Painter Ann Clarke was born in Norwich, England, and received her art education at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London University.
Clarke came to Canada in 1968, and, while painting prolifically (she has had thirty solo exhibitions in Canada and has participated in more than ninety group shows), also taught at the Banff Centre, the University of Alberta, the University of Saskatchewan, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (as it was then) and at Lakehead University, from whose Department of Visual Arts she retired in 2009 as Professor Emeritus. In 2008, she was elected to membership in the Royal Canadian Academy of Art.
Although she is now officially retired, Clarke paints as fervently as ever–and continues to teach small classes of students that meet with her at her exquisite white-cube gallery, studio and residence in the little town of Newburgh, Ontario, not far from Kingston.
We talked in her sun-filled, second-floor studio during the late afternoon of November 15, 2015.
Vie des Arts: If you had to sum up your feelings about art education now–in one sentence [Clarke laughs]–how would you do it?
Anne Clarke: In Canada, there was always a significant difference between art education in the university art departments and in art schools or art colleges per se–though unfortunately, just about all the art colleges have now decided to turn themselves into universities, which I think is very sad. Art education has now become so academic and so conceptual, that nobody knows how to do anything with their hands anymore.
VdA: I take it you always felt that nothing can replace doing.
AC: In the majority of Art Departments I’ve visited–to attend graduate exhibitions and so on–I’ve found far too often that students appear to have been taught painting by people who don’t know how to paint, who have never learned to paint.
VdA: So painting becomes a succession of theorems?
AC: Too often, yes.
VdA: I take it that you’d be in support of a return to square one in art education? Drawing a lot, and all that.
AC: Well of course I think that people should be drawing almost from birth. Much of the teaching I did was in what is always called Foundation: drawing, colour theory, design, all that often impatiently discredited material.
VdA: Did you teach figure drawing? It’s sort of dismissed now, isn’t it? Or at least condescended to, as a discipline?
AC: Figure drawing is important and ought always to remain so. It helps you test your sense of visual accuracy. Drawing observationally–from a model–develops your hand-eye acuity, which is a useful skill no matter what the student envisages for himself or herself in the future. And we should all study anatomy, for example. It’s like a musician’s knowing what the piano keys are for.
VdA: Do you see drawing–as many do–as a kind of claiming of the exterior world?
AC: It’s a way of working out what you think–and what you want.
VdA: What would you tell students who want to be geniuses real fast–and get paid genius prices for what they do?
AC [laughing]: I would show them a lot of the art of the past. It was, for the most part, slow art.
It was at this point (I think it was my mentioning the work and career of Jeff Koons that occasioned the break) that we paused for a lemon poppy seed muffin and a pot of truly bracing Yorkshire tea–Clarke’s favourite classic black tea. When we resumed our chat, we expatiated–with admirable succinctness–about monetary success in the arts. Clarke put Take 30 to that discussion: “If you want to make money, there are a lot of other things you could be doing!”
VdA: You’re seventy-one now, and you’re supposed to be retired. I know you continue to paint with a passion, but you’re also teaching too, are you not?
AC: Yes, I conduct classes here at the gallery and I derive great pleasure from doing so. The people who come here now for these classes are fast becoming my friends. And having taught all my life, I have so many experiences I can share with them.
VdA: They flourish within that sort of nurturing?
AC: They seem to. And so do I. And I love the joy they get from doing. And it’s often from doing what they never suspected they could ever do. So much of art-making is about confidence!
VdA: If I were to be cynical, I’d suggest that art education is what keeps the teachers from the students.
AC: My goodness, that is cynical!
[Clark laughs and we finish our Yorkshire tea].