Shades of a Renegade

February 25, 2009

Written for The Oregonian newspaper and published Feb. 28, 2008.

A young man’s face gazes upon the world from a gnarled tree.

His portrait is attached to the trunk along a well-traveled street of tidy houses. Painted mostly in blues and black against sunset reds, the image burns through winter’s gloom, luring a motorist to stop.

Black, unreadable eyes stare straight ahead. The mouth hints at a suppressed smile. The long, flawless face is unguarded and open. There’s no signature, adding to the intrigue.

Does the artist live in the nearest house? A knock summons a bearded man wearing a short-brimmed cap.

“No, I didn’t paint it. That’s Benjamin Alexander Clark, kind of a self-portrait.”

Benjamin’s a good friend, says Kerry Hunt, an electrician. He shows off two other portraits, one on a gate, the other nailed to the side of his St. Johns house.

“The whole world loves Benjamin. You should meet him. He’s a guerrilla artist.”

****

The blunt nose of a psychedelically painted hippie van is perched on a front porch in the Overlook neighborhood. Its empty headlight sockets gawk at the street through falling snow. From a portrait in a window, a pensive teenage boy peers outside. Scrawled on the window above a “Do Not Disturb” sign is an ornate signature: Benjamin Alexander Clark.

Clark, 37, greets a stranger with disarming cheer. He’s tall and thin, all arms and legs like a boy, hair spilling over a thin-lined forehead. His jeans are torn and splotched with paint.

“Ask me anything,” he says, leading the way through a living room jammed with art. Even a hole in the ceiling is framed.

Soon, many of the paintings will be gone, scattered like dandelion seeds in a manic burst of giving. But on this day, Clark answers questions about paintings on the walls, paintings stacked on the floor, paintings in photographs propped on a piano.

Many more are upstairs in the attic studio he built. A carpenter by day and painter at night (sometimes all night), he says, “I have to paint. I’ve never not painted.”

His works hold bold strokes of bright colors or fine lines of subdued shades. Each has a story, especially those of homeless youths such as the boy in the window.

For five years, Clark has devoted part of one month as guest artist for p:ear, a downtown nonprofit that helps wayward 15- to 23-year-olds. He paints them and their portraits are displayed in p:ear’s gallery. When a portrait sells, the subjects receive a modeling fee.

Clark also donates paintings and time to other nonprofits, including the Cascade AIDS Project, Children’s Heart Foundation and Project Quest.

His largest painting, 8 by 4 feet, looms over a bedroom. Rokin, a homeless youth wearing post-apocalyptic garb, stands on a street corner. His stance, face and the stick he’s cradling convey anger a hair-trigger anger close to violence.

Clark was invited to display the painting at City Hall in 2006 as part of the First Thursday art event. Soon after he installed it, some city staff wanted it removed –too unsettling.

“I told them they were being hypocritical,” Clark says. “His tough-guy identity is how he survives. The painting makes the point, ‘Here’s someone we can’t afford to ignore.’ To their credit, they changed their minds when it was contextualized. It meant so much to me. It hung for a month.” (Pollyanne Birge, an aide to City Commissioner Sam Adams, coordinates the art program and confirms Clark’s account.)

P:ear co-director Pippa Arend says Clark “captures a real inner essence and beauty of these kids.” She recalls a teenager “bouncing off the walls” until he posed. “He sat perfectly still for 15 minutes. Afterward, he told me, ‘No one has ever looked at me before.’ It was an incredibly strong moment.”

Clark, a Portland resident for 17 years, says he feels a connection to p:ear. Troubles as a teenager in Berkeley, Calif., sometimes kept him from coming home, despite his parents’ unflagging love and support.

Pain from his youth contributes to his prodigious output. “Years ago, I discovered that all that is like solid jet fuel, and it burns hot, man. Rather than having it control me, I control it now.”

Clark paints in oils and acrylics on reclaimed objects, some salvaged from trash bins. Among the stacks are images on doors. A round tabletop features a demure black-and-white image of a bare-breasted woman minus the head.

“That’s my buddy,” he says of the woman, girlfriend Kelley Burke, a doula and massage therapist who shares his house. She’s put fresh-baked oatmeal cookies on a dining table that Clark built from reclaimed wood.

He made the tables at Clyde Common restaurant, including the much-discussed communal ones, and furniture for the Ace Hotel next door. He works often for members of Pink Martini, including founder Thomas Lauderdale, whose historic downtown building he helped remodel.

Clark’s portraits of Aldous Huxley and Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci hang in Lauderdale’s loft. Lauderdale describes Clark as having “this quintessentially Portland spirit, which is wide open, artistic, renegade and irresistible.”

Clark’s parents, Thomas and Johanna Clark, are Berkeley psychologists. Thomas Clark says as a child their son had an unusual “openness and charm and interest in other people.” At age 3, his watercolor of a parrot, precise in color and form, stunned them.

On a family trip to Europe when Benjamin was 10 or 11, art museums fascinated him. His father recalls him beholding Michelangelo’s David in awe, circling the statue over and over. Several years later, Clark received three months of private art lessons.

Throughout his studio, paintings are stacked or propped against the walls. Most are unsigned. Photos of Pablo Picasso and John Lennon are pinned near his easel. Clark wears a New York City T-shirt identical to Lennon’s.

Clark opens a window and sits on the sill. “When I’m painting, the art is totally between me and God,” he says, rolling then lighting a cigarette. “As soon as it’s done, it’s a commodity. It’s for sale or I give it away. The art is over for me.”

What about the portrait on the tree? “Man, that’s basically a bad painting I gave Kerry a couple years ago. But it brought you here. That’s magic, don’t you think?”

Clark leaves the window and paces, pausing occasionally to study paintings, arms crossed over his chest. Only recently has his art begun to help support him — from 2 percent to 20 percent of his income in the past year.

As paintings fill the house, he says, they feel oppressive, stifling. His annual “distribution” is overdue. That means giving friends pieces that didn’t sell, donating others or installing what’s left around the city.

“I don’t really think of myself as a guerilla artist. It’s a guerrilla act, technically. I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m letting go of dormant energy in my world and leaving it to other people to revive it if they want.”

****

Clark tramps in man-on-a-mission strides through his basement workshop. He carries an electric drill, other tools and wood screws outside past two hippie van doors.

The van, painted by Portland artist Tom Cramer, had a 50-second role in Gus Van Sant’s 1993 movie “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” Later in real life, a crash totaled it. Clark ended up with several remnants.

The van lives on as art, albeit piecemeal. Once dormant, it’s been revived in another place, another context — Clark’s theory of revived energy. The idea is about to be tested using Clark’s paintings.

The tools join seven paintings in his pickup, a ’79 Ford named Cookie. Music CDs are piled on the seat — energy, he says, to fuel the purge, an annual event for about a decade.

Battling a head cold, Clark wears fingerless gloves. The cloud-streaked afternoon is unseasonably warm and dry. Neighbor John Gillon arrives and helps carry enough paintings from the living room to nearly fill the truck, then heads home with two.

With Nirvana’s “Love Buzz” blaring, Cookie departs.

The first stop is a power pole on North Greeley Avenue. Up goes a painting of an African mask.

En route to Southeast Second Avenue, Clark’s energy builds, judging by gestures that take both hands off the steering wheel. At Second and Alder Street, he erects a portrait with unfinished eyes on a wall plastered with fliers.

“I’m never going to finish it. You get to the point where there’s so much of your old thoughts in something that you have to move on.” With a rubber stamp, he brands the painting: “This Is Not Art.”

Cookie turns west beneath the Morrison Bridge and stops next to a grim encampment of homeless people.

“Hey, do you want some art?” Clark asks.

“I love art, man!” Porter Brown says.

Brown chooses two paintings; in one a woman’s face shouts grief, and her arms reach for something unseen. Clark says a New York Times photograph inspired the painting: The Iraqi woman’s children had just been killed.

In the Brooklyn neighborhood, friend Christine Fruehling, Pink Martini’s former office manager, joins the mission.

Before Clark installs a self-portrait on Watershed, a studio warehouse on Southeast Milwaukie Avenue, Christine helps compose an inscription: “To Archie. Thanks for everything –from Simon.” Fiction becomes contextual truth for whoever claims the piece.

At North Williams Avenue and Cook Street, a portrait with two versions of the same face is screwed to a graffiti-rich wall. The face belongs to a friend named William. Benjamin titles it “Two Williams” and adds his ornate signature.

As the sky darkens, 19 miles, three hours and 14 paintings since the trek began, inspiration for the final stop blasts in Cookie’s cab. Because Clark had bought the Fall’s “Extricate” CD at Rerun, a nearby consignment store on Northeast Fremont Street, he decides to stop there.

The owner is locking up. Clark persuades him to take a self-portrait of the artist as a boy, painted on a cabinet he made with wood salvaged from Thomas Lauderdale’s building.

Joe Hilsenrad says he’ll donate 60 percent of its sale to one of three causes. He asks Clark to choose. A coin flip selects a gang-control group over a man needing knee surgery.

****

Ten days later, only three portraits remain outside. The homeless encampment is gone. At Rerun, Benjamin the boy carries a $250 price tag and leans against a desk, halfway between dormancy and revival.

The tree at Kerry Hunt’s house on North Willamette Boulevard is blank. Harsh weather has damaged Clark’s painting. After repairs, the young man’s face will radiate again from the aged trunk, waiting.

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