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  • Hannah Hightman

Kate Clark

Photos by Patrick Grady. Writing by Hannah Hightman.

At Kate Clark’s studio, I stand in front of a zebra who, with human eyes, gazes just past me as it embraces another of its kind. They are frozen in time, at the precipice of some passionate display of emotion. It looks like at any moment they might suddenly start to move again; whether they would move with grace or with an animalistic vengeance remains a mystery. The piece is called Entangled, and it encompasses many of the themes of Clark’s work, from the cognitive dissonance we have in our relationship to animals, to the familial connections that inform so much of how we see the world.

Entangled is Clark’s favorite piece for a variety of reasons. “To be able to get two zebras from a zoo was great,” said Clark. “And they’re so wonderfully different– one has that super tight black and white hide and the other is so much furrier and is brown and white.” The piece challenges gender concepts as well. “They’re rearing up in a violent way but they’re also intimate in the way that the faces look like they almost will kiss. I like that they are both males,” said Clark. But the ambiguity of the way the animals are positioned has a sort of double meaning. “I always want to talk about the incredibly complicated connection that we have, where we can be extremely violent towards animals and completely careless about their survival for our luxury and comfort, but also absolutely love and understand their importance in our lives.”

Clark is best known for her sculptural work that places humanlike faces on animal bodies. She’s been working in this style for over two decades now, starting when she was in graduate school. “I was thinking about what made our faces so connective, and just how we were able to reach this super high level of communication and civilization because you could very easily read the emotions on a person’s face,” said Clark. In the beginning, she was working with smaller animals, like squirrels and raccoons, but she realized the effect was different if she worked on a larger scale. “I did a big one, a deer,” remembered Clark. “Immediately when the face was the size of my face or larger, it was so much about the communication between the two of us. It was such a different, primal connection.”

It’s true. There’s something distinctively intimate about seeing a human face reflected back at you in a wild animal. But it took a long time to reach that level of realism. “The first ones that I made had no fur on the face at all,” said Clark. “I wasn’t comfortable with my sculpting so I wanted to show all the human features.” She often chooses models who have a different gender and nationality from the animals she is working with. “There was always that play on what color the skin was going to be, what country the animal came from, what country my model is from,” said Clark. Viewers didn’t really pick up on this commentary. “They wouldn’t even look at the specific features of the face,” she said. “Everyone assumed they were all me which was so funny. I was like ‘No, that’s an old Black man. How could you ask if that was me? It looks just like him.’”

Sometimes though, her inspiration is closer to home. “During the pandemic, I didn’t have models so some of those reference me,” she said. “It doesn’t really bother me when people think they’re modeled after me, but I don’t want them to think my approach to the work is to make a million animals with my face.” She has also used her sister as a model in the past, and her family influences her work in ways beyond just aesthetics. “I have two amazing, open-hearted, fabulous kids who are always supportive and sweet,” she said. A piece titled The Sisters’ Embrace reminds Clark of her daughters’ relationship to each other. “ My daughters are still super affectionate even though they’re teens. They still choose to sit together, and they share a bedroom,” said Clark. “They’ve proven that when animals huddle it’s not just for warmth. There's an emotional connection.”

Pregnancy and raising a child is a primal experience in and of itself, according to Clark. “ It’s crazy what happens to your body. You get 50 percent more blood, so you see all these crazy veins,” she said. “And then nursing is also so primal. So when I think about my work I think about how unbelievably animalistic we still are.” One of the most meaningful connections Clark has had with a piece occurred just after her oldest daughter was born. “I had to do my entire first solo show pregnant, which was actually the way I wanted it because I did not want anybody to pressure me to not continue with my career,” said Clark. “My daughter was born and she took a three hour nap while I finished this black bear I was working on. I put the last pin in, and the face looked down at me. It was my sister’s face, and it is still one of the best faces that I’ve ever done. I put that pin in, and my daughter woke up, and it was just this moment.

Clark hopes that the focus on family helps make her work more accessible. “We group animals scientifically in a way that doesn’t give them individual identities. So my work is about giving them an identity, and singling them out so you can connect with one,” said Clark. “But family is something that softens it. We always want to see family, we love it. It's about recognizing family, not necessarily herd, but a more intimate connection.”

At the time I visited Clark’s studio, she had recently hosted her daughter’s birthday party there. I struggled to imagine what the reactions of the party guests would be. “Children have seen anthropomorphized animals since they’re teeny tiny. Kids are almost always okay,” said Clark. Children are mainly afraid of her work if the animal itself is a predator, and it has less to do with the human face. “ I think some of the pieces that have devilish horns are definitely scarier,” she said. “I was in a show at a museum in Nashville. My younger daughter was only about one year old, and as we’re walking towards my piece, she was saying ‘No, mama, no!’ It was a wolf piece.” But children and adults alike often find that the scariness subsides the longer you spend with Kate’s sculptures, as one of the party guests learned. “This one girl came to the party who is an artist, and I just assumed she would be fine with it,” said Clark. “At the end of the party she said ‘I just want you to know, when I came in I was not sure about your work at all, but now I find it really beautiful.’”

At first, the hybridity of Clark’s work was all people could notice, but gradually she thinks audiences have grasped a more layered meaning. Now, she’s looking to experiment. “It’s been so serious for so long,” said Clark. “Now people can completely relate to the subject so I can push it a little further.” Lately she’s been making collages using photographs of her sculptures. These works are a much more manageable size, and much easier to own than the sculptures, but they still retain many of the same features. “The patterning on this recent series is the shape of the ears and horns. So there’s some correlation,” she said. “I put the leather back into the collage so it still sort of has that energy. I pin it too to relate back to the work.”

Even her sculptural work has taken a slight pivot. She’s currently working on an antelope, and, for the first time, she’s stenciling the fur. “I almost always make the animals super dignified, standing in position, but this one I’m making very vulnerable,” she said. “It’s showing its belly. I just stenciled away the white fur. It wasn’t my intention, but as I was mounting it, I switched gears because he was this beautiful white canvas of belly.” It’s a bit of a full-circle moment, because Clark used to work painting carousels, and the process reminds her of that.

But, regardless, Clark’s work will always be consistent in its intention to start conversations about the natural world, and the need to preserve and protect it. “In making the work, presenting the work, and writing about it, my conclusion is just that we are so strangely complex,” said Clark. “I buy chicken that’s wrapped in plastic. There’s so much denial. We’ve gotten to a point where it’s so hard to see clearly what the right steps are going to be.” But Clark is not cynical. Her favorite reactions to her work are when people are initially unnerved by it and gradually come to see it as calming. “I do think that the beauty of visual art is that you can present something with just a suggestion,” she said. “There doesn’t have to be a scientific reason or an accusation. I try to make it beautiful and calm. I hope that even in the subtlest way it helps people rethink a connection.” Clark worries for her daughters’ futures as well. “That’s another thing about having a family. You care,” she said. “It’s not just my next 40 years, it’s what their lives are going to be like. And kids are so, so aware of how daunting everything is right now.”

The trajectory of her own art gives her hope. “In the 20 years that I’ve been doing this, people resisted the idea of hybridity and now they’ve completely embraced it. We need to celebrate all the different ways people can come together.”

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