Clark Shapes Clay into a Business


Clark Shapes Clay into a Business

Sculptor Doug Clark shapes clay on a work in progress at his studio.  (VBR)
Sculptor Doug Clark shapes clay on a work in progress at his studio. (VBR)

“I’m not a be-still or sit-still kind of guy,” said sculptor Doug Clark in his Edinburg studio. The number and variety of bronze sculptures he has created in his 35-year career are a testament to that.

In McAllen alone, 65 of Clark’s pieces are on display, including Quinta Mazatlan’s extraordinary statues of native animals and his Veterans War Memorial of Texas’s statues and remarkable Korean War plaques. His Janis Joplin bronze is in the singer’s hometown of Port Arthur, his bronze of a Karankawa woman is at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and he has pieces in the Texas State Cemetery.

“Commissions keep me from my own work,” he said, so he only takes on commissions he finds interesting or challenging.

Clark’s work trajectory took him from being a rice farmer, to shipyard work and then led him to owning a foundry that cast bronzes. “An artist having a foundry means you can’t do your own work. Finally I said that’s enough and closed it.”

Besides running his sculpting studio (and outsourcing the bronze casting), Clark has been an assistant professor of sculpture at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, formerly the University of Texas Pan American, for about nine years.  

“My works are realistic figurative works,” he said while squeezing off pieces of clay to apply to a head in progress. As Clark used a thin metal loop to shape the clay, he talked about using taxidermy models for the Quinta Mazatlan animals. “An artist will do things that make the work more lifelike” by enhancing certain aspects.  

A Marine jumps into action on Clark's Korean War plaque at the Veterans War Memorial of Texas. (VBR)
A Marine jumps into action on Clark’s Korean War plaque at the Veterans War Memorial of Texas. (VBR)

Clark teaches a class in foundry techniques – how to go from a clay sculpture to bronze. “It’s technical. It’s not so much how to do their own, but they should know how it is done. Students need skills. The more they practice the better they get.” He brings a larger piece of his own into the class once a semester so students can see what it takes to do large work.  “Then, if someone asks them to do a large piece, they won’t be intimidated by the scale of project.”

Word of mouth has fueled Clark’s career, but early mentor/patron John Palmer helped him considerably. “I had no realization how very lucky I was at that time.” He sprayed water over the clay sculpture while talking about other works in progress – an Inca dove for Quinta Mazatlan, a cast panel commissioned by Donna officials – as well as ones he would like to do. “The Veterans War Memorial has a wish list of sculptures waiting on funding. I wish we could get more backing. The Army Air Corps needs to be represented.”

Much of Clark’s business is public art. “A lot of reluctance about putting up public art is the fear, ‘What if we wind up with ugly pieces?’” Clark thinks the solution is for contracts to include a caveat that if the artwork is not pleasing to the buyers, they are not obligated to take it.  He believes that would encourage more communities to buy into public art that benefits the public as well as the artist.

Technology has made surprising inroads in the art world. Clark recently completed a plastilina sculpture of an angel destined for a cemetery in San Antonio. It has been scanned and transmitted to a marble works studio in Italy where it will be reproduced roughly before marble artists finish the piece.

“The technology of 3-D scanning and printing isn’t going to put sculptors out of business,” Clark said. “With scanning and 3-D printing, we can reduce the labor of what we do. The artist comes in (later) and fudges reality to make it look more real.” Michelangelo’s studio worked in a similar fashion using pantographs.  

For someone who can’t sit still, Clark nevertheless believes that patience is important for an artist.  

Freelance writer Eileen Mattei was the editor of Valley Business Report for over 6 years. Her articles have appeared in Texas Highways, Texas Wildlife Association, Texas Parks & Wildlife and Texas Coop Power magazines as well as On Point: The Journal of Army History. The Harlingen resident is the author of five books: Valley Places, Valley Faces; At the Crossroads: Harlingen’s First 100 Years; and Leading the Way: McAllen’s First 100 Years, For the Good of My Patients: The History of Medicine in the Rio Grande Valley, and Quinta Mazatlán: A Visual Journey.