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Celebrating a way of life through art

William Henry Clarke will be among the 80 artists exhibiting at this Saturday’s Art on the Half Shell festival in Urbanna.

by Amy Rose Dobson

William Henry Clarke is a folk artist with a mission. Baptized in a muddy pond in Nottoway County, he spent his youth watching the traditions of black southerners slowly ebb away. His paintings capture the stories and images of his childhood and celebrate a way of life that only exists in people’s memory.

When he isn’t recording history with his paintbrush and oils, he can be found coaching a local basketball team or cooking up a good ol’ feast. Currently based in Blackstone, Clarke will be exhibiting his work at this Saturday’s Art on the Half Shell festival in Urbanna.

A lot of your paintings deal with rites of passage—such as baptisms, funerals, and weddings. Looking back do you see any of your own rites of passage in becoming an artist?

Clarke: The first one is when I started to see myself as a professional. For me it was after one of my first shows in Arkansas. At the time I was working as a head lumber grader and they wouldn’t give me Friday off to fly to the show. I had to buck work. On my way back I started thinking, “Here I am rushing home on a Sunday to get back to a place that doesn’t care about me being an artist.” Right then I had to make my decision and I went in on Monday and told them I was done. I didn’t have enough money saved up for much more than a month of expenses, but I still told them not to call me and ask me to come back.

What gave you the courage to become an artist in the first place?

Clarke: Coming up my family didn’t have a lot of money—we had to walk a mile to the nearest well for all our water. We did everything to earn a living—sharecropping, tobacco, factory work. I worked with my grandmother in the summers and she always told me, “Don’t be afraid to try nuthin’.” Part of the reason I do so many paintings of country stores is because she ran one for a while.

As a basketball coach you have to develop strategies for getting the ball down the court. Sometimes that ends up being harder than actually getting the ball in the basket. In terms of your job, are there parts that are harder than the work itself?

Clarke: Definitely the competition. At the first gallery I started in, my work was on the very top floor in the far corner. The right person found it and eventually my work made its way front and center. You have to trust people you have never met before. I do a lot of workshops at schools and I always tell the kids don’t be afraid to step out and be different. Believe in yourself.

One part of the book “To Kill A Mockingbird” is about finding out that something you were afraid of turns out to be nothing but a good friend. Has that happened in you becoming an artist?

Clarke: I was afraid of stepping out onto the stage, stepping out into the white world. By that I mean not having good table manners, not knowing which fork to use or how to put on a tux. I worried about representing myself and my family right. I went to one restaurant and the person I was with had to order for me because I didn’t understand half the menu. But it has all turned out okay.

What has been your proudest moment?

Clarke: At the University of South Carolina I co-exhibited my work with another folk artist, Eldridge Bagley, and we walked into the room and saw our names on a huge banner under the exhibit’s title, “Brothers on a Journey.” He’s a country boy like myself and we were both wiping our eyes fighting off the tears.

What is your kryptonite?

Clarke: People. Because I try to help everybody. I have to watch myself since sometimes people take advantage of me. I had to get out of one gallery because the curator was stealing money from me. This went from a love of drawing to a business proposition, so that comes with the territory.

What is the opposite of your kryptonite—what gives you strength?

Clarke: People again. I want to see people loving, I mean really loving, my work. If they compliment me and really mean it, that means more than money. I love talking with people who buy my stuff. I learn so much from them. Especially the elderly people who tell me one of my pieces reminds them of something from their life. I want to leave something behind after I’m gone, and seeing my impact is where the fire, the passion comes in.

About the author: Amy Rose Dobson is a freelance writer who divides her time between Urbanna and Northern Virginia in search of interesting people with a story to tell. She writes for several national publications and has found the best part of the job is hearing the story behind the one that runs in print. This gave her the idea for a column about how people apply metaphors to their lives, and thus this column was born. 

posted 05.06.2009

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