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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR | Art

His Art and Soul

Renowned watercolorist Timothy J. Clark 'sees things ordinary people can't.' His life is an artful balance of control and whimsy.

March 27, 2000|BRAD BONHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Born with a keen and restless eye, Timothy J. Clark has an artist's command of scenery. But scenery can command him just as easily, as he discovered during opening ceremonies at Swallows Day at Mission San Juan Capistrano last week.

Standing among the dignitaries--Clark has a solo exhibition of watercolors at the mission--he found himself sneaking in a quick sketch of nearby mariachis on the back of his program.

"I couldn't just stand there," said Clark, 48, of Capistrano Beach.

Indeed, the artist is rarely standing still.

The Orange County native often works in three time zones within a week, flying to Hawaii for a solo show or to New York, where last month he received the prestigious William A. Paton Award from the National Academy of Design.

Like his work, his life is an artful balance of control and whimsy. He is as apt to dash to answer the phone with shampoo in his hair as cook an elegant lunch. His National Academy winner, "The Maine Woodworking Shop of Raymond C. Small," was more than a year in the making, while "Artist on the Hill," winner of the Popular Vote Award this year at the National Arts Club Members Show, was polished off in less than an hour.

"I'm fairly vigilant that there is a balance in my work," he says. "Technical versus spiritual, and intuitive versus organized concept. I try hard to stay balanced.

"I keep busy, but painting is what I do every day. Everything else is residue."

For many people, this residue--teacher, author, lecturer, art industry consultant--would constitute a second career. He has taught at Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley since 1975 and was voted teacher of the year in 1997. In the late '80s, Clark achieved a national profile and earned an Emmy nomination for his 13-week educational PBS series, "Focus on Watercolor," which he later turned into a book.

"Tim is a live wire," says artist Will Barnet, 88, National Academy vice president and for decades a doyen of the art world. "Different mediums are a struggle for many artists, but he has a feeling for the [watercolor] medium."

Jean Stern, art historian and executive director of the Irvine Museum, admires Clark as much for his teaching as his painting skills.

"He sees things ordinary people can't see," Stern says. "It's a rare quality when you can actually do a beautiful painting and then turn around and teach it to students. He's brought groups to our museum [for lecture tours], and when he does, staff members who aren't working will follow him around, because they know they can learn something. He is one of the best painters in California, really."

Born and reared in Santa Ana as the third of seven children, Clark is a home-grown talent. He became hooked on watercolors during a two-day class at Bowers Museum when he was in the fifth grade. After graduating from Mater Dei High, he drew portraits and caricatures at Disneyland to work his way through Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s.

Clark's career began to take off when, at age 27, he was given a solo exhibition at the exclusive Challis Galleries in Laguna Beach and then became one of the youngest painters ever to have a painting hung at the 175-year-old National Academy. This allowed him to bypass Laguna's Festival of Arts, a traditional means of exposure for many Orange County painters.

His lecturing has included seminars throughout Europe and the U.S. for trade groups as well as for the public. During one extraordinary seminar in 1995 at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Mass., Clark re-created John Singer Sargent's "Muddy Alligators" as a means of explaining the artist's technique.

Recalls Clark's wife, Marriott: "The curator was upset because the museum was so crowded he couldn't get through the aisles. Later, the museum realized this was a positive thing. The next time Tim did it, there was a line around the museum of people wanting in. It's a thrilling experience to see art being created. People see the fruits of art, but rarely see art happen."

Clark mostly uses watercolors for his landscapes, portraits and interiors, having developed a slight allergy to oil paints.

Plein-air painting is trendy, Clark says ("Every artist from Minnesota claims to do it now"), but he was developing his technique 30 years ago, before housing tracts changed Orange County's landscape forever.

"When I was in art school, there was nobody going out [to do plein-air painting]. Growing up in Southern California, I could do it all year-round. I would drive out to Irvine, and I didn't have a folding easel then, so the legs of this huge easel would be sticking out of my Volvo," he says. "Green hills, long stands of eucalyptus, it was all there for me. It's really only artists in California who can devote a lot of time to plein-air painting. Back East, artists are confined to the studio most of the year."

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