UPDATE: A public memorial for Mark will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, January 17, at The Shedd, 868 High St.
Painter Mark Clarke, who died yesterday at his home in Eugene, defied most of the conventions of contemporary art. He created representational work – landscapes, figures, the occasional portrait. He was focused on vision and skill, and didn’t give a hang about concept.
Most of all, in this era of self-branding artists, he wasn’t an egotist. The world, even the local art community in which he was highly respected, was never allowed to revolve around him. Instead, he would always gently deflect the conversation back onto the people around him. Deeply shy, he hated attending even his own receptions – but he loved hanging out and having coffee with a group of friends.
That was how I got to know him over the years, drinking coffee together at Perugino. If I wasn’t careful, he would always buy. He taught me straightforward skills, such as how to build wooden frames for my photographs, and offered advice on how to handle acrylic paints – his choice of medium – so that they approach the warmth and charisma of oils. But he also offered deeper knowledge: What he saw in a landscape, and why it resonated with him so.
I was far from the only one who enjoyed such conversations.
“Mark was a dear friend, a mentor, an inspiration, a fellow traveler through life for more than 30 years,” said Eugene art collector Roger Saydack, a friend of Clarke and his family. “Coffee with Mark was like sitting around a campfire. The conversation was sincere and honest. We could talk for hours.”
Raised in Junction City, where his mother ran a ceramics shop, Clarke always loved to do things with his hands. He began to paint on his own, and credited a blue ribbon he won for a youthful work at the Lane County Fair with giving him the nerve to pursue art as a serious career.
He studied art as an undergraduate at Oregon State University, where he worked with painter Nelson Sandgren, who would become a lifelong friend. As a graduate student at the University of Oregon, Clarke painted with David McCosh, another consummate landscapist.
It was at the UO that Clarke met another young painter, Margaret Coe, who would become his wife. And it was there, under McCosh, that he became an adept observer of landscape. He painted moody paintings, almost always acrylics on canvas, that conveyed the gently brooding quality of the Northwest scene.
Always slightly vague – Clarke sometimes called them “myopic” – his paintings had a rough-hewn look, like the painter himself. He was a big, shambling man who could easily have been taken for a carpenter or plumber instead of a highly educated artist.
“Mark painted the landscape of this part of Oregon personally and intimately, as no one has before,” Saydack said. “It feels like we belong in each scene he painted. He had the great gift of an artist – the ability to find the essence of what he paints. And his paintings allow us to experience what he felt so deeply.”
A line from painter Paul Cezanne reminds Saydack of Clarke and his work: “The landscape thinks itself in me. Let the scene be born, let it germinate in you.”
“He was a painter’s painter,” said Eugene painter Jon Jay Cruson, who met Clarke when they were studying at the UO in the 1960s. Cruson remembers “a quiet, relaxed man with an inner peace when pushing that paint on the surface of the canvas. That never changed when he was working.”
Cruson especially noted Clarke’s love for the land that surrounded him. “He never needed to go further than his back yard for inspiration.”
Clarke and his wife had recently been selected for a large exhibit next year at the UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, an institution where he worked years ago as an exhibition preparator.
“Yesterday the art world lost a master painter with the passing of Mark Clarke,” the museum said in a statement released by curator Danielle Knapp.
“The JSMA is in the early stages of planning an exhibition of Mark and Margaret Coe’s work for 2017, and while we are saddened that we won’t be working with him directly, we are grateful that he knew this recognition was in the works. We now look forward to celebrating a lifetime of achievements.
“Mark represented the best of what we think of in Northwest art – both artistically, with paintings that not only captured the light of its land and sky, but glowed with it – and personally, with his warm spirit. His landscapes, informed by a lifetime of living and painting here, fully communicated the beauty and depth of Oregon’s natural wonder.”
Clarke and Coe had two children. Tim Clarke is a professional trumpet player in upstate New York and sometimes performs here at The Shedd Institute.
Karin Clarke runs a gallery in downtown Eugene that shows Northwest painting, including the work of both her parents; Mark Clarke’s most recent exhibition there was last fall, showing paintings that used a brighter, more upbeat palette than much of his previous work.
Plans for a public memorial are pending.