From NorthSide Sun
WHILE MOST KIDS his age were playing with Play-Doh, Sam Clark was using the good stuff.
“We never had Play-Doh, actually. We just played with the real clay,” says Clark, a Madison resident and member of the Mississippi Craftsmen’s Guild.
Clark grew up watching his mother, guild member Susan Clark, create ceramics. He says he was probably two and a half when he first dug into clay himself.
Known locally for his dragon sculptures, Clark is also workshop manager at The Mustard Seed, a home and day center for adults with developmental disabilities. The “Seedsters” spend a lot of time learning to make platters, coffee mugs and other kitchenware items.
“I get to play in the clay at work and at home. I can’t ask for anything better,” he says.
In Louisville, Miss., there were no art classes at Clark’s high school. When he arrived at Delta State University, he felt he was lagging behind his ceramics classmates.
“I was throwing on the wheel for like a week and thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ So I gave up. But my professor said, ‘If you like hand building, you can do that.’ ”
He started off trying to mold human figures but couldn’t figure out how to make them stand up.
“They just looked like figure-looking lumps lying down,” he says.
CLARK’S WORK progressed, both technically and emotionally.
“At one point I was in a relationship that went horribly sour and was really bitter about it, and my professor said, ‘Pour your feelings into this piece you’re making.’ I made this twisted, writhing figure and painted it black. I put that in the Christmas show.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – its lack of Christmas cheer, the piece sold. The buyer said the sculpture reminded her of a “really tough experience” she’d been through.
“I think that was the first time I kind of saw that the artist makes something for their reasons and brings their experience to it, but the people who view it bring who they are to it. That’s kind of interesting to hear what people think [of a piece of art], you know,” Clark says.
After finishing his degree in graphic design, Clark waited tables for a couple of years before deciding to go back to school. He went to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and got a master’s in sequential art, or “comic book art,” he says.
But he was still playing with clay.
“I wasn’t taking a sculpting or ceramic class, but I had a studio and was making these clay figures again. I didn’t even have a place to fire them. I was just going to make these shapes.”
WITH A MASTER’S degree in drawing, Clark returned to Louisville – and promptly got a sculpting job.
“A lady was writing a grant, and they needed a ceramic artist. It was working with special needs classes through Very Special Arts Mississippi.”
Clark worked with six public schools to come up with a project for their special-needs classes to complete and display.
“We ended up doing these little ceramic fish. That was really fun. These kids couldn’t play sports or do much of anything, but I felt like that was an hour that they kind of got to play with purpose, and I had a really good time,” he says.
After the grant money ran out at the end of the school year, Clark got a job teaching art at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland.
He convinced the school to buy a kiln and used it as an incentive for lively sixth-graders: “If you’re not good, you won’t get to play in the clay.”
Two years of middle-school life taught Clark that he needed more of a balanced schedule. He enjoyed teaching but wanted more than a three-month break to pursue his own craft.
“This is where I look back and I think how all amazing it is that all these things just lined up. I’m a Christian, and I believe it’s God’s handiwork.”
A friend who worked at The Mustard Seed told Clark about a job opening. The work would be similar to what he’d done with Very Special Arts Mississippi, and would allow him more flexibility throughout the week.
That was eight years ago. He took the job and has been there ever since.
NOW CLARK spends four days a week at The Mustard Seed and weekends working at home, where he molds dragons, coffee mugs and other clay creations.
Appearances at the farmers market in Jackson have gotten him plenty of business, and his dragon sculptures have served as trophies for the annual Dragon Boat Regatta on the reservoir for the past three years.
He says his inspiration for the dragons comes from “The Hobbit” author J.R.R. Tolkien and other storytellers. He even has a dragon on display in the Attic Gallery in Vicksburg that resembles Smaug, the titular villain in the second “Hobbit” movie.
Recently, Clark has combined his two artistic loves – sculpting and drawing – into a new series of coffee mugs called “Robot in the City.”
“They’re these coffee cups that I draw on. They’ve got this robot, giant-size, roaming through the city with big googlie eyes.”
The mugs’ notoriety has already spread as far as Birmingham, partly thanks to Clark’s Facebook page, Sam Clark Art.
Clark has also been able to participate in two shows a year for the past several years, and much of his work has been displayed at the Mississippi Craft Center in Ridgeland.
But more than being his livelihood, art provides a certain personal comfort that, say, a robot-less coffee mug would lack, he says.
“Art takes something that’s just ordinary and makes it special, like a woodcarver who makes a chair that’ll make your jaw drop, or someone in the culinary arts who makes you a special meal.
“If you’ve got this special coffee mug that you love to get out on Saturdays to do your journaling, or you have this piece that reminds you of this devastating time you went through, it’s like a concrete anchor.”