Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dwelling in Possibility: Tammy Clark

                        I dwell in Possibility
                       A fairer House than Prose –
                      More numerous of Windows –
                       Superior – for Doors –
                                             --Emily Dickinson


        Give Tammy Clark an antique trunk or bookcase and – voila! – suddenly it’s covered with vine upon vine of Heavenly Blue morning-glories or tiny pink rambler roses. A rickety bureau is given new life – and festoons of purple hydrangea – while a small unassuming little cabinet gets one helluva make-over with Colonial red paint and white clover blossoms. What was old and tacky-looking has been transformed by her brush.

            Funny thing is, the South Hadley, Massachusetts artist has a black thumb. And cheerfully admits it. “Maybe this is why I like to paint flowers,” she remarks. “I love gardens – I love nature – I love flowers, birds, all of that. But I’m not really good in the garden.” So she tries “to take what’s outside in nature" and bring it inside by putting it on a piece of furniture or glass.

             Clark has been painting steadily for the last 27 or so years. She comes by her talent naturally: her father was an artist, and she learned much of what she knows from him: “He did charcoals, he did drawings, he did oils on canvas. He also taught art. So he was much more knowledgeable than I was.” She always enjoyed watching him paint; and when she was older, Clark took some classes with him. She remembers asking him what made someone a professional artist. His reply? “When someone pays you for your work.”

            The furniture started off as simply something that Clark was doing for herself, an inexpensive way of decorating her house. She’d pick up furniture at tag sales – “pieces thrown to the wayside” – and immediately start painting it. She went for a Shabby Chic look so that if the bureau or table “got knocked around a bit by the kids,” it still had a more or less respectable look. Friends began taking notice of her work and asking her to paint pieces for them. Her first commissioned sale netted her $30. Remembering her dad’s words, she was ecstatic. “I was like ‘I’m a professional now!’” Clark laughs at her younger self. “You get excited, you know? And that just motivated me.”

            She began painting murals, bringing blank walls to life with her trademark flowers and vines. And that worked out well for Clark, who was a stay-at-home mom: she could drop her son off at kindergarten and work for a few hours before picking him up. The fact that her employers were almost always women helped, too. “You know, men didn’t hire me to put flowers on that wall,” she says. “Generally when I worked, it was the women who hired me. Then, if I called them and said, ‘I’m so sorry, my son’s sick, I need to come tomorrow,’ they were ‘Oh, it’s no problem’ because I worked in a woman’s world. It was perfect.”

            She doesn’t paint furniture much anymore. Nor has she taken on any murals in a long time. She needed a good-sized vehicle to cart the larger pieces of furniture from place to place, and the murals sometimes took two to three weeks to finish. She’s concentrating mostly on glass these days – wine glasses, cake plates, vases, and the like. “It was kind of a new surface,” Clark explains. “I was doing windows. I’d paint the glass on a window, an old refurbished window. It took a new medium to do glass -- I had to use a different paint.” But it was so much easier than painting furniture or murals, she was hooked. Clark’s painted glasswork can now be found in galleries and some of the more upscale shops in the area. Some of her pieces have even been shipped to Europe.

            But that’s not all she’s doing. She’s blogging. And she’s teaching workshops. About ten or eleven years ago, her friends began asking her to teach them “`how to do that.’ They couldn’t afford to hire me to come in and paint on their walls, so they wanted to learn how to do the flowers and vines and that kind of thing quickly so that they could do it themselves.” So they’d give Clark a few bucks for paint and sit around her dining-room table, eager to learn whatever she could teach them.

             Nowadays, they meet in her backyard studio, and she absolutely loves it, Clark says. “The girls that come, they connect through all kinds of life traumas and stress. They come in, and they forget.” The workshops end up becoming something of a support group. Clark herself often just sits back and listens as “they all share and help each other….I have one woman whose son passed away from cancer last year. So she’s mourning her son, but she’s connecting with other women who have suffered a loss.”

             She encourages her students “to relax, to enjoy.” They’re not getting graded, she tells them: their art is their art, and they’re “`not all here to be professional – we’re just here to paint furniture.’”

            Not that she takes her own advice. Artistically, Clark is always reaching beyond herself, trying out different possibilities the way some folks try on clothes. Her nest is emptying – her daughter’s out on her own, and her son is 16 now – and she is practically burbling over with all the things she wants to do. It has, she acknowledges, been “challenging to rein myself in and know that my time is coming. It was my children’s time for the longest time. I would say, ‘I want to do thing,’ and it would be so overwhelming between taking care of the house and the kids.”

            So, what does Clark see herself doing now that that time has come? “Oh, my God, so many things!” You can hear the wonder in her voice. She wants to teach more workshops. And she would like to branch out into creating and selling her own designs. “You know, just simple designs. I’d like to do that because I want to know what it feels like. I have all these designs in my head, and I’d like to share them. Inspire others. And I would love some day to write a book on how to get your business as an artist started. I believe that there are a lot of stay-at-home moms that have gifts in the arts that they would like to use to make extra money.”

             Clark, like the morning-glories she paints, clearly doesn’t believe in staying put. Always, always, she is seeking new creative ground. “You know, that’s the greatest thing with being an artist and working for yourself,” she reflects. “If you get bored with something, you can do something else. I think that creative people get bored really easily. They’re always reaching for something else to step outside that box.”

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Kathleenjanzanderson said...

T J, as I read I kept thinking, what a fabulous journalist. You brought me right into Tammy Clark’s world and made me want to learn more. What a great story of how she switched from painting furniture and murals to teaching class that turned into a little bit of a support group as she teaches the girls to paint flowers and vines. Really, really great. Thanks for the read. I will be coming back to read all your stuff. Kathleen

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Kathleen. That is what a journalist is supposed to do: depict both the subject and his/her world as faithfully as possible. And there was so much to work with because Tammy is so creative. Her work is truly beautiful.