In late 2004 and early 2005, the Corcoran Gallery of Art hosted a major exhibition of works culled from the holdings of one of America’s premier collectors, Judy Norrell. Entitled “Common Ground: Discovering Community in Art,” the show purported to “illustrate the essential common thread that unites people across all cultures.” What is that common link? It may very well be the role that others play in helping all individuals overcome the challenges that life places in our path. In other words, it is the added value of “community.”
That concept of community or the common participation in a particular cultural, social or recreational activity is certainly paramount in the works of self-taught African-American artist William H. Clarke, whose paintings are currently on display at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta. Many of the 20 works – mostly oil and acrylic images on paper – are part of the purchase of more than 1,000 items from the Norrell Collection that the museum acquired in 2007.
Clarke’s prominence in the Norrell holdings is not surprising when one considers that, according to museum director Kevin Grogan, the Washington D.C.-based collector also owns a farm in rural southwest Virginia, not far from where Clarke himself grew up in Nottaway County. In fact, it can be argued that Judy Norrell “discovered” William H. Clarke or that, at the very least, her ardent support of his creativity made it possible for him to reach a larger audience.
Entitled “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” the current show features a host of communal activities that add meaning to people’s lives by bringing them together in pursuit of a common goal, whether that objective involves the simple mastery of a childhood pastime or the pursuit of answers to some of life’s great mysteries.
Works exploring the two ends of this spectrum are among my favorites in the exhibition. The first piece – most of Clarke’s paintings carry no titles – depicts three shirtless boys in single file, rolling automobile tires down a country lane. In the background is a two-room unpainted residence, an example of a building design that architectural historians refer to as “vernacular” because it is the product of no formal plan but is instead the response by the natives of a particular locality to the practical demands of shelter and work. What makes this particular painting “sing” is its visual rhythm, established by three horizontal patterns of design. Parallel to the three human figures in a row – alternating, from left to right, tire and boy and tire and boy and tire and boy – are two lines of fence, above and below the children at play and, above the single-file procession, utility lines suspended from poles. The playful figures read like notes on a musical score with the fence lines and utility lines as the staff or stave.
On the other end of the spectrum – as far from play as it is possible to get – is an untitled burial scene from 1998. In this essentially triangular composition, a row of mourners forms a lateral “V” rounding the corner of a graveyard, with the umbrella-wielding preacher in the foreground, the immediate family in mournful display rounding the corner, and the pallbearers bringing up the rear. In the center of the triangle is the prepared gravesite, soon to be the focus of the procession now in progress. Across the whole surface of the image – this one painted on cardboard – are flecks of white, representing the falling snow for this is a burial service in the dead of winter. For the artist himself, who grew up and still resides in the mountainous corner of his native state, snow has a particular resonance. In this frozen precipitation, Clarke sees God’s grace: “with his hands God sprinkled snowflakes softly over the countryside.”
Most of Clarke’s paintings might be termed memory pieces, visual reminiscences of his personal past. Here too there are echoes of the show’s title “We’ll Understand It Better By and By.” Included is the image of a little boy writing multiple times on the chalkboard “I will not…”; the next word in this punitive pledge is not clear, it is either “dream” or “draw,” both of which have meaning regarding the trajectory of his later life. Is this a recollection of early punishment for a natural inclination or talent that would bear fruit in later years? There is also a reference to legalized racial segregation in the form of a bifurcated image – on one side a young black boy sitting in a doorway marked “colored only,” on the right half a white girl next to a door designated “white only.” Between them, abandoned, rest two red wagons. Surely this is meant to be a sad reminder of a time dominated by a misguided attempt to deny common ground.
This small but evocative exhibition of paintings by William H. Clarke will be on view at the Morris until July 21. For more information, call 706-724-7501 or visit the museum on the web at www.themorris.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. For his work as a cultural affairs columnist, the Greater Augusta Arts Council honored him with its 2013 Media Award this week.