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Hamilton's Laura Clark: A portrait of success
By Bill Woolley, printed 5/8/04 in the Hamilton-Wenham Chronicle, a publication of Community Newspaper Company.
It was a chance meeting. The American artist was introduced to the Spanish traveler through a link of friends and a series of circumstances that found them both in Florence, Italy, last February. A little more than a year later, a spotlight of acclaim had turned their passing acquaintance into a lasting bond. Laura Clark, immediately impressed with what she calls Herminia's "soulfulness" when they met, asked her to sit for a portrait.
The Hamilton artist subsequently entered her work in the Portrait Society of America'sannual"International Portrait Competition" and, during an awards banquet in Boston Saturday evening, was named winner of the Draper Grand Prize from among nearly 900 entries.
It marked the first time the portrait of a woman was selected by judges as the grand prize winner, and the first time a female artist was so honored. "I was completely stunned when I got the news," said the 33-year-old Clark, who was one of a dozen finalists whose portraits were displayed at the Park Plaza Hotel.
The surprise was compounded when, after Clark had gone to the front of the room to accept her award, she was told not to return to her table right away. She was then announced as the winner of the "Peoples' Choice Award," voted on by the other entrants. "It means so much to artists to be recognized by their peers," said Clark, who subsequently walked away with $5,000 in prize winnings, and another $750 worth of paint and art materials.
Oddly enough, however, Clark has no idea if she'll ever be able share the story of her success with Herminia. Even as the artist prepared for a return trip to Florence late last week, her subject's whereabouts were unknown. "That's what's killing me now," said Clark, who is currently living in an apartment on her brother's Hamilton home. "When I get back to Italy, I'm going to have to try to track her down."
Clark was brought up on Cutler Road, the daughter of Romalda and Russell Clark. It was her mother who initially sparked Clark's interest in art. When young Laura was a fifth-grader at Brookwood School in Manchester-by-the-Sea, her mother recruited the school's art teacher, Deici Stockwell, to come to the Clark home to give lessons to Laura, her sister, as well as some cousins and friends. "I really started loving art then," said Clark. "We'd make such a mess, and at the end of the day there was paint everywhere."
Although art was blossoming into a passion for Clark, she spent the lion's share of her extra-curricular time playing sports - field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse at St. Paul's School and the Univ. of New Hampshire. After graduating from UNH with a bachelor's degree in fine arts, Clark spent three years as a graphic designer for the CYRK, Inc., in Gloucester.
It wasn't until 1998 that she dedicated herself to art and headed to Manchester, N.H., to study with Paul Ingbretson. After more than three years under his artistic wing, Clark moved on to Italy to tap into the talents of Charles Cecil at his studio in Florence. The two artists, said Clark, both influenced her profoundly. "Paul Ingbretson, if we're talking about inspiration, is the one who taught me to see, taught me to paint... taught me a phenomenal amount about the foundation of art," said Clark. "For the past two years, though, I've been aiming more toward portraiture.
At Charles Cecil's studio, she learned about the actual development of human features, how to focus a viewer's attention, and the attributes of a limited palette. "To me, doing portraits is the top tier of what painting can be," said Clark, trying to describe her artistic motivation. "If you can express something as human as the soul on a two-dimensional surface, you've done something remarkable. It's really quite a magical experience."
It was a soft, sun-splashed morning in Florence when an artist at Cecil's studio introduced Clark to her friend, Herminia, a Spanish archaeologist traveling through Italy, destined for a dig in Rome that was subsequently postponed. It didn't take Clark long to see the potential in her face, or the depth in her soul. "During my initial contact with her, she was a bit reserved, but she had such a strong presence," recalls Clark. "She seemed to visibly embody both a strength and a vulnerability I wanted to capture."
Attracted to what she saw in Herminia by morning's light, Clark asked her, that very day, if she'd be willing to pose for a portrait. With her new subject's consent, each of 20 subsequent three-hour sittings over the course of the next four weeks was consistent with the time of their initial meeting
- in the morning to insure the desired lighting.
"There are different challenges with every piece you do," says Clark. "One of the most important ones is how you actually set up.""If you have a setup in an environment with poor lighting, for instance, you have to find a solution. I try to have my subject be as close as I can to what I want my finished product to be. It helps to work from nature as much as possible. The subtlety of what nature offers is more beautiful than anything you can invent."
Clark laments the thought of ever having to paint portraits from photographs, which current artists often find necessary, due to lack of a live model with enough time or patience for the required sittings. "One of the unfortunate elements in today's field of portrait painting is that when people are unable to sit, photographs are frequently relied upon," she says. "If you have to do that, the result is more of a transferring of recorded details, rather than experiencing and responding to an actual environment."
Fortunately for Clark, she had no such limitations under which to work when painting her prize-winner of Herminia. And when the portrait was complete, it became the first one the artist had ever submitted for a competition... and it just happened to be for one as prestigious as the Portrait Society of America's.
"We remain students throughout life," says Clark, explaining why she decided to submit `Herminia' for consideration, "but I think after you spend five years studying something, there's a point at which you need to change gears." By winning the PSA 's grand prize, it's safe to say Clark's portrait career
has just shifted into overdrive.