A walk through Al Carbee’s house is like a tour through his brain. All his thoughts, unique and uninhibited, are on display.
Carbee’s 19th-century Saco home is the ongoing opus of an 83-year-old artist who is eternally busy. Fifty years of photographs, drawings, paintings and sculptures line the walls and fill the closets, rubbing shoulders with Norman Rockwell prints, magazine clippings and glued-together jigsaw puzzles, forming a multistory, multimedia collage that long ago outgrew itself.
“I can’t stop that brain from working and creating,” said Carbee in an interview last week. “I just can’t stop it. It just keeps on going and going.”
Decades ago, the fruits of his creativity were already stretching the seams of his house. Carbee, a Portland native, dismantled a neighboring barn and rebuilt it onto the backside of his home, creating an additional honeycomb of passages and rooms that were quickly filled with the paraphernalia of his trade, including his collection of more than 30 cameras.
In an apparent attempt to contain and categorize the tireless workings of his artist’s brain, Carbee began to photo-document his life in the 1940s and to compile it in a series of voluminous albums. Now, 38 albums later, he says he hasn’t even begun. He displayed a collage-tome, already weathering with age, entitled “Life Begins at 65.”
“Just think, that was 20 years ago, and I was just getting started, and I’m still getting started,” said Carbee, who is soon to begin work on “Life Begins at 84.”
In the 1930s, Carbee attended the Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art) before it was accredited. In 1937, he graduated from the now-defunct Scott Carbee School of Art (founded by his photographer uncle) in Boston.
During World War II, Carbee, an X-ray photographer for the U.S. Army, began refurbishing his then newly purchased Saco home with his new wife, Edna. His earliest photographic tomes meticulously detail that time, with black-and-white prints showing the two of them painting, pouring cement and knocking down walls.
Carbee claims that his wife did most of the construction work. Edna, who died last year, is often shown in the albums posing heroically with construction tools. His carefully composed 1940s-era self-portrait photos often capture him dangling from barn beams or rooftops, but he won’t divulge the secret of how they were taken.
In the 1970s, Carbee owned a hobby shop. On slow days, the shop doubled as a studio where he would draw and photograph customers with a fancy for modeling. His albums documenting that time contain photographic portraits of young men and women, and charcoal and pastel drawings which reveal Carbee’s competency as a draftsperson.
His albums from the 1990s clearly display his fixation on his latest model — Barbie.
“Barbie is a great invention,” said Carbee, while standing in one of his many rooms inhabited by dozens of Barbie dolls. “I figure she’s a greater work of art than Venus or any of them because she can move.”
Throughout Carbee’s house, Barbie dolls dressed in sequin gowns or cowboy outfits can be found posing on miniature park benches, in plastic cars wrapped in imitation leopard skin or in polyhedrons (made of plastic, glue and glass) the size of beach balls.
The Barbie dolls are always basking in the glow of a halogen lamp with a tripod-mounted camera close by.
“I’m delighted to be able to photograph her,” said Carbee. “I’m photographing her as if she were a real person.”
Carbee has filled several tomes with photos of the Barbie dolls in all manner of situations. In one of the books, the facial portrait of a Hawaiian Barbie doll is blown up to life-size and framed by magazine illustrations of green roses.
There are also photos of a blond Barbie riding on a plastic tiger.
Another photo shows a rubber rabbit figurine wearing a bow tie and wrapping his flexible arm around Barbie’s waist as he offers her a Hershey’s Kiss.
Entire pages are dedicated to photos of lunar Barbie, who wears a NASA uniform and space helmet as she pilots a moon rover made from the aluminum containers of TV dinners. A picture of a moonscape provides the background.
On another page, NASA Barbie is running, with illustrations of dinosaurs dominating the backdrop. A separate image shows Barbie with her limbs positioned to conform to an anatomical diagram of the human body.
“Can’t you see her personality?” said Carbee, flipping through the pages. “I’m seeing her as if she were a live model. As if she were living … You can see why I’m fascinated with her.”
When asked why he prefers Barbie dolls to human models, Carbee is quick to answer: “Barbie never complains.”
While Carbee claims “an artist is a lonely life because nobody understands us,” he is increasing his efforts to share his work with the outside world. Though he has recently sold several of his drawings and his sculpted lamps, he is finding that most people are reluctant to trade money for art.
Carbee would like to think of himself as “the legend of Saco.” But as he is first and foremost an artist and last and least a self-promoting salesman, he doesn’t know if his artwork will ever become as well-known as he would like it to be.
Carbee said that he’s lonely, but often turns to Van Gogh for inspiration.
“[Van Gogh] couldn’t stop painting. He couldn’t stop. Of course, that’s his whole life,” said Carbee.
He also turns to Barbie.
“I’ve got to start painting her,” he said.