After his parents’ divorce, Gerald Clarke’s childhood was divided between the old Clarke home place on the reservation and Southern Californian suburbia. Clarke now lives on the reservation and raises cattle like his father and grandfather before him. He said, “The stereotype or the image of Indian art is just as problematic as the stereotype of the person. When people think ‘Indian art,’ they think of materials, really — beads or clay or leather.” Although Clarke taps into the artistic traditions of his community, his wide-ranging repertoire encompasses everything from painting, to sculpture, to installation art.
As a Cahuilla artist, Clarke finds that traditional customs are an important influence on his work. He participates in Cahuilla Bird Singing and travels to numerous other tribal communities in Southern California and Arizona to perform. He is also involved in the Indigenous Foods Movement and works with others to gather and cook traditional foods like piñon nuts, holly leaf cherries, black oak acorn, yucca blossoms, and agave hearts. Additionally, he takes part in Cahuilla Language preservation and reclamation efforts.
Clarke has consistently chosen to not have a singular approach to artmaking. He works with a variety of media, formats, and actions and chooses his approach based on how it will best express the idea, emotion, or concept that he is exploring at the time. In the past, he focused his efforts on educating the non-Native viewer, but realized that by doing so, he was neglecting his own tribal community. Now, he’s dedicated to making art that is more personal and honest, and thereby universally relatable.
For the 2020 Mentor Artist Fellowship, Clarke will provide skill-building and cultural experiences for his apprentice, Deric Thornsberry (Member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians). Their joint project will be a sculpture inspired by the history and beauty of the Cahuilla coiled basketry tradition, as well as a Bird Song. Traditionally, about 300 songs were sung in order to tell the story. They began at dusk and continued for three consecutive nights. The sculpture will be installed on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation.
My ultimate goal as an artist is for my work to have a meaningful interaction with the viewer.
– Gerald Clarke Jr.