By Leila Ugincius, University Public Affairs
Award-winning artist Sonya Clark could probably use a new car. Her Prius is a little rough around the edges, but she saves mileage by walking to work at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, where she chairs the Department of Craft/Material Studies. So even though her most recent award comes with a $25,000 unrestricted grant that can be used for anything, rather than buying a new car, she is using the money the way she has used all of her previous awards — to benefit the community.
“Now that community can be a lot of different things,” she said. “It can be VCU’s educational community. It could be the community of black women like with the Hair Craft Project. It could be young artists. It could be anything. I’m always thinking about how to make sure that that money sort of cycles through the community a few times before it cycles out.”
Over the years, Clark has learned that the student community benefits more if she writes a check to the university rather than directly paying a graduate student to work in her office, because the university matches the amount of her donation in tuition remission.
“And that person is helping me in my studio, which helps me in my artwork, so it’s just getting the money to be more impactful,” she said. “This money will probably be used to support another graduate student. So over the years I’ve supported a number of women. It’s not that I don’t have love for the gentlemen but mainly it’s women who are in grad school here.”
And with this most recent award, it only seems right that she use it to support other women artists. After all, Anonymous Was a Woman honors women artists over 40 who are at a critical moment in their lives or careers. Named after a line in a Virginia Woolf book, the award was created in 1996 in response to the decision of the National Endowment of the Arts to stop supporting individual artists. Little else is known of the award. Clark doesn’t know who nominated her or who selected her as one of this year’s 10 recipients.
“The competition is more fierce, I think, because it’s specifically to support women over 40,” Clark said. By that time, “you’ve overcome some hurdles. But it hasn’t been easy, so someone is noticing that and you don’t know who that someone is. So it’s a gift from a stranger. I don’t know who the jurors were and I don’t know who nominated me, so that kind of gift from a stranger is the kind of thing that makes me want to be even more generous with whatever I am blessed with.
“And that is really important to me, without having my name on it necessarily, but just seeing how can I help someone else who wasn’t expecting it.”
Once notified that she’s been nominated for the award, each nominee must then submit several pieces to the anonymous judging committee. Most of Clark’s submissions dealt with the complications of history in materiality.
In the 1800s, Clark’s African great-grandmother married her European great-grandfather and began a family in post-emancipation Jamaica when sugarcane was more valuable than the people who worked the fields, she said. Meanwhile British gentry were in the habit of exhibiting slave trade wealth by flaunting sugar-rotted teeth. Her Jamaican aunt once told her, “You cannot tell if someone is black by skin color but by hair texture.”
“Racial disparity is deeply imbedded,” Clark explained in her application. “The fissures exist everywhere. There is much work to be done and undone. I taste the bitterness in sugar and find the bite in the comb. My work bears witness to this complexity through the use of craft techniques, materials and objects. These become my cultural interfaces and I pick at them to unearth their roots.
“I muse over the power of hair. I am inspired by the rhythm of braiding, the dry sweep of brush against scalp, and the comb’s tug on a tangle. I navigate accord and discord through designed objects. I ask, what battle is so great that combs must be unbreakable? How can a textile inspire a war or end one? Charged with agency, objects and materials reflect and absorb us.”
Since 2011, Clark’s work has been in 12 solo and 50 group exhibits.
In 2011, she was a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow in Washington, D.C., and a Knight Foundation Artist-in-Residence Fellow at the McColl Center in North Carolina. She received an Art Matters Grant, a Culture Works Grant, a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Fellowship and a United States Artists Fellowship.
The following year, she was a Civitella Ranieri fellow in Italy. In 2013, she received a Center for Craft Creativity and Design Research Fund grant for the Hair Craft Project, which explored the craft of hair braiding within a textile art context and resulted in exhibits, a symposium and catalogue. The project won Art Prize in the two-dimensional category and split the Grand Juried Prize.
In 2014, she received the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art. Last year, she became the first black alumna recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from Amherst College. One week later, she was in New York performing “Unraveling,” a project in which people helped her unravel a Confederate flag thread by thread. In August 2015, she received the VCU School of the Arts Excellence in Research award. This fall, she received the universitywide Distinguished Scholarship Award. The only other visual art recipient was Elizabeth King, emeriti faculty in the VCU Department of Sculpture + Extended Media, 15 years ago. The only other black recipient was author Paule Marshall, professor emerita of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
“What’s nice is that this year feels particularly special to me because of the VCU distinguished researcher scholarship,” Clark said. “Liz King is the only other visual artist who has ever won that award and she also won an Anonymous Was a Woman award recently. If I have to follow in someone’s footsteps those are not bad footsteps to follow in, so I’m really thrilled.”