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Gerald Clarke Jr.: The Contemporary Indian Experience Through Art

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Gerald Clarke Jr., Indian artist, runs about 65 head of cattle on his family's Cahuilla Reservation land near Anza in Riverside County. It's a balancing act, he says, especially during drought years, trying to match the size of the herd with the ability of the land to support it. In these dry years, 65 seems to be a sustainable number.

Clarke, 45, recently invested in a hay rake and baler and put up 1,000 bales this summer. There aren't many SoCal Indians left so committed to raising cattle, but Clarke's father was a cattleman, so he's bent on keeping up the family tradition. As a result, Clarke is equally comfortable with a paintbrush in hand, daubing acrylics on canvas, or wielding a pair of wire cutters restringing a barb wire fence. He's a working man. He plants orchards, splits cords of wood to heat his home, holds an annual round-up to brand his cattle, teaches art at Idyllwild Arts Academy, creates award-winning works of art. In 2007, he won the prestigious Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art. He's an Indian cowboy with art on his mind.

Ask him what his preferred medium is -- painting, drawing, sculpting, performance art (he's done it all) -- he'll say "the kitchen sink." He's a wild card, always experimenting, always switching it up. Once he made a series of road signs for the Cahuilla Reservation emblazoned with words from the Cahuilla language, words like Nesun e' elquish ("I am sad"), Nextaxmuqa ("I am singing"), Kimul Hakushwe ("The door is open"), Ivawen ("Be strong.") He placed them near his ranch road and at random roadside spots on the reservation. It was his off-beat version of an artsy statement, but he was hoping the signs might lend a little cultural pride to the place.

The fate of road signs on a reservation is dicey. Many of them get shot up, a handy target for target practice, and many of Clarke's artwork signs weren't spared. Except one. It was stolen, dug up by its concrete base and trucked off. Clarke was secretly pleased that a local coveted his sign. Even better, he put the word out that he'd like it back, and it anonymously reappeared. That is a reservation rarity.

These days, Clarke Jr. lives in his late father's reservation home, with his wife of more than 20 years, Stacy, and their daughters. Emily and Lily. Emily likes to read, and to write. Next year she's hoping to attend the Idyllwild Art Academy where Clarke teaches art and is chairman of the arts department.

Peon | Photo: Courtesy of Gordon Johnson.
Peon | Photo: Courtesy of Gordon Johnson.

He's an academically trained artist, so he's done his homework, paid his dues. He graduated from the University of Central Arkansas in 1991 with a bachelor of arts in painting and sculpture. He got his master of fine arts degree a couple of years later from Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas. While working on his master's thesis he taught at Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas.

Now he teaches students and is department chairman at Idyllwild, but he still thirsts to create his own art. Lately, he's been busy painting large-scale canvases based on a birdsong motif that is close to his heart. Clarke is a birdsinger -- the ancient Cahuilla songs that describe the Cahuilla cosmogony and the search for home of his people. He learned from Alvino Siva, a much respected teacher. His latest paintings feature the gourd rattles used to accompany bird songs. "Each singer often makes and decorates his own rattle. I was interested in how each individual invests himself into its design. I wanted to explore that. Plus I felt my work lacking in color lately so I turned to painting. I haven't painted in a long while, but it was fun to return," he says.

Clarke paints with acrylics on canvas and clear coats them so they can be easily cleaned. He likes acrylics because they're safer than having a lot of flammable oil paint solvents around. And he likes the ways the colors pop.

Clarke puts a premium on relevance. When he was a kid being led by teachers on field trips to see Indian art in museums: the headdresses, the beaded gauntlets, the statues of warriors riding on fiery horses, the oil paintings of a starry night with a yellow glow from a tipi pitched next a tumbling creek didn't make much sense to him. These things and scenes weren't part of his Indian experience, he says. Clarke decided his art would have more connection to his life, his family, his people, his Cahuilla community.

Take a look, for example, at a sculpture he calls Continuum Basket. In the Continuum Basket, past and future interweave to make present. It's a metaphor for Clarke's work and life. To make this sculpture, he crushed and coiled 668 soda and beer cans into a star design that resembles a traditional Cahuilla Indian basket.

In many ways, the piece is an homage to the past, to the centuries of Cahuilla basket-making that Clarke harbors much respect for. But it's also a look into the future of Indian people, the aluminum cans asking questions about where we go from here. He insists the past is not confined to the future. He refuses to be defined like an artifact on a museum shelf by his Indian heritage. He seeks to let the past inform the present, but not restrict it. He is living proof of Indian evolution.

He hopes the viewers of the Continuum Basket sense comments in the basket about the Indian present. For one thing, diabetes is rampant in Indian communities, with beer and soda contributing heavily to the epidemic. Clarke intends for the cans to provoke thoughts about lifestyle choices and about cultural differences, about native foods versus high-sugar, high-fat processed foods.

The sculpture has presence, filling a good-sized wall, and was bought by the Idyllwild Arts Academy where it currently hangs. "It's a favorite piece of mine," Clarke says.

In the spectrum of art, Clarke is more a contemporary than traditional Indian artist. For Clarke, the division feels artificial. "If you think about it, all artists throughout history have been contemporary artists," he says, with a laugh.

Clarke learned about the conventions of art in college classrooms, but he disdains conventions, choosing instead to look for the contradictions and find expression in them.

He's vice chairman of the Cahuilla Band of Indians, he's a teacher, he's a father, he's a rancher -- all of these aspects contribute to who Gerald Clarke Jr. is and it all shows up in his art.

Clarke's art is both aesthetics and activism. He actively seeks to raise awareness of our shared humanity. He strives to restore Indian humanity stolen by stereotypes over the centuries. Somewhere between super-shaman and drunken-Indian there lies a truth. "In my work, I search for the unconventional beauty one finds only in the truth," Clarke says.

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