Art of the Milk of Human Kindness: Patricia Houghton Clarke

Art of the Milk of Human Kindness: Patricia Houghton Clarke

By Debra Herrick 

A studio visit with Patricia Houghton Clarke, Santa Barbara/Carpinteria-based photographer, includes a cup of Roiboos tea. Feeling at ease in Clarke’s presence doesn’t require an elixir though. She’s a warm and gentle person with a quiet magnetism, an unclouded intellect, and a commitment to art as a mechanism for social justice.  

Born in Seattle, Clarke moved around as a young girl, to Connecticut with a Mad Man dad commuting to New York City; to Los Angeles where she made her first studio next to a freezer in the basement at the base of Griffith Park, where she “grew up below the Observatory,” then Santa Barbara, where as a teenager she moved to finish high school, and would come back to after traveling extensively with her husband.

In 1975 Clarke traveled to Java to study batik before returning to Santa Barbara. She cofounded Homes For People, and then traveled internationally with her kids for several years. Then in the nineties, she picked up a Holga medium format camera. The allure of the Holga was the nontechnical for Clarke, “there is nothing getting between the lens and you connecting to images.”

The name Holga comes from the Cantonese Chinese words “ho gwong” which mean “very bright,” as the camera requires plentiful light to capture pictures. The photos often have shadowy vignettes and light-sprayed fans fluttering across the visual field; the pinpoint depth of field billows out voluminous rounded universes that erase some details, softly highlight others, and as the image dissipates into the edges, dissolve borders between image and reality. Dreamscapes. Phantoms. Quiet, insular images that create isolated worlds in antithesis to digitally enhanced art brand campaigns.  

It’s no wonder that for Clarke the hypnotic Holga was the right camera to capture Hmong villages in Laos, communities who have for decades suffered crimes of ethnic cleansing from the Laotian government.* Hmong culture is one that fights to be recorded, made visible, from behind the veils of power and forces not unlike those of nature that imbue every Holga image with unforeseen elements of darkness, light and erasure.

In 1979, Clarke tutored Hmong-Lao refugee mothers in Isla Vista under the auspices of Catholic Charities but it wasn’t until two years after she left the post of executive director at the Santa Barbara Bowl in 2004 that Clarke went to see the Hmong camps and to document their everyday lives with the poet Ellen Chavez Kelley for a series called “Correspondences.” “I wanted to see where they were. I wanted to go see where the Hmong refugees were living,” said Clarke. “They were in a displaced village. These people were removed from the mountains and brought down to the village. I noticed that in the village, the people had rudimentary bamboo huts, but there was one family with a stucco home, a family whose extended family had escaped to America and sent them money and photos. There were photos of San Francisco.”     

When Clarke sits with a subject, she doesn’t always take her camera out at the first meeting. She connects with her subject first, recognizes their humanity and tries to capture that essence in a shared visual language. On more recent projects, she has started using digital reflex cameras, producing crisp, clear images whether in black & white or color.

She has travelled extensively. “I started traveling when I was nineteen. Actually my grandfather made sure we had a little money to travel. I have it in my genes. I took off for 2 ½ years to travel with my partner, and years later we travelled with our kids. If I have any money, I always want to travel.”

“I’m really interested in humanity, really interested in culture.”

When Clarke returned from a trip to Laos with typhoid, she decided she needed to do a series at home. She turned to a drag project featuring her friend and collaborator Stuart Carrey and a day long performance at the Santa Barbara Center for Arts Science and Technology (SBCAST). “It was like I was shooting a culture within a culture. Stuart is an artist out of every pore. I just adore him. I love watching him transform into drag. When I’m with him now, when he’s transforming, I can tell when Amber is coming in and Stuart is leaving.

“Photography is so much about energy. It comes through the lens. I can feel it energetically. I can feel it and that’s when I stop. It’s an energetic transmission when that’s happening. I can get the essence of the person.”

Clarke’s most recent project is an expansive public art installation, “Facing Ourselves,” executed in partnership with the City of Martignano, Italy and Martignano’s community arts organization Parco Palmieri. The monumental photographic installation features oversized portraits of people from different parts of the world pasted on the side of buildings like billboards, or installed on giant signposts in the street. Martignano is a small village in the south of Italy, population 1,700.

Since 2016, Clarke has traveled to Italy and London photographing portraits for “Facing Ourselves,” hoping to give voice to those who have lost everything, endured tremendous hardships and have been forced to leave their homes (Emily Morill, Silo118). The portraits include “not only refugees and immigrants, but equally important are the people who choose to welcome them into their communities,” said Clarke. 

“What do these people look like? Do we see ourselves in them? Can we face ourselves—and each other?”

The project was inspired by experiences that Clarke had in 2011 while she was an artist in residence in Martignano. “Historically migrants themselves, between 1876 and the early 1980s more than 26 million Italians migrated to the United States, northern Europe and other parts of the globe,” said Clarke. “The villagers’ acceptance of ‘others’ comes from a place deep within themselves, their families and their own migratory history—saying, ‘We know what it’s like to carry a suitcase.’”

The next phase of “Facing Ourselves” expands its scope by collaborating with other organizations, including Waging Peace UK, Indivisible Carpinteria, Carpinteria Arts Center and The Alcazar Theatre

In October 2018, “Facing Ourselves” won the international Julia Margaret Cameron Honorable Mention Award for Human Rights, and several of the photographs will be exhibited in the 5th Biennale in Barcelona, Spain in spring 2019.

This month, Clarke has begun a new series of “Facing Ourselves” portraits based in Carpinteria.

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