But Clarke, who belongs to the Cahuilla Band of Indians, never identified with the “hard-working, subservient happy slave[s]” he saw depicted in textbooks and museum exhibits. Nor did he feel a kinship to the Native American archetypes he saw in movies and on television: the proud warrior, the spiritual sage, the super-ecologist, the savage.
“The idea of the Indian and my daily reality were polar opposites,” he recalled, so he was forced to find his own identity. “To this day, I always identify with the outsiders, and I identify with the underdogs.”
Creativity came naturally to Clarke, who grew up on a cattle ranch on the Cahuilla reservation near Anza in Riverside County. (He now raises cattle on the same property.)
“When you grow up dirt poor and you got nothing, you make do with a lot of stuff,” Clarke said. “We used to build our own bike ramps and forts. I see that as my early excursions into sculpture.”
Clarke's art was also shaped by his education. The artist, who has a bachelor's degree from the University of Central Arkansas and a master of fine arts degree from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, is an assistant professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside. (He previously served as visual arts chair at Idyllwild Arts Academy.)
“I joke that when people see my artwork in galleries, they go, 'Well, wait a minute. Where's the Indian stuff?'” said Clarke, who won the Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art in 2007. “They don't understand [that] it's not just a material or a format; it's more of an outlook on life.”
In fact, he said, “The stereotype or the image of Indian art is just as problematic as the stereotype of the person. When people think 'Indian art,' they think of materials, really — beads or clay or leather.”
Although Clarke taps into those artistic traditions, his wide-ranging repertoire encompasses everything from painting to sculpture to installation art. His series “One Tract Mind,” for instance, uses video and photography to explore the subject of tract housing in Southern California.
“I always tell people my medium is kitchen sink. It's anything I can get my hands on, that I can manipulate or do something with that will teach me something new,” Clarke said, adding that he prefers methods and materials that are easily accessible to viewers.
“What I do is I use ready-made objects — and those already-cemented stereotypes — as vehicles to engage people,” he explained. “It's not a matter of me dumbing down my message at all. It's using things that are readily apparent or comforting to see, in order to get people to engage in the work.”
Take his “Basket” series, in which aluminum soda and beer cans are crushed and coiled to create stunning sculptures. Clarke said his series celebrates the beauty of the centuries-old Cahuilla basket-making tradition while offering a subtle commentary on the issues facing modern-day tribal members, including alcoholism and diabetes.
Los Angeles' Autry Museum of the American West commissioned Clarke to create a six-foot-diameter beer-can basket for its expansive "California Continued” project, which spans two new galleries and an ethnobotanical garden. According to the museum, the piece, "Continuum Basket: Flora" “comments on how development, technology, and industry impinge on desert lands.”
Another new work, "Democracy for Sale," utilizes two gumball machines to address the current presidential election. On display through Oct. 30 as part of the group show “Made in America” at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, each machine — one marked "Democrat," the other "Republican" — dispenses plastic capsules containing one-inch scraps of an American flag.
“When you put your quarter in and you crank it, you get this tiny piece of flag [indicating] whatever party you're going to vote for,” said Clarke, who's served as vice chairman of the Cahuilla Band of Indians. “But no one will get all of the flag unless they buy both of those gumball machines.”
Clarke hopes the work will start a conversation about the American political system.
As a contemporary Native American artist, he's always mindful of his audience. “I tell people I have two talents. I can make expensive clothing look cheap, and I can talk to pretty much anybody — the guys at the feed store or the guys at the museum or the guys on Capitol Hill,” he said. “I'm able to relate to a lot of people.”
Top image: Detail of "Continuum Basket," Metal (aluminum cans), 2002 by Gerald Clarke Jr. (Cahuilla), at the "Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions" exhibit at the The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens on August 12, 2013 in San Marino, CA. | Photo: Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images