An Artist Who Lives and Breathes Her Art
Issue   |   Fri, 10/18/2013 - 00:27
Photo Courtesy of Nako Wowsugi
Clark believes that everything she does contributes to her art, whether it be working or talking with friends.

Sonya Clark ’89, award-winning artist and designer, is always making art. As the current chair of the Department of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth Univ., Clark finds that everyday conversations with both students and colleagues, whether or not they concern art specifically, contribute significantly to her artwork. Clark’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world, and over the years she has been awarded the Pollock-Krasner Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Residency in Italy, a Red Gate Residency in China and, most recently, a United States Artists Fellowship, among various other honors. After leaving Amherst College, she earned her BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and her MFA from the Cranbook Academy of Art.

Throughout the entirety of her career as an artist, Clark has hung on to her experiences at Amherst and implements what she learned here in her approach to crafting her artwork.

Life At Amherst
Clark didn’t take any studio art classes when she was at Amherst. She was a psychology major.

“My Amherst education was absolutely essential to how I practice as an artist now,” Clark said.

She found the critical thought and reflection that Amherst students employ daily both in and out of the classroom essential to her initial development as an artist. Amherst equipped her with the “ability to think critically and to think connectively,” and because of that, she “can’t imagine only having gone to art school.”

When she speaks with colleagues and students at VCU today, Clark remarks that she sounds “like someone who went to a liberal arts school,” and that the liberal arts way of thinking is “at the root” of the way she approaches issues. She thinks that her husband, Darryl Harper ’90, who also attended Amherst, (he currently works at VCU as well, as the chair of the Music Department) would say the same thing about his music practice. Prior to attending Amherst, Clark attended high school at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., which she says was good preparation for Amherst because it also encouraged deep critical thinking.

It was at Amherst where Clark took many Black Studies classes alongside her psychology major, and she began to think about the psychological and cultural meanings of the objects people make. Under the guidance of Professors Andrea Rushing and Rowland Biodun, both of whom still teach in the Black Studies department and of whom she speaks very fondly, Clark “became interested in the things that people make and what that indicates about their culture.” Now, she says, those ideas would be organized under something along the lines of “material studies,” but there were no fields like that when she was in school.

Clark was an active member of the Black Student Union while at Amherst, and also became the Residential Counselor (RC) of Drew House. Her involvement in campus life resulted in her having friends from all over campus, and she remarks that there were “certainly a lot of Amherst people” at her wedding. Although Clark did not take studio art classes while at Amherst or think of herself as an artist in the professional sense of the word at the time, she did utilize her position as an RC to foster the artistic community at the College. She organized art projects like group quilt making in Drew, and also held art shows. In this way, art permeated her life and her way of thinking while at Amherst, despite her academic focus on psychology.

Clark’s parents rewarded her with an arts-studies trip to South Africa upon her graduation from Amherst College. She spent six weeks on the Ivory Coast and was hooked before she came back home. The trip was “all about making work, understanding culture and studying with artists and craftspeople who were engaged in making things for and about their culture.” It was then that she knew she would try to go to art school.

“I was good at math,” Clark said. “I think people hoped that I would become a math major or some sort of engineer … it took me a while to listen to my own voice.”

Once she received her BFA from the Arts Institute of Chicago, Clark felt that her artistic foundations were solidified, and she began to more seriously embrace her professional identity as an artist.

Clark’s Approach to Art
When asked about the routine of her artistic practice today, Clark replied, “I don’t think I’m ever not making art.”

Her daily interactions at work, at home or with friends all contribute to the ideas that are constantly developing in her mind.
“To me, a lot of the making happens when I’m thinking about something or when I’m in conversation with someone or when I’m reading something,” Clark said.

By the time Clark sits down in the studio to actually craft, “the genesis of the idea is probably already there in part.” She also finds that studio assistants (she usually has two other people present assisting her with the materials) can contribute greatly to the development of her creative ideas. The dialogue that they have together in the studio also becomes a part of the art making and can often be the source of “the next generation of ideas” for Clark.

Clark’s work has its focal point in Afro-Caribbean heritage, and her trademark has become the use of unorthodox materials such as combs, human hair and beads in order to address themes of race, culture and class. Her exhibit this past summer, “Sonya Clark: Material Reflex,” at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, Calif., was very well received. Dealing with these very themes, the exhibit included pieces such as “Afro Abe II,” a piece that transforms a five-dollar bill through the application of hand-woven hair on Lincoln’s head and “3/5 (Three-Fifths),” in which three long braids are attached to a (presumably white man’s) dress shirt in order to allude to the Great Compromise of 1787 which declared slaves as three-fifths of a person with regards to the voting process.

Material in Clark’s Work
Ashley Kistler, Director of the Anderson Gallery at VCU, collaborated with Clark on her Beaded Prayers Project, which came to the Gallery in early 2009. The project, a traveling exhibition comprised of over 5,000 beaded packets made by people from all over the world, was inspired by African traditions involving creating protective amulets that contain powerful objects, like medicines or sacred texts.

The Beaded Prayers Project was one that Clark “shepherded for many years,” Kistler said, and it “involved the participation of people in many communities around the world.”

Kistler enjoys working with Clark in the various different contexts that her position as Director of the Anderson Gallery allows and feels that Clark has been “a fantastic addition” to VCUarts.

“My work is very concerned with the materials I use,” Clark said.

She thinks of making art as “a repository” of the liberal arts “way of thinking,” and, as such, is the way in which she is able to “bring ideas together.”

In a piece written by Kistler in the exhibition catalogue that accompanied the presentation of some of Clark’s work at the Southwest School of Art in 2012, Kistler attested that “Clark’s authentic obsession [with the work that she does] springs in part from the potent, multisensory memories of having her hair combed and braided as a child ... the feeling of being literally tethered to that person while her hair was dressed.”

Creating art, according to Clark, is her “way of researching things” and further learning about topics and ideas that she is interested in. Clark, and the art that she makes, is “informed by the history” of the materials that she uses; although her materials are always surprising and unusual, when her pieces are on display, one gets the feeling that they could not have been done any other way.

Clark believes that artistic failures are like nurse logs; her mistakes can give life to ideas for new and better pieces, much like the way a fallen, dead log in the forest can be the source of moss and other new life forms.

“Failure is a great thing to have in my case,” Clark said. “Because it can promote new ideas, if you’re paying attention.”
Because of this, “where the artwork begins is hard to say.” Clark doesn’t think of her artistic practice as something that begins when she steps into the studio and ends when she steps out of it. It is, rather, a way of thinking, and a way of life.

Working at VCU
Clark has been the chair of the Department of Craft/Material Studies at VCU, one of the best art schools in the nation, for the past eight years. VCUarts is ranked as the number one national public university in the arts, and has been ranked, with regards to specific materials, by U.S. News and World Reports as #4 in Fiber, #5 in Glass, #10 in Metals and #12 in Clay. With a student cohort of approximately 30,000, about ten percent are in the School of the Arts. Clark speaks very enthusiastically about her work at VCU, as she feels that the arts department itself is something of “a collaborative artwork.” She very much enjoys the process of figuring out, with her colleagues, who will be granted entry into the department each year, and playfully likens it to choosing who the members of her “band” will be; they need to deliberate on “what kind of music” they are going to play, and “how to keep that music fresh.”

Clark’s friend and fellow alumnus, Paul Monroe ’71, claims that both Clark and her husband “have given new energy to both the VCU and the Richmond art scene,” as Clark is “an unfailingly energetic and positive teacher and example for her students.” Monroe’s observations of Clark’s enthusiasm and work ethic as chair at VCU certainly mesh with Clark’s attitude towards her job; she is full of positive things to say. She loves that everyone who she works with “is an artist,” so while they may be “solving what might seem like the most straightforward, administrative of problems,” (she remarks that problems are what they “thrive on”), there is never a dull moment. Clark’s zeal for both her art and her work at VCU — which are, more often than not, one and the same — is sure to propel her towards further great success in the art world, and we will be fortunate to witness the results.