Sculpting away

Sculptor Douglas Clark’s fingers work a malleable material as he sits in his Edinburg home studio.

“I’m reclaiming clay,” he said, attempting to salvage the substance. Clark, 68, will recoup up to 98 percent, which is added to the barrel full of recycled clay in the corner.

Shelves packed with Clark’s work line the perimeter of the studio. The artist remodeled his ceiling, adding height to accommodate large sculptures.

Raised on his father’s farm, it was a necessity for Clark to work with his hands.

“You’re more a mechanic than anything else. You have to be a good farmer, but you also have to be a good mechanic, welder, carpenter, engineer (and) designer,” he said. “There’s not that much money to go around. So you make due with what you have.”

Clark’s early experience with sculpting was in the fields as a flagman for aircraft spraying fertilizer on crops. He’d pick up lumps of clay, pinching them into geometric shapes.

Growing up in a small agricultural community, Clark said the only sculptures he can recall seeing were the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ on a crucifix. In high school, he remembers art ostensibly as a free period where students crafted posters for the football team.

While attending Lee College in Baytown, Clark said he took a girl on a picnic on the lawn of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

“Walking around a hedge, I was confronted by ‘The Burghers of Calais,’” he said of Auguste Rodin’s large bronze piece. “I was just enamored of everything about it: the texture, the expression, the pathos, the movement.

“But from that moment, I had to do that. It’s all Rodin’s fault. He ruined my life.”

Clark took a ceramics class at Lee College and completed the basic class requirements on the first day and used the rest of the semester to make clay pieces. After he transferred to the University of Texas Austin, Clark’s father inquired what he would study — law, business or medicine?

“‘No, dad. I’m going to study art,’” Clark told his father. “And he only said one word, and that was it.”

But his father was supportive.

“He was more interested in how I was going to make a living,” Clark said. “Characteristically, artists don’t make a living.

“What’s the old joke? What else do you need to be a successful artist? You need to be able to say, ‘do you want fries with that?’”

As an art instructor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, this is something Clark thinks about.

“When I went to art school, that was a subject that was never broached in the whole time I was in art school — that you’re going to starve to death as soon as you leave the art department,” Clark said.

He said he presses students as to why they’re studying art and how they’re going to use to make a living. Clark said he initially didn’t think he’d like teaching.

But he got into instruction to help pay for grad school and enjoyed it.

“When I’m all by myself, I tend to slow down and get depressed and bored,” Clark said. “It gives me energy and ideas. It keeps me moving faster.”

A lot of students come to Clark wanting to continue his traditional methods: modeling a sculpture with your hands the exact size, making a mold and casting it. While the foundational understanding of this is crucial, Clark said he’s pushing students to embrace current technology.

Teaching and producing sculpture is amid a paradigm shift, Clark said.

“I’m forcing them to get into the computers and create … a work (in a computer program) and translate that into a 3D print,” Clark said. “I’m making them model a piece traditionally by hand and scan it.”

This potentially removes 80 percent of the labor in a bronze piece. By embracing the new tech, he can make three times as much work.

He gestures over to a detailed angel peeking out of a large trash can. This 3-foot figure will ultimately be 8 feet. He makes a mold and casts it in resin. This would be sent to Austin for scanning. That information is sent to Italy where they cut the angel out of Carrara Marble.

He compared this to Michelangelo, who shipped models in plaster to quarry to have figures cut. The artist would finish the work, but he didn’t do all the chipping and hammering.

He said his process has always been a team effort, with foundries taking molds, making waxes and casting them.

“The idea that of the artist banging away hours and hours and hours on a piece of stone is not accurate,” Clark said. “If you’re a major player and you do lots of work.

“To me, how you get there isn’t as important as the result. If you’ve created a masterpiece in minutes, you’ve created a masterpiece. If you spend years of your life banging away on one piece, you’ve made one piece — and if it’s not a masterpiece, it’s not a masterpiece.”

Clark, who moved to the Rio Grande Valley in 2000, has sculpted likenesses of politicians, athletes and musicians. His public pieces include the McAllen Memorial High School stallion and a soldier at the Veterans War Memorial of Texas. He credits his bust of fellow Port Arthur native Janis Joplin as an early piece that helped spark his professional career.

Clark remembers a time his father walked through his studio acquiring about the prices earned for each.

“‘You’re a pretty good hand at this, aren’t you?,’” Clark recalls his dad saying.

Clark once showed images of his work to his grandmother who reacted, “that looks like your dad’s work.”

His dad never mentioned he’d won state championships in sculpture as a young man. Clark joked sculpture is “a recessive gene on my father’s side.”

While his father never delved into his own creative past, he took pride in his son’s profession.

“He never confessed to me that he was really excited about art, but my mom told me that he kept a portfolio at the house and he had to show every visitor what I’d been doing,” Clark said.