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The prints and paintings produced by Claude F. Clark, Sr., bespeak the challenges faced by African Americans grappling with cultural identity and racial oppression. As an artist-educator, Clark’s career bridges the gap between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In a 1972 letter to artist and scholar David C. Driskell, Clark expressed concerns that align with the activist group’s tenets: “Today, [the black artist] has reached the phase of Political Realism where his art becomes even more functional. He not only presents the condition but names the enemy and directs us towards a plan of action in search of our roots and eventual liberation.” Clark’s art likewise functions in part as social commentary related to African American themes, including the African Diaspora.

Although born in Rockingham, Georgia, Clark did not grow up in the Deep South that would later become so inspirational to his work. His family was part of the Great Migration of African Americans that abandoned the rural South in the 1920s for the urban North; for Clark’s family that exodus led to Manayunk, Pennsylvania, located fifteen miles outside the center of Philadelphia. After graduating from a predominantly white high school, Clark enrolled at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) on a four-year scholarship. Immediately upon receiving his certificate from the institution in 1939, Clark began his studies at the Barnes Foundation School of Art in nearby Merion, even as he worked as a printmaker for the Works Projects Administration’s Federal Arts Project. At the Barnes Foundation, Clark spent four years exploring Dr. Albert C. Barnes’s African art collection and delving into the intersections between European modernism, African art, and American material culture. Simultaneously, Clark learned about various forms of printmaking from his co-workers in the WPA graphics division, Raymond Steth and Dox Thrash.

When the Federal Arts Project disbanded in 1943, Clark was briefly employed as an instructor in a Philadelphia public school before returning to the South in 1948 to become chair of the art department at Talladega College in Alabama. Within a year of his arrival, Clark began to show signs of frustration: in 1949, he was told he could not attend the opening of a statewide collegiate art exhibition at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (in which his students’ work appeared) because of his race. Clark responded by enlisting Albert Barnes of the Barnes Foundation to help him protest the opening festivities. Together, they contacted the keynote speaker and other invitees to encourage them not to attend. Clark left Talladega in 1955 to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Sacramento State University and then a master’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley. Promptly after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1962, Clark became an art instructor at San Francisco State University before being hired by Merritt College in Oakland, California.  During his thirteen-year tenure at Merritt College, Clark responded to a call issued by the Black Panther Party for a curriculum relevant to black culture by writing A Black Art Perspective: A Black Teacher’s Guide to a Black Visual Arts Curriculum (1970).

Clark largely drew from cultural observations as well as personal experiences when creating his prints and paintings. His early work consists of images of structures and persons from his childhood in Manayunk and his tenure at Talladega. Later life experiences—including travels to the Caribbean underwritten by a 1950 Carnegie Fellowship and journeys to Africa in 1976–1978—precipitated shifts in his subject matter. Clark’s style, however, remained relatively consistent. Though he favored simplified forms, basic design, and saturated color palette (hallmarks of modern abstraction), Clark never abandoned representational art. He depicted “translatable” stories that were accessible reflections of societal values and ideals. The emotive quality of his work and sense of movement is expressed through his paint application, which varies between broad, broken brushwork and layering of paint with a palette knife to create a highly-textured surface. 

Clark retired from Merritt College in 1981, but continued to paint until his death in 2001. His work is held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the de Young Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others. His legacy continues through his son, Claude Lockhart Clark, a successful graphic artist and woodcarver of African imagery working in Oakland, California.