“First think and then act”: Aspects of the life of Claude Clark 

by Steven  L. Jones ©1996 all rights reserved

( This essay was written to accompany the July 7 – August 31, 1996 exhibit at the Apex Museum in Atlanta. The show was curated by David Driskell and Gladys E. Rodgers. Published with the permission of the author. It is derived from an audio-taped interview of the artist conducted May 12 – 14, 1996 by the author at the artist’s home in Oakland, California. It represents the opinions and point of view of the artist. )


Claude Clark with “Creative  Source”, 1991
Jonathan  Eubanks, photo credit

As the uninvited, ominous line of cars stuffed with vaguely shaped white-hooded, figures slowly made its way across the campus grounds of predominantly-Black Talladega College in early 1949, newly-appointed professor Claude Clark fearlessly observed that it seemed more like some bizarre wedding party than an attempt to intimidate, and he was unperturbed by the sight. Clark knew that what he was doing was right and he refused to back down.

This crisis had begun when as part of the celebration of the completion of its new museum, the then racially-restricted University of Alabama had extended a pro forma invitation to Talladega’s white president and the (presumed white) “head of the art department” to come to the Tuscaloosa campus. White people from across the country had been invited to attend this affair whose two main speakers were to be the directors of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio.

The Talladega president then contacted the University to ask if he could bring Clark since Clark was the only one on the campus teaching art and had been responsible for gathering the College’s display of student artwork requested for the celebration.  The University responded negatively. saying that “it was; traditional that Colored people did not appear at public (white) meetings”. After being informed of the University’s position, Clark calmly and immediately wrote to the prominent Philadelphia-area art collector Albert Barnes, whose educational program at. The Barnes Foundation Clark had attended some years earlier.

Clarks’ message to Barnes was that participating in such an activity supported by public funds was a tacit endorsement of racial discrimination and Clark challenged Barnes to make a moral gesture and show that he really believed in racial equality. Barnes instantly took up the challenge and enlisted other whites to boycott participation in this event, causing national embarrassment to Alabama’s white population.

Clark’s willingness to publicly confront racism, showing that anyone in the nation who participated in the University’s celebration would be tainted with favoring segregation, shook up the status quo in a way that would foreshadow future civil rights struggles. Eventually, because of Clark’s initiative, all. the nationally prominent outside speakers cancelled their participation.

Claude Clark working with a palette knife.

So, in their angry zeal to end the boycott effort, Alabama whites had donned well­ used pointed hoods and employed other scare tactics like cutting all outside telephone lines so that no off-campus calls could be made. While this upset and frightened some students and many faculty at Talladega, it made other students fighting mad. When the Klan showed up on the campus, they ended up facing a resistant wall of irate Black collegians and were finally forced to retreat.

This was not the first Clark family run-in with the KKK. Clark’s paternal grandfather, John Wills Clark, a traditional healer and farmer, had had to move his family from Alabama to relative safety in Philadelphia in 1915 after the Klan burned him out of his house because he would not accede to their wishes. Clark’s parents had been moving Clark and his siblings around to wherever a job could be bad for Clark’s father, and they later joined their extended family in Pennsylvania.

Claude Clark (no middle name) was born November 11, 1915 in the rural Bacon County hamlet of Rockingham in southern Georgia not far from his father’s birthplace in Terrell County. Second son of ten surviving children of an:  illiterate itinerant laborer father and hardworking housewife mother who occasionally took in other people’s laundry to help make ends meet, Clark spent his early years in an assortment of small Georgia and Florida communities between Valdosta and, Orlando as his father desperately tried to find work to keep the family fed. Clark’s mother was an ambitious­ minded woman who early admonished her husband, and later her second son, that “I want you to be independent.”

In early August, 1923, Clark’s parents and their children left the bug-ridden and economically-tenuous South to join his father’s people in the rat-infested and economically-uncertain North. They settled with their relatives in the geographically­ separate Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia where Clark attended nearly all­ white public schools and managed to achieve in spite of the racial prejudice of some of his teachers. ·

Clark was originally prompted towards art by John Staples, son of a postal worker and a longtime friend of Clark’s who had been the only other Black student in Clark’s first grade class. It was Staples who convinced Clark to try Catherine O’Donnell’s art club when Clark got to Roxborough High School. And Clark also credits Staples’ thinking as an influence on his later progressive politics.

O’Donnell was one white teacher who was supportive of Clark from early on. She liked bold artistic statements, possibly related to her visual impairment, and she appreciated Clark’s work and told him he would be an important illustrator one day. She also gave him carfare to attend Saturday classes at the Fleisher Art Memorial and the Graphic Sketch Club. This assistance helped validate the hard work Clark put into his art at even this young age, and one of his illustrations was accepted by Saint Nicholas children’s magazine several years before he finished high school. This c. 1933 effort was his first published work.

Soft-spoken and unassuming but constantly calculating, Clark did not allow the racism he continually experienced in his early years to either limit his goals or distort his priorities. When Miss Frances Clark (no relation), the white high school teacher responsible for the art scholarships, refused to pass his name on simply because he was Black (the only non-white student in his 78 member graduating class), be went to the school principal and forced the issue. He got the recommendation and the four­ year tuition scholarship, which was the only way he could have gone to art school and become a professional artist.

For Clark, being “independent’; meant diligence and taking advantage of the choices that presented themselves. When a high school teacher made a general request to the seniors for submissions for the class poem, Clark went to work creating one. None of the other students took up this extra assignment, and Clark’s industriousness and entry got him this poetry honor.

“Zebra” by Claude Clark
14 x 22 inches oil painting on board — framed (1943) available at shopbaia.com

Clark’s joy at his June, 1935 high school graduation and the attention generated by the yearbook publication of his poem as well as his illustrations (he was the sole yearbook artist) was counteracted a month later by the unexpected  and painful death of his mother in childbirth during her 14th pregnancy. It was a predictably difficult time for Clark. But his father called him in and told him that at the end he had promised Clark’s mother he would support Clark’s desire to go to art school. His father, disdainful of the usefulness of formal education, kept his word and every day provided the .15 carfare for Clark to get to the school.

Clark viewed adversity as a hurdle to be leaped and not a wall to block progression. Thru his high school years, his home had no electricity and his eyes were damaged using the light from kerosene lamps. But the first month after getting into art school, he got eyeglasses, and nearly all his paintings have been done under natural light. Clark’s favorite high school art teacher had one glass eye, and he figured if she did not let that handicap stop her, no less significant eye problem was going to inhibit him.

From 1935 to 1939, Clark attended the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts but then connected with the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Though he had wavered in adolescence between being a writer or an artist, that first year at PMSIA he made a clear choice. While he did encounter virulent racial hostility from some teachers like watercolor instructor Frank Copeland, he came across positive  response in others like Earl Horter, who was generally supportive, Henry Pitz, who bad the most influence on his figurative work, and Franklin Watkins, who inspired in him the freedom of painting.

Clark got the painting prize his third year and Walkins purchased four or five of his students pieces. Also, Clark was introduced to van Gogh’s handling of the still life, which is at the heart of Clark’s approach to drawing. Without the basic methods, techniques, and practice he got at art school, he feels he would not have been an artist.

Clark also encountered other Black art students there, from Paul Keene, with whom he used to argue about labor unions, to William Tasker, in whose paintings Clark saw the images for his own subsequent jitterbugs piece, and Donald Peterson, later an architect and one of several students who suggested to Clark that he apply to The Barnes Foundation for further study. Most of the students felt that the art school was inadequate to fulfill all one’s artistic needs.

Claude Clark working with Dox Thrash

Clark originally applied to Barnes in 1938 but missed his appointment so reapplied and began in 1939. With its eclectic collection ranging from European Impressionism to American material culture, all  hung side-by-side, he would continue studying art history and aesthetic philosophy at the Foundation until 1944. There Clark saw in African art what he had seen in the work of van Gogh in the handling of the pyramid, sphere, and cylinder forms. He also ended up helping get his wife and several other Blacks admitted to the program, and Barnes himself became friendly with Clark.

But what Clark needed most after finishing art school in 1939 was a job, which he could not find no matter how hard he searched. He adamantly believed in the rights of  Blacks, the poor, and workers, and got arrested that summer picketing a white-owned delicatessen that was patronized largely by Blacks but which refused to hire them. It was in talking with his fellow protestors that he first heard about the Artists Union and how the union could get people work with the Federal Art Project of the WPA (Works Progress Administration). So he contacted the union and they got him the job which he kept for three years from 1939 until the position was dissolved in 1942. His older brother John Henry Clark, Jr. eventually got on the Art Project also, in the mural section.

While the most obvious placement for Clark was in the painting section where watercolorist Sam Brown had worked, he wanted a medium where he could reach the most people. Clark wanted to tell as much as he could of the story of the common man and of labor. So he looked to prints d joined the graphic arts shop, where he would work side by side with Raymond Steth, with whom he would later share a studio, and Georgia-born, Dox Thrash, who discovered a new carborundum printing technique while employed there. Clark, like others at the shop, would come to experiment with his own uses for the new technique including a color etching process. But the young Clark’s respect for the older artist Thrash was severely tempered by what he saw as Thrash’s meanness in acting as a government informant on who attended the Artists Union meetings.

The labor movement yielded another significant benefit for Clark. Not having dated through art school, at a labor alliance social affair in late summer or early fall, 1941, he met Effie Mary Lockhart, the attractive California-born strong-willed intelligent daughter of an AME minister. They would become engaged the next year and marry in June of .1943.

With his art Clark wanted to keep on giving to his Black community. After his WPA position ended, he took over from John Harris as art instructor at the Wharton Settlement, a social service agency in North Philadelphia where he worked with people from ages 6 to 60. He provided private art lessons in his home in West Philadelphia from 1944 to 1946 where his pupils included Reba Dickerson Hill. And he was able to get a job teaching art at the junior high school level in the Philadelphia public schools, which he did from 1945 until 1948.

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Clark had wanted to learn all he could so he could give it to someone else. And while at Sulzberger Junior High School he got one of his follow instructors Beatrice Overton lo come in early before school began and teach him some art issues. This fortysomething Black woman was also exhibiting her art at the time and Clark found the interaction stimulating.

Clark still managed to maintain a full and varied exhibiting schedule for his own work. His paintings could be seen in Philadelphia in the large annual art shows of the Pyramid Club, an organization of professional African American men. And he was included in some of the most important nationally recognized exhibitions of the time, ‘ with two pieces in the Albany (NY) Institute of History and Art’s 1945 presentation “The Negro Artist Comes of Age.”

His inaugural solo show was at the Artists’ Gallery of Philip Ragan Associates in Philadelphia in 1944, the first Black artist so featured by Dorothy Grafly. Later, c. 1951, he had a solo exhibition at the Wharton Settlement His first New York solo show was at the Bonestell Gallery in 1945, followed with ones at the Roko Gallery in 1946 and 1947. For his 1944 solo show at his alma mater Roxborough High School, he got Albert Barnes to come to speak to the students. When Barnes purchased his painting “Cutting Pattern” out of the 1944 Artists’ Gallery show, Clark became just the second living African American artist, after Horace Pippin, to have his work displayed on the Barnes Foundation’s walls.

Clark’s first art sale had been made as a child at his local African Methodist Episcopal Church (like painter Horace Pippin, a later friend of Clark’s, and just as the AME church had since at least 1830 supported the aspirations of other young Black artists in Philadelphia like Henry 0. Tanner). From church he learned about focusing and using prayer, which Clark sees as concentration on a problem until it is solved. And in church Clark got his idea of helping his people, whether by going to Africa or going South. ·

Increasingly in the 1940s this latter concept dominated his concerns and he looked to the historically-Black colleges. He wrote to many of them seeking employment and finally got firm offers from two. Though Jackson State College in Mississippi offered a bit more salary, he settled on Talladega College in Alabama because a house came with the package and he felt this physical situation was better suited for a family that now included a child.

“Guttersnipe” is an oil painting on wood panel done in 1942 by Claude Clark. It is part of the M H de Young Memorial Museum collection in San Francisco, CA

Clark went to Talladega in 1948, originally to do an art workshop. But at the request of the students, many of whom were older war veterans, he expanded the offerings and exposed them to African art and whatever African American art he could get Student demand eventually required him to set up a full-fledged art department. Clark never stopped his own work either. He won a Carnegie Fellowship in 1950 and spent that summer in the Caribbean. mainly Puerto Rico, painting flowers. which he saw as belonging to everyone, and landscapes, which arc for him universal.

After the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, Clark wanted to send out a “Goodwill’ exhibit for Talladega to show the country that Blacks were not mad at anyone. Though he realized later that was the wrong approach, he pulled together 30 of his oil paintings, first for an exhibit on the Talladega campus. Then he sent half of them southwest and west and the other half east, north and west. Intended primarily for Black colleges, they ended up being shown at a number of white colleges and museums as well on their three-year tour. Starting in 1954, they hit a combined total of 47 venues in 24 different states, ending as one exhibit again at Sacramento (CA) Stale College in the spring of 1957. It was a monumental logistical undertaking for Clark and his wife but they persevered. ·

At the end of the spring term in I955, to the surprise of any, Clark decided  it was time to move on. Without another employment offer, he resigned his Talladega position and headed with his family to his wife’s home state of California. That fall, he registered at Sacramento State College in order to finish his undergraduate degree. It was very difficult economically and he had to take jobs like teaching crafts at the local “Y”. But by mid-1957, he started teaching at State and had his degree by June, 1958.

That fall, 1958, he moved  with his family to Oakland, CA and began a Masters degree program at the University of California where he walked the mile to the Berkeley campus from his home. Majoring in painting with a minor in social studies (including heavy emphasis on anthropology), he finished the course requirements the Spring of 1961 and got his degree the Spring of 1962.

It was in his Berkeley period that the form of his painting loosened up and his palette lightened as he experimented heavily with abstraction. He continued to look for a college teaching position while  he worked at an Alameda County juvenile justice facility teaching arts and crafts. He stayed at Juvenile Hall for 9 years working full-time from 1958 to 1967 as he developed the “Scattershot”, program to offer the predominantly Black and Chicano detainees mental stimulation with visual forms.

Clark first heard about the Black Panther Party around 1966, just about the time the Peralta System of community colleges came into being. The Panthers made an opening for Black educators like Clark to get jobs at these schools and Clark began teaching at Oakland’s Merritt College on January 3, 1968 (staying until he retired in June 1981). The Panthers insisted on a curriculum relevant to Black culture, and that period is when Clark really was able to utilize his background knowledge in African and African American Art.

Working with his artist son Claude Lockhart Clark, who did all the illustration drawings, Clark wrote A Black Art Perspective: A Black Teacher’s Guide to a Black Visual Art Curriculum. In this 1969 volume, Clark offered educators a 136-page annotated outline for preparing and presenting courses in African and African American visual culture from a Black point of view. A new updated edition is currently being prepared with the help of Clark’s wife. ·

The main thing Clark has wanted to do is to teach about life, because he thought he knew something about that, and to do it from his own people’s point of view. Unlike what most of the white teachers of his youth tried to force upon him, he believes that Black is a culture and not just a color. And he feels that to change anything, one has to “think Black and dream Black.” His yearning since about the age of ten to see his ‘brothers and sisters” in Africa was finally realized in 1976 and expanded two years later on a sabbatical. He still likes to wear at least some item of clothing with an African pattern so that the pleasant memory of heritage is continually with him.

Clark wants his art to be a record of the era, showing the kinds of times in which people are living. He does not do commissioned portraits of “society types” but instead prefers character studies of everyday people, He has done about I000 paintings in his life. Usually he does not have unfinished paintings, because be tries to finish things on the spot. And he gives all his energy to a painting initially.

He always knows what he is going to do because he first thinks, and then does it. For Clark there is no word greater than “think”. His idea of education or life is to first concentrate and then do it And he has struggled to be as independent as possible because he knows there is a price to pay if you are not.

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