Every Tuesday for the duration of Waterloo Festival 2020, we'll be meeting an artist who either lives in or is connected to Waterloo. Chris Clarke, artist and teacher is our guest this week.
I believe it was always on the cards that I would become a teacher; the fact that I became specifically an art teacher was in large part because of the influence and guidance of Mr Grant. He taught me at the Technical & Modern School that I attended in the early ‘60s. Looking back, I suppose he was a bit of a role model. I can remember the way that he dressed: tweed jacket and brightly polished brogues – even the heady mixture of cigarette smoke and aftershave that surrounded him is firmly in my memory, if not something I emulated in my own career. Most importantly, I remember the way he taught the subject: exhorting his classes to look, to “draw what you see, not what you think you see,” and to experiment with a multitude of techniques and materials. He was the person who, at a parents’ evening, took my parents to one side and gently suggested that I should go to art school, and perhaps follow a similar path to himself. They, rather reluctantly it must be said, agreed.
I managed to pass a few O-Levels, moving on to the local tech to do just two A-Levels: Art and History of Art. These qualifications gained me a place at Bath Academy of Art, based at Corsham Court, a stately home between Chippenham and Bath. During the next five years, I was educated free of charge, with a maintenance grant and an allowance for materials – how fortunate and how different to the mindset today! In both establishments, I was surrounded by teachers, men and women, who were passionate about their subject and very much what I would have described then as “real artists”, they had exhibitions, they wrote and illustrated books, they made sculpture, and they expected a very high standard of commitment from all of us.
In addition to this creative busy-ness at Corsham, one day a week was dedicated exclusively to exploring ways of teaching art: how lessons had to be introduced with visual aids, how exciting subject matter could be conjured up for other people. Each student in my class planned and then taught lessons to pupils at local schools, and these were judged by our peers. We were also visited by our tutors when on teaching practice, and the work our students did was expected to be mounted and displayed to make an impact on their wider school community.
As for the artists I admired at this time, names such as Rauschenberg, Riley, the Concrete Poets, and Canaletto, spring to mind. One Wednesday, for example, I spent sitting on a traffic island in the middle of a street in Bath with my head under a black cloth, drawing the scene before me with the aid of a camera obscura, Canaletto style! Vividly I also recall the excitement of receiving as type-written text “Quack Cures Pond”, from the poet John Furnival, with instructions to somehow present these three words in a way that embellished the wordplay and added to the joke.
But did all this prepare me for teaching classes of pupils of varying abilities and interests, term-in, term-out? Did it prepare me for designing sets for school plays, posters for school events, choosing colour schemes for classrooms, or designing a mural for the school dining hall? The short answer would be no! But the basics were there and I learned quickly on the job, hungrily picking up tips from colleagues and, crucially, learning as much from my students as I taught them. In over 50 years of teaching art, I have taught in just three schools, rising through the ranks with various additional responsibilities and commitments, which obviously had implications for my artistic output.
My chief interests have always been literally two-dimensional, with an emphasis on shape, colour and design. Apart from drawing, and painting with watercolour and gouache, my most significant preoccupation has been lino printing. This penchant stems from the chance finding of a large Albion press languishing in a classroom. I gradually taught myself how to use this contraption, and ever since lino prints have featured prominently in my art. The other medium I began to take up around this time was sewing, and in particular tapestry, always seeing it in my mind’s eye as if I were painting with threads. In the pursuit of this “craft” I had the good fortune to find a marvellous teacher, Miss Angela Flexam. She worked out that what I needed most was technique instruction to realise my designs. Presented with a drawn inscription, she taught me a different stitch for each individual letter. From then on, there have been few days in which I have not spent some time sewing, and I would add that even in a busy teaching schedule I could always find time to pick up the canvas and threads living beside my favourite armchair for a minute or two’s respite.
Over the course of the last 30 years, it is the work of Edward Bawden that has been my most abiding influence. His strong sense of design, love of letter forms, his watercolours and his prints, are a source of constant inspiration. I met him once in his home, surrounded by wallpapers of his own design and with his prints hanging on the walls; every object on display I wanted for my own! His love of lustre jugs full of flowers, and objects of no apparent use but beautiful in their own right, sparked the habit of a lifetime traipsing around dimly-lit junk shops for my own collection of objects to draw and display. The crack or chip is not important, nor the object’s monetary value – the value comes from finding the perfect setting and home for each item. And, for much the same reasons as underpin my admiration for Bawden, I also became entranced by the work and life of Eric Ravilious. They were great friends and collaborators, having met at the Royal College of Art where they were taught by Paul Nash, and when Eric disappeared on a drawing mission at the end of the Second World War, Edward was devastated.
(left to right)
4 - Jug of flowers (Multiblock lino, 2019)
5 - Flowers in Sri Lanka (Multiblock lino, 2020)
6 - Mugs & Jugs (Multiblock lino, 2019)
My move to London in the ‘70s was an adventure of its own. The excitement, the buzz, and the energy of the capital rejuvenated my work. Exhibitions, museums and galleries to visit; so much to inspire and invigorate, and I now expanded my habit of keeping sketch books, holiday journals, and collecting postcards and scraps for collage. These fragments and mementos could be endlessly visited and revisited – I am very much a process person in that I love to see the development from initial idea, through various stages, to its culmination in a finished piece. The process is as important to me as the result. Here I want to mention John Hoyland, an artist I have always valued. A few years ago, at the Newport Street Gallery, I saw a wonderful exhibition of his work staged by Damien Hirst. The paintings were of course memorable, but one phrase in the handout to the exhibition has stayed with me ever since and reflects what my own endeavours have perhaps always been about:
“Hoyland progressed through multiple stages of investigation in his work, each of which can be seen on some level as a negotiation between the exercise of control and embrace of chance…”
During the lockdown, I am experiencing as never before an uninterrupted span of time to explore and work through numerous and different projects, including ones which respond to and exemplify that Hoyland negotiation. I have had the time to take my time: to draw, to plan, to experiment, and to observe. It has been a revelation and a joy. Although the horrors of Covid-19 are ever-present, two things have kept me grounded: the love and support of friends and family, and the opportunity to do my own work every day. People say, once a teacher always a teacher and, although officially retired, I am now also teaching and working alongside adults who are my friends as well as students. This is a different experience and one I much enjoy. I look forward to a time when we can again meet and work with each other, and also to showing my newest work to those who seem to appreciate it.
with thanks to Sophia Clarke,
19th May 2020
You can follow Chris Clarke on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/chrisclarkejeppe/