Sonya Clark: A Thread, a Hair, a Lineage, a Language

Human hair wound in a ball to resemble yarn
Skein (2016), human hair. photo / Taylor Dabney
Sonya Clark lecturing
Sonya Clark lectured in the Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium. William Staffeld / AAP
Sonya Clark speaks with Cheryl Finley in the auditorium before her lecture.
Visiting artist Sonya Clark (left), talks with Cornell Associate Professor and Director of Visual Studies Cheryl Finley. William Staffeld / AAP
Sonya Clark lecture
Sonya Clark lecturing in the Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium. William Staffeld / AAP

Craft techniques and mundane materials connect us. Simple objects become cultural interfaces. Through them, Sonya Clark navigates accord and discord. When trying to unravel complex issues, she is instinctively drawn to ordinary things that connect to her personal narrative — a comb, a cloth, or a strand of hair. Charged with agency, these objects have the mysterious ability to reflect or absorb us. As a point of departure, Clark finds her image, her personal story, in an object. But it is also the object's ability to act as a rhizome, the multiple ways in which it can be discovered or read by a wide audience, that draws her in. To sustain her practice, she milks the object, its potential, its image, and its materiality and history. Clark manipulates objects and materials in a formal manner to engage the viewer in a conversation about collective meaning. She trusts that her stories, your stories, our stories collectively are held in the object. A visual vocabulary forms a facet of language ranging from the vernacular to the political to the poetic. In this way, the everyday "thing" becomes a lens through which we may better see one another.

Clark's work draws from the legacy of crafted objects and the embodiment of skill. As an African-American artist, craft is a means to honor her lineage and expand notions of both Americanness and art. She uses materials as wide ranging as textiles, hair, beads, combs, and sound to address issues of nationhood, identity, and racial constructs. She has been a full professor and chair of the craft for the material studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts since 2006. Formerly, she was Baldwin-Bascom Professor of Creative Arts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She holds an M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art and she was awarded their first Mid-Career Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011. She earned a B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2015, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Amherst College, where she received a B.A. She has exhibited her work in more than 300 museums and galleries in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. She is the recipient of several awards including an Anonymous Was a Woman Award, an Art Prize Grand Jurors coprize, a Pollock-Krasner Grant, a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, an 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art, a United States Artist Fellowship, and an Art Matters Grant. Her work is in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and Musees d'Angers in France among several other institutions.

Tracing connections between hair and textiles, communities and commodities, and racialized identities, Clark will present a series of artworks and projects that invoke ancestral ties, evoke historical legacies, and address contemporary relationships through crafted materials, found objects, and collaborative actions.

In partnership with American studies and Africana studies.
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