The Learned Pig

Art – Thinking – Nature – Writing

Finite and Alive

It’s rare for me to write about artists whose work I have never seen face to face. It’s hard to respond through a screen to something created to be viewed up close. But that’s not to say it’s not possible. Besides, however near your nose is to the glass, there is always a distance between the viewer and the work. In this case it’s only 4,000 miles or so…

I first came across the crisply delicate drawings of Rebecca Clark some time near the end of 2014. Her simple depictions of leaves or oysters, kestrels or cats are characterised by both technical precision and a rare sensitivity to her subjects. There is a humility in the face of the unknowable other. I emailed Clark in February 2015 about contributing something to The Learned Pig, and have since had long conversations over Skype and numerous emails back and forth in the ensuing months. I feel I know her work up close, from afar.

From August to October, Clark has a solo show at Adkins Arboretum in Maryland, USA. She recently sent me a text she’d written to accompany the exhibition. In it she explains that the exhibition’s title – Finite and Alive – has been drawn from Being and Time, a poem by Scottish writer John Burnside. Clark also describes how, like Burnside, her work is informed by a sense of loss. She cites human ecologist Paul Shepard (via an article by Burnside). He too writes of loss: “The loss of non-human diversity erases nuances in identity. We are coarsened by the loss of the animals.” Clark responds by describing her own work as “attempts to abate that coarsening by offering brief moments of grace and beauty”.

Rebecca Clark, Family Tree

It is an insightful piece of self-assessment – not only for what it says but for what it doesn’t. For Clark’s work undoubtedly possesses both grace and beauty: in the sparseness of her composition, the frozen stillness that imbues even birds or bees in flight, and in the gently layered tones of her pencil or pastel or watercolour. But it is the idea of Clark’s work occupying a moment – or series of moments – that particularly intrigues. For they are certainly not the result of mere moments; Clark’s technique is slow and meticulous, even old-fashioned. Over Skype we discuss her approach to drawing, which has its technique rooted in botanical illustration. “That was the genre that jumpstarted my drawing,” Clark tells me. “I love nature and enjoy gardening. I studied landscape design at George Washington University for a couple of semesters and quickly learned that wasn’t my calling. What I enjoyed immensely, however, was creating landscape plans. The plans were failures: my scale was always all wrong, but I really enjoyed drawing the minutiae.”

I would practice for hours and hours and hours – just drawing very, very lightly, little circles.

More recently, Clark embarked on a botanical illustration course at Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington. “It was wonderful,” she says. “The teacher taught me more about technique than I’d learnt in a lifetime of art classes. She opened up a new world for me. I would practice for hours and hours and hours – just drawing very, very lightly, little circles. It’s incredibly tedious, but creates over time the most luxurious blanket of graphite. You cover the entire area with this blanket and then you go back and you do it again, and again.”

Clark’s technique has developed since then, however. “I’m not that slavish anymore,” she says. “I take a lot of short cuts and I use cross-hatching and so on, but my teacher instilled in me a discipline. I often feel like a monk in a medieval scriptorium, practicing these tiny, tiny circles. The process itself is so meditative – it really slows you down and makes you focus.”

Rebecca Clark, Finite and Alive

But Clark is not a botanical illustrator. “I love the precision of botanical drawing,” she says, “especially 19th century botanical artists – a lot of whom were women – producing beautiful notebooks and sketchbooks. I love the whole genre. But because it’s essentially plant identification, one must follow certain guidelines – depicting each plant in its entirety, for example, including roots, flowers, fruit, and the face and reverse of the leaf. This didn’t interest me at all. I preferred to take the exactitude I learnt from studying botanical illustration into the realm of the contemporary – for example, by placing a single form within a larger space of blank paper.”

Clark’s work seems to be becoming increasingly liberated from the constraints of technique and even of figurative representation. Her early works focused on an almost votive depiction of a single subject – one leaf, one bee, one bird. “I didn’t have the confidence to extend beyond that,” she tells me. “So I just drew leaf after leaf after leaf. I wanted to hone my craft.”

But her more recent works have begun to expand in a number of different directions. For a start, the compositions are significantly more complex, as each individual element forms part of an interconnected whole. “I gradually incorporated leafs and vines and that’s how the drawings started to grow,” she says. “It has been a truly organic evolution.”

Clark’s compositions are becoming significantly more complex, as each individual element forms part of an interconnected whole.

Colour has been introduced too. This has involved not only a careful balancing act, but also finding the right tools: “I tried many coloured pencils but they were either too chalky or too oily.” Finally, a fellow artist recommended Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor, which Clark describes as “fantastic”. “You can achieve subtley through layering colours, and you can blend the colours together to create a beautiful, glowing effect.”

These two developments – in colour and complexity of composition – have necessitated an element of planning in Clark’s work. “Applying coloured pencil on top of graphite is tricky as it can quickly turn dark and muddy,” Clark explains, “so now I plan ahead a little bit more.” But the entire process is still a natural one. “I usually have one subject in mind, maybe two. I rarely start out with a preconceived composition. Things tend to grow intuitively. One thing leads to another…”


The Learned Pig


While we were discussing her work over email, Clark sent me a link to an article by Ron Cassie in Baltimore Magazine about the impact of rising sea levels on the Maryland coast, near where she lives. Sea levels in the Chesapeake Bay are rising twice as fast as the global average. The state’s two largest cities – Annapolis and Baltimore – are both vulnerable. The article quotes Jim Titus, a Maryland resident and leading sea-level-rise official at the Environmental Protection Agency. “The question really isn’t what will be lost anymore,” he says, “but what we will decide to save.”

This question of prioritisation is one of increasing urgency. If we are to position ourselves as saviours of a world we have ruined, then what exactly is it that we are trying to save? The cute? The rare? The useful? 2014 saw the launch of the Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) index, which aims to measure how “evolutionary distinct” a species is, underpinned by the rationale that more evolutionary distinct species are more worth preserving. As bioethicist Sarah Chan, has pointed out, however, on such measurements, humans do not score highly.

The oysters that Clark chooses to draw are not valuable only insofar as they function economically or as repositories for human symbolism.

What interests me is how such questions relate to Clark’s own practice. How does she decide to draw what she draws? Once more, it is a question of loss. For her exhibition at Adkins Arboretum, Clark has produced a series of drawings of oysters in coloured pencil. In some ways, oysters are an apt choice through which to explore the problems of valuation. As a foodstuff, they have gone from working class staple in the early 19th century to costly delicacy in the 21st. In the UK, oyster farming dates back to Roman times. With no central nervous system, the oyster presents something of a quandary for those concerned with animal rights today. In the 40 years since the first publication of Animal Liberation, Peter Singer has “gone back and forth” on whether oysters are acceptable to eat or not.

Rebecca Clark, Finite and Alive

Leaving aside pearl oysters (which are part of a distinct family), oysters are also prized for their nutrient cycling abilities. They consume nitrogen-containing compounds, phosphates, plankton and other detritus, removing them from the water and the ecosystem. In the management-speak of conservation, oysters are “ecosystem engineers” that provide valuable “ecosystem services”. A 2012 paper estimated that “the economic value of oyster reef services, excluding oyster harvesting, is between $5,000 and $99,000 per hectare per year and that reefs recover their median restoration costs in 2–14 years.”

Clark, however, is not an economist. As with all her subjects, the oysters that she chooses to draw are not valuable only insofar as they function economically or as repositories for human symbolism. They are real things – dead animals, living objects – in their own right. Each small work depicts an oyster, alone or in a small composition of two or three. Form and texture have been delineated through graphite and coloured pencil, while watercolour, ink, and pastel have also been introduced in certain areas. The interiors especially are gently washed with watercolour’s characteristic translucence. The exteriors have the tones and contours of an Ordnance Survey map.

As Clark told me via email:

“…the Eastern Shore is in the immediate crosshairs of climate change and recent years have seen dramatic erosion due to rising waters and storms. The oyster population, which used to be hugely abundant in these waters, is declining rapidly and organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are trying to farm oysters in order to repopulate – and clean – the Bay with these amazing, filter feeders. One reason I wanted to represent them in my show was to draw awareness. But they are also so incredibly beautiful to me and were so much a part of my childhood.”

“It wasn’t until I started drawing them, however, that I realized how liberating and therapeutic the process would be. Unlike my other drawings, which are tight and exacting, these are loose and intuitive and they’ve been incredibly fun to make. And as the tendonitis in my hand flared up, I found drawing them to be a lot less painful, too; I’ve learned to use brushes instead of pencils, watercolor instead of graphite. Such amazing creatures: it seems their healing qualities are limitless.”

Clark’s work is about death as much as it is about life. Each drawing is embedded in and informed by a context of loss.

Clark’s work then – and in particular this exhibition at Adkins Arboretum – is about death as much as it is about life. Each drawing is embedded in and informed by a context of loss – and despair at that loss. During our Skype conversation and email exchanges, a background hum of hopelessness is detectable, a desire to turn away from a world that we have ruined. Clark doesn’t disagree:

“It’s a little bit of being an introvert, a little bit of living at a time when things are so consumer-orientated and loud and crass. My little studio is a refuge. Our consumer lifestyle has altered the natural world so drastically. I want to hide and retreat and draw nature as a celebration of what’s left. I know that is bleak and misanthropic, but it’s true.”

Clark is not alone in this despair at what is being lost. It reminds me, for example, of certain elements of the Dark Mountain Project, who have argued that civilisation has passed the point of no return, and that it’s time to prepare for the worst. Clark, it turns out, has followed Dark Mountain since before its official inception, and her drawings appear in their latest anthology, Dark Mountain 7, the opening editorial of which tackles man’s inhumanity to man (as well as nature) head-on: “If the dark forces of conflict and control are indeed encroaching once more upon the ‘civilised’ world, the need for us to learn how to root is more, not less, urgent.”

In the days following 9/11 I felt a visceral need to lose myself in drawing.

Clark’s own approach to rootedness is no longer found only in depictions of the real. 2011’s All Will Be One is a key work here. It brings together her precision realism with elements of colour, and semi-abstract patterning based on dandelions. This is also a highly charged work – emotionally and symbolically. As Clark explains over Skype:

“My husband’s nephew was killed in the World Trade Centre. The days and weeks following 9/11 were devastating for our family. Washington, DC was a living nightmare. And at home we were subjecgted to the horrific scenes repeated endlessly on TV: the towers crumbling, the white ash covering everything, the search for missing people, the bodies jumping out of buildings. On the afternoon of Saturday, September 15th I felt a visceral need to lose myself in drawing. To escape all the violence and sadness, I retreated to my studio.”

“There was a window to the left of my drawing table and as I sat there I was jolted by something I noticed out of the corner of my eye, in my peripheral vision. It was a form falling from the sky. Every nerve in my body jumped. In my shell-shocked state, I thought it was another body freefalling. My window was the perfect shape of a television screen, backlit by the blue glow of the September sky… As I started to come to my senses, I realised it was only a leaf – just a little leaf gently falling from a branch above.”

Rebecca Clark, Finite and Alive

“I went outside and found a leaf under my window, one leaf amongst many that had fallen over those early autumn days. It was cracked and broken, like everything around me. The experience had a profoundly cathartic effect on me. When I was a child I found solace in nature, I found tranquillity and independence and strength. Holding this little cracked leaf my hand reminded me of the lessons I’d learned from nature as a child. ‘This is life,’ I thought. ‘Things die, they become recycled and are reborn. As horrible and vicious as life can be, nothing is permanent.’ I went back to my studio and drew the leaf.”

“A decade after that post 9/11 experience, I decided to honour my little leaf by giving it a resurrection, of sorts. I’d saved it in a box all these years. Looking at it again, I realized it had the form of the crucified Christ – leaves like outstretched arms and stem resembling bound feet – and the holes and cracks in its ‘body’ resembled the Five Sacred Wounds depicted in images of Christ from the late Middle Ages. In All Will Be One, the leaf is dying but it will go back into the soil and be reborn.”

The resulting work is one of Clark’s most intriguing. A leaf of golden brown lies in front of four circular patterns – two of which are recognisably dandelion-esque, two of which owe more to medieval representations of order in nature. The composition is centred – rare for Clark – and this both emphasises the symmetry of the abstract patterning and draws attention to the irregularity of the real leaf. There’s an undercurrent of mysticism here as the torn and spindly little leaf is backlit against the flatness of pure pattern. It lies, three-dimensional, with a kind of heroic vulnerability. Set against that which is simply inert, here is death, lit with the memory of a past life and the possibility of renewal.

Clark’s work is perhaps less about capturing than creating – slowly constructing an experience between artist and subject (animal, oyster, leaf) or subject and viewer.

Over Skype I mention how this particular work reminds me a little of Henrijs Preiss and a lot of Ryan Leigh. By coincidence, in 2012 Leigh produced a series of drawings entitled Sybil’s Litter. These consist of graphite illustrations of leaves on graph paper, under which are texts from high-ranking US generals in response to 9/11. The link with Clark’s work is uncanny.

While her drawing may be evolving in a number of different directions, one area in which Clark has remained true to botanical illustration – or at odds with much of the contemporary art world – is in the scale of her work. Her depictions of individual leaves are around seven inches across. Even her most recent, increasingly complex, compositions are rarely bigger than 30 inches. As Clark herself says, “making small drawings forces people to take the time and examine them up close”.

By contrast with, say, photography, which captures the moment in an instant, Clark’s approach to drawing builds towards it slowly. It is less about capturing than creating – slowly constructing an experience between artist and subject (animal, oyster, leaf) or subject and viewer that is at once a singular moment and something that lingers and slides on into the future.

Rebecca Clark, Finite and Alive

At the same time, it seems to me that there is also a process of distancing at work. Clark’s drawings evoke death, loss, and absence. Like much contemporary nature writing, her work may be underpinned by a desire to reconnect us with the natural world, but the actual moment of viewing her work comes in a gallery or in front of a computer screen. Each work is produced in a studio. Clark acknowledges this contradiction: “I spend a lot of time reading about the beauty and mystical qualities of nature but it’s so hypocritical because I do it in the comfort of my little studio.”

The precision and detail, the tones and textures provoke a desire for proximity, a desire always frustrated by distance.

But it is a discrepancy that is also fruitful. “I don’t think there’s any substitute for being able to see things in the flesh,” she says, “but the irony is that what little attention I’ve received has been through the internet.” That is how collaborations with Dark Mountain and Corbel Stone Press came about. That is how I came across her work too.

In some ways, the act of viewing Clark’s work online enacts a doubling of the distancing process already at work in her drawings. The precision and detail, the tones and textures provoke a desire for proximity, a desire always frustrated by distance. The drawings are already doing this: to get close to one of Clark’s drawings is not to get close to the leaf itself – not physically anyway. Which is perhaps why her work is drifting more directly towards the symbolic.

But at the same time as creating a moment, the drawings also enact a division of that moment, stretching it out into the future – not forever, but just a little beyond the individual life and presence of the subject itself. The leaf dies. The drawing lives on, for a time. The internet repeats that process, doubling the distance but enabling the works to live some kind of existence beyond the life-span of an exhibition. I’ve seen Clark’s work in Venice, but not really: drawings scanned and multiplied by another artist are not the same as the drawings themselves. The seed is sown far and wide, but it is no substitute; it is something else entirely. This text might just be another little contribution.


Finite and Alive: New Drawings by Rebecca Clark is at Adkins Arboretum, Maryland, USA from 4th August to 2nd October 2015.

Clark also has work in The Only Home We Have at Pelham Art Center Gallery, New York, USA from 11th September to 24th October 2015.

Image credits (top to bottom):
1. Bee 17 (Prana), 2011, graphite + colored pencil on paper, 11.25×13.5 inches
2. Family Tree, 2014, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 30×22 inches
3. Branch/Leaves – detail 1, 2008, graphite on paper, 30×44 inches (diptych)
4. Oyster 2, 2015, graphite, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper
5. All Will Be One, 2011, archival digital pigment print on paper, 30×22 inches
6. Kestrel 1 (Again, Alive, for Richard Skelton), 2014, graphite on paper, 16×20 inches


The Learned Pig