The Building of Kevin Clarke

Kevin Clarke in Macarthur B Arthur (art by Ben Carder and Rachel Kaye)

"When I was at CCA," says Kevin Clarke (Painting/Drawing 2005), "I'd be walking past the woodshop and people would be standing around a table engaged in a very physical, material problem, trying to figure out how to put a piece together. But then there was always interesting conceptual stuff going on, too. The work coming out of the Furniture Program combined craft and narrative in a way I related to."

Today, Clarke has achieved a true melding of CCA's "theory and practice" mantra, maintaining a woodshop in Alameda where he makes custom furniture, painting in his studio, and running the Oakland gallery MacArthur B Arthur.

Clarke made his first foray into the Bay Area arts community in 2003, when he set up Million Fishes Arts Collective midway through his CCA years. This Mission District-based organization continues to provide creative space and other opportunities to local artists. His CCA experience was invaluable in giving him confidence and connections. "Donald Fortescue, then chair of Furniture, was a mentor throughout. I still see and talk to him. Dee Hibbert-Jones, one of my first professors, inspired me to work outside the canonical medium of painting and be more experimental. I wanted more of a community, a 'soup' environment that would allow me to draw on the expertise of others. Jordan Kantor was instrumental in making me think about making. He helped me read texts, and had great recommendations on what to read after CCA."

In 2004 Clarke created the Small Gallery, a portable wooden box in which artists could mount instant exhibitions. It was guerrilla art making, a sidewalk stage for group shows or solo exhibitions. It made the most of its appearances outside established gallery venues such as 49 Geary. "I wanted to challenge people's conceptions of an appropriate venue," he says. This project is currently on hiatus, but he's talking to two artists about future shows.

The woodworker's current community project is MacArthur B Arthur, an Oakland space devoted to showing visual, sound, and performance art by Bay Area artists. He founded the venue in 2009 and has recently enlisted curatorial help. "Now I'm working with three people, Alison O. K. Frost, Aaron Harbour, and Jackie Im (Curatorial Practice 2010). We rotate curatorial duties on a monthly basis. Our next show, in May, is called Procedural. Thirteen artists were invited to create new pieces in the form of instructions to be performed and fabricated by the curators, Jackie and Aaron. In June we will show work that is in a lecture or discussion format."

Clarke plans to lead MacArthur B Arthur for another year, then find someone to replace him. "Sometimes it's better to stop something good before a pattern develops." Future projects will definitely involve the East Bay. "The Oakland community is really vibrant. People here are excited about art. The spaces are affordable. There's interesting and challenging work being made. It feels good to be part of a discussion.

"I had a liberal Berkeley upbringing: dad a school psychologist, mom working in health care. Both were conscious of social and ecological issues, and the Berkeley public schools also did a good job of instilling values related to people and the environment." Recycling remains central to Clarke's work. His furniture uses reclaimed cypress, Douglas fir, and redwood. "It's an ethical departure point. If I'm going to create something, I have a responsibility to not create more garbage. There's also histories to recycled objects that aren't there when you buy new wood from the lumberyard. The aesthetic is different."

Reclamation also has a personal aspect for the artist. "After high school, I tried a few things, spent two years in Colorado, a year in Santa Cruz, took some classes at Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington. I struggled. That period was pretty dark. I learned web design at San Francisco State, then found out I couldn't stand sitting at a desk, looking at a flat screen. I had to figure all that stuff out first, before I could contribute to anything." CCA provided a chance to rebuild, and Clarke has been building ever since, first with the arts communities he has established, and secondly with his own woodworking practice. He makes custom furniture for individual clients and also builds sets for Williams-Sonoma and other stores.

"When I graduated from CCA," he admits, "I did have that hoping-to-win-the-lottery feeling of wanting to be picked up by a big-name gallery. But now, I like the balance that I have, working with different groups of people." Currently, Clarke's custom furniture business represents supplemental income, but he's working to increase his furniture commissions over the upcoming year.

What else is on the slate? "More writing. I'd done some reviews in the past, but over the last 18 months I've been interested in creative nonfiction, even a little fiction. I've just discovered the potential of fiction as an art form. My favorite work is on the New Yorker fiction podcasts." Further down the line, he says, furniture and fiction may be joined by family. "I'm 36 and I've been seeing my girlfriend, Rebecca, for a while now. She's a psychology student at UC Berkeley -- the first person I've dated who's not in the arts. There's something refreshing about that!"