When he was 4 years old, Carl “C. J.” Latimore’s mom watched from their Liberty City apartment as he drew pictures in the sand outside the front door.
“Carl, you are either going to be an artist or an architect,” she told him. His mom’s words didn’t mean that much to him at the time. “I didn’t know what an artist or an architect was,” Latimore said. But “as I grew older and was drawn toward becoming an artist, I realized her words were actually a prophecy on my life’s work.”
Although she predicted her son’s future profession, Cathy Decosta, whose home was in South Carolina at the time, never lived to see his success. She died in 1993 of a massive heart attack, two days after their last phone call.
“I was working on a project and I told her I was coming to see her that weekend. I never made it, and at times it still haunts me that I didn’t get to see her. So, as a tribute to her, I legally changed my name to C.J. Latimore. ... Mom always called me Carl, and nobody could say my name like her. It was almost as though her dying had launched me on a new mission, and I needed a new name to compliment my mission — of creating beautiful art to tell our story,” he said.”
In 1999, Latimore moved his growing business to Los Angeles, where he was contacted and asked by the National Negro College Fund to do a piece depicting its longtime slogan, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”
Though his studio is in California, Latimore never cut his ties with Miami, nor the people who were always there for him. He plans to soon open an office in South Florida.
In 2014, Miami-Dade School Board Member Dr. Wilbert “Tee” Holloway commissioned Latimore to do a mural for the new Miami Norland Senior High School, then under construction.
Holloway had known for years of Latimore’s work. “In 1980, when I worked for AT&T, and opened a new office in Liberty City, I commissioned Latimore to do a piece to be placed in the lobby of the office. He did that one and a couple of other smaller pieces. So I was familiar with the quality of his work,” Holloway said.
“The gallery display he did for the entrance of the lobby at Norland Senior High is simply stunning,” Holloway said. “People look at it and remember Norland’s history. I was proud to suggest a world-renowned artist of his [Latimore’s] caliber to depict the school’s history.”
“It’s what I do now,” Latimore said. “I do specific pieces that are designed to tell the story of a particular place, that evolves around the people and events of a particular community.”
One of his biggest projects to date is the Broward County African American Research Library Center, which is a part of the Broward Library System. “I am doing the art of our legacy, which is the landscape of our lives — honoring our past and inspiring our future,” he said.
The oldest of nine, reared by a single mom, Latimore knew hardship. He grew up in Liberty City, attending Miami-Dade County Public Schools. He said he was aware of the hopelessness that seemed to engulf many blacks, especially young blacks. He decided early on that he wanted his work to inspire others.
He graduated in 1971 from Miami Jackson Senior High School, and attended the University of Miami on scholarship, graduating in 1976.
At Jackson, Latimore excelled in art and was the Miami Herald Silver Knight runner up in that category the year he graduated. He remembers his mom’s sadness, when she told him she could not afford to buy him a new suit to wear to the awards ceremony.
“I went downtown and walked into a men’s clothing store and asked to see a suit in my size. After I tried on the suit, I asked the clerk if I could give him a painting in exchange for the suit.”
When the clerk got over his surprise at Latimore’s request, he said no. Latimore didn’t give up and after a while, the clerk asked him to show him some of his work. “I went home and painted a landscape especially for the clerk, and in a couple of days, I took the painting to the store. The clerk was impressed and Latimore got his new suit to wear to the Silver Knight ceremony.
“It felt good that my art paid for it,” he said. “I think it was then that I realized the value of art. To me, bartering with that store clerk was an authentic human experience: You never know what you can do until you actually try.”
He said he had the same kind of “authentic human experience” one day while listening to singer Marvin Gaye. “His music seemed to focus on social change. ... I started paying attention to what was going on around me and I felt that I had to do something uniquely different with my art. I just couldn’t paint still life and landscapes. My art had to tell our story — it had to make a difference.”
In 1979, Latimore did a painting based on Gaye’s hit song, “Distant Lover.” Later at a concert, the sponsor radio station invited Latimore on stage to present the painting to Gaye. “I was so touched. I didn’t see the song as a love song or as an R&B song, because the lyrics had a strong sense of hope. I believe it was from that point that I started doing art work about people.”
It was also in 1979, that Latimore was commissioned by T. Willard Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami to do a vanguard piece honoring blacks in Miami-Dade County who were “first” in their professions. It was Latimore’s first commissioned work and it still hangs in the South Florida Historical Museum.
The piece seemed to set Latimore on the right path for organizing his own company, CJL International, which specializes in commemorative art. From that commissioned work, Latimore also found his motto: “Honor the Past. Inspire the Future.”
Said Fair: “It has always been a part of my way to help young people who are trying to make it. And I liked him. ... I had good vibrations from talking with him. I Had no idea at the time, that one day he would be famous.”
Since Latimore started on his journey to paint art that tells people’s stories, he has been commissioned by people like football Hall of Famer and former Miami Dolphin Larry Little. “I am fascinated about telling a story without saying a word,” Latimore said. “I like to make art that talks back to you
Latimore thought of his mother and the hardships she had raising nine children, as he was lauded for one of his recent art works, the mural at the Liberty City Transit Center on Northwest 62nd Street. Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson was largely responsible for getting Latimore to do the work. That kind of teamwork, he said, keeps him aware that he didn’t make it from there to here without a lot of help.
“I can remember back in the 1970s that Burdine’s Department Store was the first major store to allow me to put my art work on its shelves,” Latimore said.
He remembers his first trip abroad to study art, and the woman who helped him. “That was in 1981, and Barbara Gillman of the art gallery by the same name sponsored me. I went to Barcelona, Spain, and Mrs. Gillman put on a one-man show of my art to help raise money for the trip,” he said.
But even with his success as an artist, there were some nay-sayers. “One county official told me that he would see to it that my work would never be displayed in public places in Miami. “But I learned to stay spiritual and focused and to realize that life goes on.”