BMA Presents Celebrate Life: The Art of Chris Clark
Now through December 31 in the Museum’s Bohorfoush Gallery
Birmingham folk artist Chris Clark was a man who combined his love for color, a fondness of shape, and his faith to create lively works of art, which spoke joyfully to people of all kinds. The new Birmingham Museum of Art exhibition, Celebrate Life: The Art of Chris Clark, appropriately commemorates the work of the beloved artist, who recently died in August at the age of 53.
The exhibition in the BMA’s Bohorfoush Gallery arises as a response to an outpouring of community interest in Clark’s work upon his death. The Museum was already featuring some of Clark’s work in the same space in A Stitch in Time: Southern Quilts in the African-American Tradition. After Clark’s untimely death, and with the support of local collectors, the Museum reconfigured to focus more attention on a wider array of Clark’s work.
“The Museum is committed to collecting the work of Alabama artists and we have a particular strength in work by the state's folk artists,” said Gail Andrews, the R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Museum. “Chris began making art during the early 1990s at a time when the work of folk and self-taught artists was attracting great attention from the art world as well as the general public. Clark's painted quilts and furniture captured the attention of Birmingham folk art collectors and his reputation quickly grew.
“Some of his pieces can be categorized with the work of memory painters like Bernice Sims of Brewton, Alabama, Clementine Hunter of Louisiana or Grandma Moses of New York, all of whom illustrated their memories of events, both ordinary and sometimes monumental, through their paintings.”
Clark’s vibrant quilts, furniture, walking sticks, and other painted and assembled objects found admirers among eager folk art collectors in Alabama while garnering national attention as well. The Museum pays homage to his talent and special gifts in our exhibition, Celebrate Life.
This exhibition is not a retrospective, but contains an overview of many of Clark’s favorite subjects and illustrates the variety of media he explored through his creativity and willingness to take risks with a variety of materials. Clark’s quilts combine traditional quilting with vibrant painted images. A deeply religious person, he frequently depicts Biblical scenes, scripture as well as church interiors and worship services. In addition to religious subjects, Clark often depicts jazz and blues
musicians and children at play. Many of these same themes found their way into his brightly painted furniture.
Clark’s talent and spirit touched many at the Museum. “I have learned many wonderful life lessons from Chris,” said Toby Richards, the BMA’s Artist-in-Residence and personal friend of Clark’s. “I loved that he was always optimistic about life. He had a strong sense of faith, and was committed to sharing it with the world around him. Chris took his wealth of knowledge - some would say, his gift - and incorporated it into his life's work, the art of creating.”
The Museum’s Associate Curator of Education Suzy Harris reflected on some of the ways Clark left his imprint at the BMA. “Chris was a gentle soul who was fond of children and their carefree natures,” Harris said. “He was active in our Mural Project from its beginnings in the mid-1990s. He was always ready to work with children on murals at schools or community centers. Children really connected with him and his work and they loved being around him.”
In 1990, Clark’s vision began to fail due to diabetes. Believing he would eventually lose his eyesight entirely, he resolved to pursue a longtime desire to paint while he still could. He began painting on scraps of wood and flea market furniture, but soon after his grandmother taught him to piece and stitch quilts, the artist combined the two mediums, to lively and colorful effect. Celebrate Life: The Art of Chris Clark allows us to honor Clark’s artistic legacy even as we, as a community, reflect on his passing.