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Matt Clark Navigates the Dark Nights of the Soul

We often conform our lives to the expectations of others: family, medical professionals, religious doctrine, local culture or society as a whole. These choices help us to navigate our path through life and grant us acceptance by our chosen “tribe.” Sometimes, unquestioning conformity is to our detriment, eroding individuality, creativity, and opportunities. When we experience nonconformity, however, whether by choice or otherwise, a sort of social discomfort ensues, as we work to once again find our place in the context of our surroundings. In some circumstances the discomfort is mild, in others, severe. Who or what do we look to in such instances? How do we re-define ourselves when we suddenly find ourselves “different”?

For southern Utah artist Matt Clark, found metal sculpture is a metaphorical re-enactment of the process of physical and emotional self-redefinition and, ultimately, transformation.

In 1979, 17-year-old Clark was well on his way to actualizing his dream of becoming a champion rodeo cowboy. Supporting his goal with odd jobs, he’d entered and successfully competed in many rodeos, culminating in participation in the National Rodeo Championships his junior year of high school. Then, while repairing his pickup truck, he suffered an accident that would catalyze his transformation. The truck began to roll, with Clark trapped underneath it, dragging him until it eventually stopped in a ditch, pinning his head underneath a front tire.

In retrospect, Clark says, the accident should have killed him. Instead, it dislocated his C6 vertebra, paralyzing much of his body, and destroying his rodeo aspirations. Clark was told he’d not only never walk again, but never regain the use of his hands, never live independently, and should plan to live in a rest home so as not to be a burden to his family for the rest of his probably short life.

“Being told that, at 17 years old, was devastating,” Clark remembers. “The real low point came when the doctors put these splints on my hands and arms, with the idea that they could form my hands into one useful position, so I could maybe swing my upper arm and hook things with my thumb.” Clark lay in the hospital bed, feeling physically and emotionally crushed and helpless, and believing unquestioningly in the doctors’ prognosis.

“I think there are gifts of depression, if we’re willing to navigate that, and walk through that journey”

Clark’s low point was quickly followed by a turning point, however, when his mother, noted southern Utah photographer and historian Lynne Clark, arrived back at his bedside after a few days’ absence and asked about the splints. Matt Clark explained the doctors’ reasoning to her, and she asked, “Does that sound right to you?” Confused, Clark said, “I guess so…” and repeated the doctor’s words. His mother asked again, “Does that sound right to you?”

“Now, you have a cultural mindset you inherit—you don’t really have much choice in it,” Clark says. “I was taught to accept authority, and ‘Authority’ had just told me I’d never use my hands again.” However, he felt his mother’s repeated inquiry gave him permission to begin to question other people’s assessment of him and his abilities, even authority figures. After a long pause:

Clark told his mother, “No, I guess it doesn’t [sound right].”

“Then, let’s take these off,” she said, and removed the splints.

The action instilled a resolve in both Clark and his family to make the most of his condition, despite medical opinion. Their decision was not without criticism.

“They asked me about my plans when I checked out of the hospital. I told them I wanted to go to college, live independently. They said, ‘That’s been the trouble with you. You don’t accept reality.’ ” Instead, doctors repeated that he should accept life at a rest home, where he might live three-four more years.

“I thought, boy, if I check into a rest home, I really will live only three years!” Clark recalls.

So Clark returned to his family farm in Washington, Utah, where he began to test the limits of his condition. Determined to reclaim his independence, he did a daily regimen of physical therapy, with the aid of his mother and father, eventually gaining some strength and function back in his arms. He learned to push a manual wheelchair, then practiced hoisting himself up into a pickup truck until, after eight months of practice, he was able to do so independently.

The next several years were a patchwork of ups and downs that would later find symbolic representation in many of his sculptures, particularly the six-sculpture series “Dark Nights of the Soul.” Clark regained his independence, but did not make a complete recovery, which tested his religious faith—Clark is a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I felt I had faith to be totally healed, and then the healing process plateaued,” he recalls.

Compounding his spiritual trial was the denial of his request to serve a mission for the LDS Church because of his physical limitations.

Eventually, Clark graduated college, married, and created and directed a Disabled Students Services program at Dixie State University, creating found metal art along the way as a hobby. “I just had this desire to work with metal. I had started doing repair welding; I fixed buckets for guys with tractors. Then one day I pulled some pieces out of a scrap pile and welded a little dinosaur. And my mom said it was good. It wasn’t; but, you know, everyone starts somewhere.”

Clark worked steadily as a self-taught welder and artist to refine his work, enduring criticism for undertaking a physically demanding form of art given his physical limitations. Clark’s studio is an impressive tribute to his ingenuity, from a specially formed hammer he developed that accommodates the limited strength of his hands to a swinging pulley system that allows him to move heavy pieces of metal and sculpture from one end of the studio to the other.

Clark is dismissive of his early work, though his original themes of farm life are finding rebirth in his more recent sculptures. He credits Dixie State University Professor Glen Blakely with providing artistic mentorship as he transitioned to creating art full time around 1997. “I was doing these little horseshoe cowboys,” Clark says with a half-smile. “Glen told me I had to ‘step up my game.’ He said ‘You’re creating objects, but not creating art.’”

Clark redoubled his efforts, synthesizing styles of David Smith, Julio Gonzalez, Albert Paley. He gained recognition in St. George for a colorful found metal sculpture of a horse titled The Painted Pony created for a St. George restaurant with the same name.

In 2012, Clark presented the series “Dark Nights of the Soul.” The largest piece by far, a 14’ metal sculpture titled “Cosmic Oddity,” was created using an old World War II sea buoy that Clark suspects had been used by a local farmer as a fuel tank. One can’t help but notice an eerie similarity to Fritz Koenig’s famous sculpture “The Sphere,” which was damaged in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, particularly when Clark explains that his battered sphere symbolizes periods of suffering, with the source of suffering represented by a long sharp vertical piece piercing the body of the sphere.

“Dark Night” is Clark’s visual depiction of emotional depression, which he describes as a tool of the soul with the purpose of “hollowing us out, maybe opening us up to something else.” Again, Clark rejects social conformity to the perception of depression, namely that it should be hidden, covered up, abolished.

“I think there are gifts of depression, if we’re willing to navigate that, and walk through that journey,” Clark explains on a video recording describing the show. “Earlier cultures built gardens where people could go to meditate when they were in that state.” Exempting clinical depression, he believes that society is often too quick to numb any kind of sadness, and that we can “miss out on this mysterious element of our souls.”

Visually, recent abstractions explore divisions of space and form in fluid, swooping curves. Inspired in part by Asian architecture, these works remain characteristically straightforward, even while the humor and emotional symbolism often included in his work becomes more nuanced.

Currently, Clark has returned to memories of his early life on a cattle ranch in Beryl with a series of metal horses. Uniquely, the horses are posed in relaxed, natural stances. All four hooves resting on the ground, they graze or look up with mild curiosity. This peaceful quality suggests a familiarity born from working with horses as partners, rather than romanticized from over a fence.

These horses are more abstracted than the earlier Painted Pony,” with an incorporation of negative space, or “voids,” as Clark puts it. “When you leave things out, whatever is left must make a stronger statement,” Clark says of the process. “You can see the power of the shoulder, the back, the hip, even if the horse is more abstract. Especially if it is more abstract.” At the same time, he says, his upbringing won’t allow him to take too many liberties with the proportion and form of horses. “I grew up on horses,” he says “And the measurements in knowing a good horse…I couldn’t leave that behind.”

While Clark acknowledges the horses have a broad appeal, citing wild mustangs as symbols of freedom, for him the horses also represent a huge cultural shift in southern Utah. Originally founded as an agricultural outpost by Brigham Young to supply cotton to the early Mormon settlers of Utah, St. George has since become a burgeoning sub-urban city, with new developments replacing farmland and open spaces between townships at an incredible pace.

“[The horses] are a symbol of what we’re losing in this area,” Clark laments. “The ‘ag’ is gone. There are a few hanging on, but… it’s sad. My roots are based in [agriculture]. And I see it as an overall big-picture problem in America. We don’t provide for ourselves anymore. We’re losing our connection to the land, how resources are developed, where food comes from. The family farm is going extinct. The average age of a family ranch-owner is 68 years old.”

A pair of Clark’s horses will be placed near St. George’s “Dixie Sunbowl” for the next year as part of the city’s Art Around the Corner 2017 exhibit, due to be installed April 8. Threatened by disrepair and the need for real estate for an elementary school, local officials recently opted to “save” the Sunbowl, a concrete bowl-shaped stadium set into the ground and traditional home for the Dixie Roundup Rodeo, making cosmetic repairs and allowing the venue to become more utilized. Clark is supportive, remarking, “Thank goodness we can have something of that heritage left.”

Although both the form and the components of the horses are becoming more abstract, Clark’s method, and his overarching reason for found metal sculpture, remains the same.

“Every piece of metal in these sculptures is a throwaway piece,” Clark explains. “It’s a spiritual journey for me—to take these pieces of metal that were ‘doomed,’ were used up in some way, and make something new from them. We’re surrounded by terrible consumerism in society. I reject that. I like to see possibilities in these pieces. Subject is always secondary to the process.”

The idea of second chances is one Clark believes should be extended to humanity in general. “I’ve never been much about political views: I’m more focused on an individual, spiritual journey. I think we should do what we can to give people an opportunity.”

Speaking from experience, more than a few artists have benefited from his good-natured willingness to see others succeed. For years, Clark aided Art Around the Corner in installing metal sculptures in various locations downtown, even supplying metal plates to artists who had arrived without. He is known for being generous and supportive. “Comes from farming,” Clark says offhandedly. “If the neighbors had a cow that was bloated and they called at 2 a.m. needing help, my dad would always pitch in. You just have to jump in and get stuff done.”

Matt Clark’s artist statement boldly declares “My body has been broken and may not heal, but my spirit can and will transcend my limitations.” When asked the hard question of where he is in that process, Clark kicks a cowboy-booted toe into the ground and chuckles. “I’m still transitioning. I’m still making that change.”

Alisha Tolman Burton has been an independent graphic design and marketing consultant since 2008, and utilizes social media heavily for online marketing strategy, particularly for non-profit projects, such as Art On Main and the Art Around the Corner Foundation.

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