CLARK GALLERY NOTES


March 1st, 2001 -

STELLA JONES GALLERY

20th AFRICAN AMERICAN ICONS SERIES II

March 1st to April 30th, 2000

Claude Clark
By
Eloise E. Johnson, PhD

A wise man, who knows his proverbs, can recognize difficulties.
Nigerian Proverb

Oftentimes the things that we do are never realized or recognized until very late in life. Icons are sometimes hidden away and must be brought out into the open to be venerated again. But the power of these icons comes through in the spirit evoked in their work. Claude Clark's work, which characterizes the African American experience, summons the spirit. His paintings speak to us while the vibrant colors sing to us while the vibrant colors sing to us in harmonic spiritual tones. The people within his canvasses evoke past memories of childhood, the sound of music, the smell of flowers and fruits, the feel of sunlight on bare skin and the rippling reflection of deep blue water. Art "canons" would tell us very little about Claude Clark, the painter, printmaker and educator. Yet, his work denies obscurity. PRESS THIS BUTTON TO RETURN TO THE PREVIOUS PAGE

Born November 11, 1915 in rural Rockingham, Georgia, he was the second son [that lived and the third born child] in a family of ten [that lived]. His father [John Henry Clark] was an itinerant laborer and his mother [Estell Graham] was a housewife, who frequently took in laundry to make ends meet. Clark spent his early childhood in an array of small Georgia and Florida communities between Valdosta and Orlando as his father desperately sought work to keep the family from going hungry. However, his mother was an ambitious woman, whose greatest wish for her son was independence from the life of a sharecropper.

In early August 1923, Clark's parents became part of that great exodus of blacks leaving the south for better life. They traveled to Philadelphia where Clark attended a predominantly white school. Johns Staples, a friend and fellow student whom Clark met in first grade, encouraged him to try art and later influenced his radical political thinking. While attending Roxborough High School, Staples also urged him to try Catherine O'Donnell's art club. She was a white teacher who was supportive of Clark and impressed by his bold artistic work. However, as it was with other black artists, Clark experienced overt racism while attending high school. His teacher refused to submit his name for an art scholarship. Clark went to the school principal to present his grievances and his efforts won him a recommendation and the scholarship. His graduation in June 1935 was cause for celebration. His poem and illustrations were published in the school's yearbook. However, this celebration was countered by his grief at the death of his mother during childbirth of her fourteenth pregnancy. Though, his father was contemptuous of education, he promised his [Clark's] mother that he would provide the fifteen cents needed for Clark's carfare to school.

Clark refused to let adversity rule his life as other misfortunes followed. In his home, there was no electricity and the kerosene lamp used for illumination damaged his eyes. As a result, in the first month of entering art school, he had to obtain eyeglasses. Subsequently, all of his paintings were done under natural lighting [sun light]. But Clark's favorite high school teacher, Catherine O'Donnell, had a glass eye. He thought, if this handicap did not stop her, he vowed that it would not deter him from his goals.

From 1935 -1939, Clark attended the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, now the University of the Arts. While there, Clark was introduced to the technique of [Vincent] Van Gogh in the handling of still life. It formed the basis of his approach to drawing.

Instructors Frank Copeland and Earl Horter were very supportive of his art. Henry Pitz, influenced his figurative work and Franklin Watkins was inspirational in showing him the freedom inherent in painting. By the third year, Clark won the painting prize and Watkins purchased four or five of his works. Clark was inspired to apply to the Barnes Foundation in 1938 but missed his appointment. He reapplied and was accepted in 1939. The Barnes Foundation's collection consisted of an array of artwork from European Impressionism to American art works. However, Albert Barnes, who later became friendly with Clark, was well known for his African Art collection. Clark saw in this African art, with its emphasis on pyramid, sphere and cylinder forms, the similarity that coincided with the art of Van Gogh. His bold strokes in Cutting the Sheets, 1941 is a reflection of this style.

In 1939, Clark found work though thew Artist's Project of the Works Progress Administration WPA from 1939 -1942. Because of his belief that art should benefit the common man, he wanted to working a medium that would reach the masses. He joined the graphic arts shop where he worked with and shared a studio with Raymond Steth and also became acquainted with Dox Thrash. Thrash discovered a new carborundum [carborgraph] printing technique while employed there. Clark, along with others at the shop, experimented with new techniques including a color etching process.

In 1943, Clark married Effie [Mary] Lockhart and obtained jobs in Philadelphia after his tenure with the WPA. He taught art in junior high school in Philadelphia from 1945 -1948. His art appeared in numerous shows including the Albany (NY) Institute of History and Art's for the 1945 presentation, "The Negro Comes of Age". His first solo show was at the Artist's Gallery of Philip Ragan Associate in Philadelphia [Pennsylvania] in 1944. He was also the first Black artist featured by Dorothy Grafly. In 1951, he had a solo exhibition at the Wharton Settlement. His first New York show was at the Bonestell Gallery in 1945, followed by one at the Roko Gallery1946 and 47. With the purchase of "Cutting Pattern" from his 1944 Artist's Gallery show, by [Dr.] Albert Barnes, Clark became only the second living African American artist, after Horace Pippin, to have his work displayed by the Barnes Foundation.

In the 1940's, Clark became interested in working at a black college. After writing [many] letters for employment, he received offers from two, Jackson State University in Mississippi and Talladega College in Alabama. Jackson State offered the higher salary, but he chose Talladega because it provided housing, which he desperately needed, for his family. He originally went to Talladega in 1948 to do a workshop. However, many of his students, who were war veterans, requested art training. Due to an increased student demand, he established a full time art department. He exposed them to African and African American art. [Clark] won a Carnegie Fellowship in 1950, allowing him to spend the summer in the Caribbean, mainly Puerto Rico, painting flowers and landscapes that he saw as universal subjects.

At the end of spring term 1955, Clark left Talladega. Without another employment, he [and his family] moved to California. In the fall, he registered at Sacramento State College and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1958. Majoring in painting with a minor in social studies, he obtained his Master of Arts degree from University of California in 1962. His works during this period showed a lighter color palette, a freer technique and experimentation with abstraction as in Homestretch, 1961and Ascending, 1961. Clark found employment at Merritt College in 1968, and stayed until his retirement in 1981. In 1976, Clark fulfilled a lifelong dream to go to Africa. It profoundly affected him. He began to believe that in order to change things for his people, "one has to think Black and dream Black...."

Dr. Eloise E. Johnson is an Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture Southern University, Baton Rouge, LA

 

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