blind spots that now dotted his field of vision weren't going away.

"If I look directly into your eyes, I can't see all this," motioning to the lower half of his face as he tries to explain what he can and can't see as best he can. "It's like you're wearing a bandanna. Now if I close this [left] eye, I can only see half your face."

As someone who had always made a living with his eyes, Hardwick freaked out as his vision grew progressively worse. He never told his co-workers exactly what was going on, but they suspected something was up.

"They would see me run into people, and pouring coffee, I totally missed the cup," he laughs. "I totally missed the cup — the cup was here and I was pouring it all over the countertop. That was the best. They were like, 'What the fuck are you doing?'"

Understandably, Uncle Charlie grew depressed and — with rare exceptions like The Who's 2006 tour ("I'm a Who freak," he says) — almost completely stopped making posters. Within one week in June 2008, though, he was laid off from his graphic-design job and declared legally blind. Hardwick had little choice but to start looking for poster gigs again.

Luckily, he had made some good friends at Live Nation, people he had known since the concert-promoter corporation was still the locally owned Pace Concerts — in fact, he graduated from copying his art onto colored paper at Kinko's to full-color screen-printed work with a poster for a 1993 Smashing Pumpkins concert produced by Pace. One of them hooked him up with steady work making posters for House of Blues, which was then preparing to open its Houston venue.

But how does someone whose visual field is peppered with blind spots, not to mention a heightened sensitivity to light and color blindness — which Charlie discovered when he enlisted in the Marines after graduating from U of H — create a poster at all?

Charlie says it was making those Who posters that convinced him not to give up on his poster work, though of course it wasn't easy. "I had my face up against the [computer] screen and had headaches all the time, trying to get it to work," he admits. "Once I got that down and it was looking pretty good, I thought, 'Maybe I can do this.'"

It's much easier for him today. He uses the settings on his Macintosh designed to aid people with disabilities to reverse the screen's polarity — making the black areas white and vice versa. The zoom and smart-guide features of Adobe Illustrator assist his drawing, which he does with a simple mouse.

He uses thicker lines, and designs his posters around a strong central subject rather than the "elaborate crazy stuff" he does in the artwork he doesn't have to crank out on deadline. (Charlie has also designed several Houston Press covers, most recently the cover of our 2009 Music Awards issue.)

If anything, Uncle Charlie says his visual impairment has actually made him a better poster artist. Seriously.

"I don't know if that's because of the eyes or because I'm not at a full-time job anymore and I can spend more time doing it," he admits. "But it's bolder, and I think that's important because it kind of falls in line with my philosophy on posters and my style."

Charlie's philosophy dates back to his days as drummer for Houston hardcore legends Dresden 45. He designed all Dresden's gig flyers, and quickly realized the more they stood out on the telephone poles along lower Westheimer, the better the band's chances were of attracting people to their shows. His goal, he says, was to design a flyer someone could read while driving by or sitting at a stoplight nearby.

It still is.

"I make it to where I can read it," he explains. "And if I can read it, then you know somebody can read it from their car, or from across the street or whatever."

Uncle Charlie's art show, with posters and prints available for sale, is 6-11 p.m. Saturday, November 7, at Sig's Lagoon, 3710 Main, 713-533-9525 or www.sigslagoon.com.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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