FAIRMONT — A Lumberton High School art teacher is using her work to preserve Robeson County’s unique cultural identity for future generations.
Jessica Clark, a visual arts teacher, is nationally recognized for her pieces that illustrate the lives of Southeastern American Indians.
Clark’s work features elements of American Indian culture from the vibrant colors of pine-cone patchwork to the depiction of seemingly mundane household tasks that represent the everyday lives of Lumbees.
Her series Lumbee Days and Lumbee Family Values garnered a great deal of attention locally and across the nation, giving Clark the opportunity to exhibit her work at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in September 2017.
These pieces, like most of Clark’s work, portray people, places and events from her perspective as an American Indian.
“It’s hard to paint anything else. That’s what I know, it’s my personal connection,” Clark said.
Born in Rowland, Clark was first influenced by members of her family. Her father, Keith Clark, was artistically inclined, as was her aunt who taught art.
In high school, Clark took art courses all four years and was a member of the school’s Art Club.
However, it was not until enrolling at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke as a business major and taking her first college art course that Clark fell in love with the craft.
After graduating from UNCP with a bachelor’s degree in studio art in 2005, Clark enrolled in the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she spent two months studying at the college’s campus in Lacoste, France, where she immersed herself in the culture and the work of fellow artists.
She graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2010 with a master’s of fine arts in painting before getting the job at Lumberton High School in 2011.
Nearly seven years later, Clark — who is one of four art educators at the school — is known as “the strict art teacher,” a title she fully embraces.
Compared to other teachers, Clarks Advanced Placement courses are considerably more exclusive. She currently has only one AP student, a young girl who was awarded first place for her work at this year’s Indian Unity Conference.
Another of Clark’s previous students, Richard Washington Jr., received a gold medal from the Alliance of Young Artists and Writers for a painting done in 2016. Clark was awarded a two-week residency in New York and a $1,000 gift certificate from Golden Artist Colors.
In addition to teaching high school, Clark also is an adjunct professor at UNCP, where she teaches a figure-drawing class on weeknights.
Working two jobs and raising a teenage son leaves Clark with little free time, but she makes sure to take advantage of what free time she has to work on her own creations.
“I love being in my studio and just working. Most Saturdays I try to lock myself up in my studio and just paint for hours. I definitely enjoy the hands-on and the process of making art and getting lost in it,” Clark said.
Clark, who says she would like to become a college professor, finds the excitement of teaching at a high school rewarding.
“You can stick with the same students for four years and really push them and see where they can go with it,” Clark said.
Clark strives to expose her students to as many artistic mediums as possible, giving students experience with sculpting, water colors, acrylics and charcoal.
She often experiences bouts of inspiration during class, when students become engulfed in their own projects, and uses the downtime to work on her own pieces alongside them.
Although at the head of the class, Clark is aware that there is always room for improvement and plans to continue developing her own artistic style.
“My paintings are really bright and saturated with color and I’d like to tone that down and try a different style. I’m never satisfied. I always think there is room for improvement. I hope I never get to a point where I think I’m good enough.”
Though much of her work is inspired by her life as an American Indian woman, Clark appreciates that her pieces attract audiences from all walks of life.
Clark has displayed her art worldwide, with exhibits at The Museum of Southeast American Indian on UNCP’s campus, the Federal Reserve Bank in Charlotte, the Savannah College of Art and Design in France and the Native American Studies Center at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster.
With more exhibits scheduled this year and in 2019, Clark is hopeful for what the future has in store for her and her art.
“Native culture — and indigenous culture period — is making a comeback and that really piques people’s interest. There’s a lot happening with the native art scene right now. I think it’s really starting to grab people’s attention so it’s going to be exciting to see what happens in the next year or two,” Clark said.
Morgan Bishop can be reached by email at [email protected]