Artist Emery Clark produces her pieces through a painstaking technique of combining photographic images with pastels, charcoal, colored pencils, or watercolors.
Emery Clark’s paintings and mixed media drawings are visual poetry that speaks lyrically of place and environment, especially of South Louisiana, the Gulf Coast, and her native New Orleans. Her works are accomplished through a painstaking technique of using photographic images combined with pastels, charcoal, colored pencils, or watercolors to create impressions and photo-realistic illusions. In recent years, she has worked within the medical community to explore the use of art to promote healing and to relieve patients’ pain and stress.
Clark, who was born in New Orleans on September 12, 1950, currently resides in Mandeville. She is a graduate of Newcomb College in New Orleans, where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1972. She also studied art at the Boston University School of Fine Arts in Massachusetts, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and Tulane University, where she received a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1981. From 1974 to 1976 she worked through the National Endowment for the Arts’ Artist-in-Residence Program at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, or NOCCA. She also served as the Friends of NOCCA’s first president. In 1977, Clark was a cofounder of the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, which has been the focal point in the city’s contemporary art movement. She also has been active in merging health care with the arts. Beginning in 2003 and continuing to the present, Clark has worked with Ochsner Health System in using the arts to transform and create a life-enhancing, multisensory approach to healing. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she also worked with the staff, architects, and designers at the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery and later the St. Charles Surgical Center, both in New Orleans, to create art works, including the installation Calm after the Storm, and workshops for patients. In 2009 and 2010, Clark collaborated with architects and designers in writing an art plan for the new Veterans Administration Hospital to be built in New Orleans.
The educational experience that most influenced her work and thoughts about art and its social uses was the Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship she received in 1972 during her senior year at Newcomb. With fellowship in hand, she traveled North Africa, the Near East, the Yucatán Peninsula, and Europe to study how the cultures in these areas use art and architecture to create a spiritual and aesthetic environment in people’s everyday lives. “In the Islamic culture, many architectural works are built in absolute harmony with the landscape,” Clark said. “Entire façades of buildings are artworks. The line between art and architecture and art in everyday experience really isn’t drawn. In Western cultures, art tends to be removed from everyday experience. Even public art tends to be a wall or a sculpture.” Clark says she and other artists are trying to put art back in public spaces for all to enjoy.
One such example of Clark’s public art was her monumental painting NOMA Nile, which she created for the blockbuster exhibit Treasures of Tutankhamun at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1977. With the help of two hundred volunteers and four hundred gallons of donated paint, Clark punctuated the show with her own River Nile painted on the half-mile-long Lelong Drive that leads from North Carrolton Avenue and Bayou St. John to the museum. It was a dazzling array of ultramarine blue, lapis lazuli, turquoise blue, emerald green, magenta, and gold.
Another of her environmental art projects that received national attention was ArtCars, which grew out of her master’s degree thesis at Tulane. In 1981, she invited fifty artists to build and decorate 32nd-scale model cars, making any artistic statement that they fancied. “The car is so much a part of American culture,” she said. “If every car were an artwork, every expressway would be a rotating show, every garage would be a gallery, and every parking lot would be a museum. It was about individual expression.” The show was so successful that it toured the nation for eight years with hundreds of cars made by artists from all over the country. From the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, it eventually traveled to P.S.1 in New York City, the Tweed Gallery in New Jersey, and art spaces in Miami, Florida; Lake Charles and Lafayette, Louisiana; and Pensacola, Florida.
Describing Clark’s work in 1986, former New Orleans Museum of Art Director E. John Bullard drew historical parallels between Clark’s work and nineteenth-century Louisiana landscape painters: “It relates very strongly to the Louisiana landscape tradition in depicting the uniquely watery landscapes of this part of the country. It’s a tradition that really begins here in the nineteenth century with Richard Clague, the father of Louisiana landscape paintings. Clark updates the tradition in a rather special medium. She’s developed a style that’s uniquely her own and that shows great integrity and personality.”
Clark is very much aware of local influences on her work. Her unique and graceful style, and perhaps her passionate artistic love affair with nature, has been shaped and nurtured by South Louisiana’s almost surreal landscape—huge, gnarled oaks, twisting bayous, and dank, jungle-like cypress and moss swamps.
In a 1986 interview, Clark described how those influences subtly shaped her life. “I have become more aware of the environment of my childhood,” she said. “I think that the best art you can have is something that’s truly an expression of all your experiences. I think about my childhood in Louisiana, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast. I used to go with my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents to Barataria Bay, to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain when it wasn’t developed, and to the panhandle of Florida. Those were very much everyday experiences for me. I remember as a child seeing a lot of the things I’m dealing with now—the beautiful abstractions, the light on the water. I remember spending a lot of time sitting under the fishing camp looking at those patterns. This work wouldn’t have developed if I were living somewhere else. Something different would have evolved. I think I still go back to the source of inspiration and I think it is very accessible here. I feel what has evolved is a very personal expression. New Orleans is a very fertile place to work. It allows you to develop in a natural way and I don’t think there are the pressures here that exist in other states in the country. What develops here is more uniquely yours.”
Clark’s mixed-media paintings have the same visual impact as the work of the French impressionists of the last century. Like the impressionists, she is able to combine realism and the abstract qualities of light. Clark masterfully creates the effect through photography, printing large black-and-white, silver print photographs and later color images on treated watercolor paper, canvas, or linen. She then adds her own impressions of color and light with pastels, colored pencils, or watercolors. As with the impressionists, light in its abstract forms is the important element. “The landscapes and seascapes really deal with both the abstraction and the reality within the subject I choose,” she explains. “My work is very much about the environment and I choose the sites I work from for the specific qualities of light and color. I think about the abstraction that creates the reality of the piece I’m working on. I’m dealing with the light and shade, shadow and color. It’s more than just the literal object or view.”
Whether the subject is a moonlit seascape, the side of a building, or a painted avenue in front of a museum, art, Clark believes, enriches people’s lives. “One of the best things that art can do is to enable people to see things in a different way,” she says. “I just hope to share my experiences of what these sites are to me—the kind of mystery and wonder they evoke.”
Clark’s paintings are included in almost a hundred public and corporate collections across the nation, such as Citicorp, Coca Cola, the Virlane Foundation in New Orleans, Ochsner Health System, the New Orleans Museum of Art, IBM, Eastman Pharmaceuticals, and Chase Manhattan Bank. Her public installations can be found at Ochsner Health System centers in South Louisiana; Tammany Trace Art Park in Mandeville; and throughout New Orleans at such locations as the St. Charles Surgical Center, Louis Armstrong International Airport, the Louisiana Children’s Museum, City Park Carousel Garden, the Touro Medical Office Condominium Building, and the Orleans Criminal Court Building.
Clark’s extensive list of awards, honors, grants, and fellowships include the Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship (1972); Mary L.S. O’Neill Prize in Art, Newcomb College (1972); New Orleans Chamber of Commerce Quality of Life Award for environmental art (1973); National Endowment for the Arts Visiting-Artists-in-the-Schools Program in Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes (1973) and Orleans Parish Schools (1973–74); National Endowment for the Arts Artist-in-Residence Program at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (1974, 1976); Special Guest at the Aspen Institute for Humanities Studies (1974);Century Club Artist, New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center (1983); Outstanding Women in the Arts Visual Arts Award, New Orleans Young Women’s Christian Association (1988); A. Atwater Kent, Jr., First Prize at the “50th Annual National Exhibition of Contemporary American Paintings” organized by the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Florida (1988); and the Society for the Arts in Healthcare Blair L. Saddler First Place International Healing Arts Award for artists working in healthcare (2005).