9 March 2018

Testament to Joy: a conversation with artist John Forrester Clack

| Belco Arts
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John Forrester Clack artworks

From left: Self Portrait (2016), Head Drawing (2016) and In the Light of His Glory and Grace (2017), all by John Forrester Clack.

Opening hours are over, the lights are switched off, and I share the lone bench in the room with artist John Forrester Clack. The Main Gallery at Belconnen Arts Centre has a cathedral-like ambience in the late afternoon, and the figurative images of Clack’s exhibition Drawings surround us as though they were an attentive congregation, listening to our voices rise and echo in the cavernous space.

In his youth, Clack would scale the mountains surrounding the working-class Welsh mining town in which he lived in order to get above the clouds and be alone with creation. This appreciation of a force greater than himself was a precursor to the deep devotion to God that would develop in his early twenties, and which has informed his arts practice ever since. Despite such divine inspiration, Clack struggles with the thought of sounding self-reverential or frivolous in interviews, describing his work as ‘not great art’.

‘Creating art is a stumbling, human experience, and that stumbling marks a place for future works,’ he explains. In 2004, Clack experienced a shift in his artistic process after completing a major piece he had worked on for seven years. He was learning to drive at the time, and recalls he both literally and artistically felt the freedom to choose his own direction instead of being taken places, as if God were asking him, ‘well, what do you want to do now? What do you want to draw?’

Drawings by John Forrester Clack

Drawings by John Forrester Clack in the Main Gallery at Belconnen Arts Centre.

As a Christian artist, Clack tends to perch on the fringes of both the Christian community and the art world, never wholly fitting into either. As we discuss the concept of being a ‘successful artist,’ Clack remembers struggling to pay rent and afford food after being dropped by a prominent Australian commercial gallery; yet the sense of pleasure and joy he gets from creating art after more than 30 years is surely a greater testament to his success than any other measure.

‘Art speaks to you…some art doesn’t even use language. It’s like a mirror that reflects.’ He becomes animated as he talks about the visceral experience of creating art; he loves the scratching, throwing, getting dirty. Clack notes that the only other experience that comes close to it is being a volunteer fire brigade member; in both situations, he is forced to be fully present in the moment, to ‘live in the now’.

John Forrester Clack

John Forrester Clack in the studio. Photo: Leonie Gill.

He finds the mark-making in Self Portrait (top left) speaks of joyfulness. Though many of the works in the exhibition are light and almost ephemeral, Clack’s work is often interpreted as dark or grotesque. He tells me that responses have run the gamut; some have even expressed outrage at the ‘self-indulgence’ of Clack’s chosen profession. Asked whether he believes art is self-indulgent, Clack pauses for a long time before asking, “was Bach indulgent? Was Mozart? If so, I’m so glad they were.”

Written by Skye Rutherford.

To learn more about the artist and the inspiration behind his works, make sure to visit our Exhibition Live: Artists in Conversation event on Sunday 18 March at 2:00pm, where John Forrester Clack will be hosting an illuminating and intimate talk amidst his powerful artworks. The exhibition Drawings will be open at Belconnen Arts Centre until 29 March 2018.

What questions would you like to ask John Forrester Clack at Exhibition Live: Artists in Conversation?

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