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Ten years ago, painter Stevens Carter stumbled into a great gig thanks to a most unpromising situation. As he was moving from western Pennsylvania to New York, his transmission blew out in the Lincoln Tunnel. Carter had begun his journey with $1,000, but after the transmission nightmare he was left with only $100. “I needed a cheap place to stay, and there are some scary places you can stay in New York for under $100,” he recalls.

Luckily, he landed at the Carlton Arms Hotel in Gramercy Park, where each room is decorated by a different artist. When the managers looked at his portfolio, they made him a deal: You decorate room 11A, and we’ll let you stay for a while. Carter turned 11A into the Lust Museum (“a lot of tasteful nudes,” he explains), and he lived in the hotel for the next two years.

Now, Carter is an adoptive Washingtonian who paints on a sunny rooftop that adjoins his second-floor studio, located across from the 9:30 Club’s old downtown haunts. But in October he’s trekking briefly back to the Carlton Arms to mount a retrospective called “Return to the Lust Museum.” “We’re going to open up the room and touch up a few things,” he says. “Then we’re going to put new work into the two adjoining rooms. If we’re lucky, in a fourth room we’re going to party.”

Carter says his biggest problem with the show is deciding which works to include; he has several ongoing projects. There’s the colorful, upbeat “Euphoria” series of large abstractions. There’s the “Ameressence” series, stylistically similar to the “Euphoria” works but addressing diversity and multiculturalism. Then there’s his “Textural” series—thick impastos of sawdust, acrylic, and oil that look like what Jackson Pollock might create if he were to make 3-D topographical maps.

Carter, 39, has been painting as long as he can remember. Born into a working-class family in Plainfield, N.J., he attended the University of Pittsburgh on a wrestling scholarship but quickly found his niche in painting. After graduation, he took menial jobs for five years and “just painted and struggled.”

A big break came when Carter was asked to teach an art course to prison inmates. After some initial skepticism, he says, “my stomach made me realize I needed the money.” It turned out to be one of the best experiences he’s had. In 1987, after he’d moved to New York, Pennsylvania gave him a $35,000 grant to paint murals alongside inmates in several prisons. The project was lauded by the governor but ultimately excoriated by deficit hawks and tough-on-crime critics. “If you tried to do this today, you’d get shot,” Carter says.

After postings at several Pennsylvania universities, Carter moved to Washington in 1991 for a Smithsonian fellowship, which he decided not to renew after his first year; even though he was almost broke, he wanted to open his own studio. At one point, while drunk at a 7-Eleven, he invited a nine-months-pregnant homeless woman to stay at his place for three days. He used her as a model, but was so overpowered by the experience that it took him months to actually produce his “Barefoot” series. Carter has no idea what ever happened to her.

These days he works on commissions—from compact-disc artwork to a medical terminology textbook cover—and sells some of his works at Eastern Market. Art professionals, he says, “want you to be like Basquiat, who I met a few times. I can’t play that dummy role. I’ve suffered, but I’m not going to play the suffering type who’s prostituted to the arts. It’s bad enough to hit the streets to sell your work, but I think I’ve done it in a dignified manner, and it’s helped my work grow. I work 16 hours a day. I create a lot of bad work, but I can always throw that stuff away.”—Louis Jacobson