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The Paint In His Blood: A Conversation with Alan M. Clark
An interview with Jeff VanderMeer
November 2004

Alan M. Clark
Alan M. Clark
Alan M. Clark was born in 1957. He graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the San Francisco Art Institute. In the late 70s, he worked as Exhibitions Preparator for the Nashville Artist's Guild Galleries then as a Designer of Interpretive Exhibits for Metro Park, Nashville, Tennessee. He resides in Eugene, Oregon with his wife, Melody.

Alan M. Clark Website
ISFDB Bibliography

The Paint in My Blood
The Halloween Mouse
Escaping Purgatory—Fables In Words And Pictures
Imagination Fully Dilated Volume II
I Hope You Enjoyed Your Stay
If You Have Any Worth At All
Right Where It Used To Be

Alan M. Clark's twenty year career has spiraled out from surreal artwork and illustration into collaborations with other artists, fiction writing, collaborations with other fiction writers, anthology editing, book publishing, and much more. In all things, Clark demonstrates a roving curiosity, a sly sense of humor, and a talent for finding the disturbingly surreal, yet human, element in his art.

Clark's artwork has appeared on books for publishers as diverse as Ace Books and Night Shade Books, ROC and Cemetery Dance Publications, McGraw-Hill and Borderlands Press. Magazine work has included paintings and illustrations for Amazing Stories, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, and Weird Tales. Short fiction by Clark has appeared in More Phobias, The Silver Web, and The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, among others. Clark has also published several books under his IFD publishing imprint founded by Clark, including several books of Clark's art matched to stories inspired by his art, to much critical acclaim. Books from other publishers include the oversized Pain Doctors of Suture Self General (Arts Nova Press). This medically themed horror-humor coffee table book, with its combination of stunning full-color plates by Clark and collaborative text, is well worth seeking out, although currently not in print.

A four-time Chesley Award winner for his art and a World Fantasy Award winner for best artist, Clark has recently released a retrospective of his art entitled The Paint in My Blood.

The Paint in My Blood is a 152 page full-color book that contains over 130 of Clark's paintings. It also includes commentary by the artist on his process, techniques, the philosophies behind his approach to illustration, and information on his career in the freelance business. A CD in the back of the hardcover edition of the book includes a film of Clark demonstrating spontaneous painting techniques, as well as animations of several of the paintings in the book painting themselves.

I interviewed Clark via email in mid-November of 2004.

Why do you paint?

I have thoughts and feelings that cannot be communicated directly. Painting is a non-verbal means of communicating humor, horror, fascination and wonder, ideology and even psyche.  If you cannot hear all my words, witness all my actions, perhaps the best way to really know me is to view my artwork.  I cannot assume anyone cares about any of this, so in order to complete my attempt to communicate, I must make my communication compelling.  A big chunk of how I do that is story-telling in my artwork; story-telling of the "show don't tell" variety.

When you say "non-verbal means," I think also of music. Do you see any correlation between music and painting? (Perhaps more so than writing and painting?) Does music influence you at all?
Yes, I do. I think music and two-dimensional art have a lot in common as forms of communication. I don't know much about the process of creating music so I cannot comment on that with any real confidence. Music does influence my work. The inspiration I get from music is along the lines of mood. A piece of music I might listen to while designing or painting a piece can heavily influence the atmosphere or mood in the painting.

Your father was involved in medicine and must have had some influence on your Pain Doctors work. What was your childhood like, and how did it affect your art?
My father was a neurologist. He had a dark sense of humor and an appreciation for both the disturbing and the beautiful that rubbed off on me. I suppose he got it from his father, Sam Clark, who was the head of the anatomy department at Vanderbilt University for many years. I grew up in a house full of bones, odd remnants from medical research, and medical books of all sorts. But the Pain Doctors paintings are as much a response to my brain abscess experience as anything else. I've also been influenced by my parents' love of the natural world. They had wildflower gardens, rock gardens, cactus, orchids. The created a Japanese garden in our front yard. My father raised bonsai for about 45 years.

Do you remember the first time you put brush to canvas? How old were you?
I guess I was 13 when I first painted on canvas, but I had been painting and drawing since I was very small, 4 or 5, I suppose. My father liked to paint and draw, so I suppose I used my talent to help me compete with my siblings for his attention.

What's the most satisfying part of being an artist?
When that communication is successful. That's not to say that I'm looking for any specific response. To the contrary -- when an audience member brings something of himself to the process of viewing, then a conversation has begun.

Have you ever been taken totally by surprise by a viewer's response or interpretation? Do such reactions influence your work thereafter?
Yes -- many of the stories produced for the Imagination Fully Dilated anthology series were a complete surprise. That is part of what was so delightful about the process. Also I eavesdrop on people talking about my work in art shows. I am often surprised by the response the work gets, the different stories the work suggests to others. I cannot think of a specific incident -- strange as there have been so many.

Why have you released this retrospective, The Paint in My Blood, in book form now?
Patrons and fans have been asking me about such a book for many years. I have a large enough body of work now with enough variety and themes to make what I think is a good collection. Over the last few years, in various forms -- online forums, interviews, panel discussions -- I have been fairly successful at communicating some of the philosophies behind my work and some of my process. I had a desire to see some of that in the form of text associated with a body of my artwork.

You've included a film on a CD with the new book that provides insight into your painting process. What gave you the idea to do this, and how difficult was it to film?
These days it is relatively easy to produce a film like this and to provide it in a form accessible on any computer. The film is actually five films in QuickTime format -- the reader for this format is a free download. One is a film in which I demonstrate spontaneous painting techniques. The demonstration was shot on digital video tape by my friend, artist Paul Groendes. The other four are animations of paintings that appear in The Paint in My Blood painting themselves. At least it appears that they are painting themselves. I put my digital camera on a boom over a work surface, and as I painted I stepped back from the work every thirty seconds and took a picture. Strung together in the computer, the still photos make animated films.

In The Paint in My Blood, you write: "The idea 'show, don't tell,' translated for illustration might be better stated as, "suggest, don't define." I don't mean the level of fine detail in a piece of art, but whether the subject matter defines itself in a static manner or leaves interpretation open." Can you give me a specific example of this from one of your paintings? And have you ever changed the first iteration of a painting to make it more subtle?
I have made changes when going to the finish from my preliminary sketches, but not often.

One of the paintings in The Paint in My Blood, "Within the Wood-Grain Liquid Afterdeath" is a piece depicting a cemetery scene with a little girl with a bunch of flowers standing before a tombstone. She seems a concave representation of herself, as do the trees in the scene. The lighting is screwy and the air puckers up around the girl and trees. There are corpses in the picture to which she seems oblivious. One has pressed his finger through her arm and you can see it inside her. Another corpse is prying open a crack in a tree. Through the crack you can see another space with different lighting, indicating that the space is not just what is inside or behind the tree.

What I wanted to convey with this piece was a sense of what the realm of the dead or ghosts might be like. It is something that people speculate about frequently, but has rarely been depicted as a realm that coexists and perhaps occupies the same space as the realm of the living. In creating it I have thrown in several attributes that are not readily fathomable. Because of these attributes, I believe the audience begins to question their immediate impressions and assumptions about the image. Hopefully this creates a fascinating cycle of questions and possible answers for them and causes story-telling to occur in their minds.

Much fantasy illustration offers a frozen action scene of handsome characters in fancy costumes battling some monster that is fully rendered and in full view and is rich in detail. With this approach, I, as an audience member, have little to offer to the process of viewing the piece. I am not invited to use my imagination as the artist has given me everything. I can see it all, from the exquisitely wrought, jewel-encrusted hilt of the hero's sword, to each and every tooth in the monster's head and just how slimy its mouth really is.

I would prefer my work to pose more questions than answers.

How important is the influence of the subconscious on your work?
The subconscious is not only important for me in my process, but it is equally important that the work props open the door to the subconscious within my audience. I dip into the subconscious every time I create a painting. I look for ways to access it, promoting free association, throughout the process of my work. The trick is to take the chaos of the subconscious and give it context, but not create such definition that the work closes the door on the audiences' subconscious.

Your work is not always clearly autobiographical to the viewer. But, is there a "Secret History of Alan M. Clark" hidden in or suggested by your paintings?
I don't really try for that, not in any literal sense. However, bits and pieces of my history seem to flow into the work when I least expect it. One example of this I cite in The Paint in My Blood -- that of finding human skeletons in the creek bank near where I grew up.

Several years ago you suffered a bacterial infection of your brain that threatened the quality of your life. Did that experience affect your art? In what way?
It affected everything in my life and led to me getting sober. I am an alcoholic. Without the brain abscess experience, I might not be sober today. Life is like that -- you never know just how one thing might lead to another. While I had the brain abscesses, it was very difficult to work. I was cured of the condition, but left rather traumatized. I had always been an alcoholic, but had never really had to face it. With the trauma, my drinking got worse. I did some bad work during this period as well.

Finally, things got so bad that I had to do something about it. I got sober almost fifteen years ago. I'm not sure I'm a better painter now. Nor do I think my choice of subject matter is much different, but now life is really possible while before it was a terrible struggle. My illustration career took off after I got sober. A large part of what made that possible was regaining a sense of integrity, gaining confidence in myself and my abilities and having the understanding that a sense of control is not all it's cracked up to be. In truth, there are so many more possibilities when one relinquishes control. Here I'm talking about painting and the ability to access the subconscious as much as I am about how I lead my life and interact with others.

I've known you for well over a decade now, and so I know that you have an extraordinary and rather sneaky sense of humor. Do you think this quality expresses itself in your paintings? If so, how specifically?
Well it wouldn't be sneaky if I told you all about it. I will say that I believe in having a sense of humor in nearly all things and I try to put a dose of it in much of my work. It could be something as subtle as the techniques I use to flesh out a painting or it could be more in your face, like the doctors playing in the open chest cavity of the surgical patient in my painting, "Blasted Femurs, a Sack o' Religion." Since much of my work is in the horror genre, I try to always approach the work with tongue in cheek. As far as I'm concerned, the more gruesome, grotesque or violent an image is, the more it needs the humor as a release for the audience. To be effective, horror and humor both need to do the same thing: catch you off guard. Good humor in horror can create a wonderful tension.

Having put your work in this form, as a retrospective, do you feel it signals the end of one era and the beginning of another? How did you feel when you finally saw the book and had your entire history in one place?
No, not the end, but it is the product of a long-time goal. I was proud to see it come together well, to feel I could share a large body of my work with one person at a time in an intimate, convenient way. It is a slice of my painting history, but it is really only about a tenth of the work I've done.

What do you get out of collaborations? I'm thinking of your art matched with others' fiction. And do you ever collaborate with other artists?
Concerning the collaborative process whereby a writer takes one of my paintings and allows it to inspire a story -- what I get out of it is that conversation I spoke of earlier. I don't want my artwork to be merely a statement, but instead a means of opening dialogue. The writer in this case is given the opportunity to respond to what he has "seen" in the artwork. Now there are two compositions in different media that are interacting. I have collaborated with maybe 30 visual artists over the years. Once again, there is that dialogue, but each time the goal is one composition.

What form does that collaboration take, with other artists? With fiction, sometimes two writers will trade drafts of a story, for example, each rewriting the entire manuscript. Or, each take pieces of the story to write and then put them together. Is there an equivalent approach in artistic collaboration?
It can vary a lot. Sometimes it is split, background/middle-ground/foreground. Sometimes you sketch together and then paint together, each adding a bit of work to each area. The work sometimes starts with a sketch that both -- or all participating (I have done a 5-way collaboration) -- have worked on. Sometimes the work is inspired by a controlled accident and because the work appears so spontaneously, we have to communicate often and well as we proceed to insure that the end product will have a pleasing composition.

How has your work changed in the last couple of years?
I have more confidence. My techniques are a bit looser/faster at times, more painterly. I take more chances. Folks are hiring me to do me so I am not heavily art directed and get to do what I want most of the time so I am more experimental.

Care to share any stories of getting too heavily art directed?
I remember having a painting shipped back to me (This before the days of CDs and digital image files) from a mass-market paperback art director in New York with instructions to move the spot on Jupiter up two inches. This placed it in a position the spot has no doubt never occupied in all of history. I did as directed, but I am at a loss to understand how this improved the look of the cover of that book.

I have been asked to paint like other artists. I have been told exactly what to paint and how to layout my compositions. In these cases the only element of the composition left to me was light, shadow, pattern and texture. I don't mind this terribly as this happens rarely. It is just a job. I have done a lot of paintings. I do it and move on.

What excites you in the art world now, whether a movement, a particular artist, or...?
Any artist not afraid to allow the medium and process of their work to show. Compositions that are the product of creative risk-taking. Arresting, evocative, compelling themes and subject matter. Artists I like a lot: Rick Berry, Jill Bauman, Charles Vess, Jason Van Hollander, Darrel Anderson, Dave McKean, Joel Peter Witkin, Phil Hale. Truth is that picking a favorite is like picking between apples and oranges. I like them both. Some artists I don't like their artwork so much as I like what it says or says about them.

How do you balance the demands of commissions for others and work you do for yourself?
They are more and more often one in the same. I say this because often it is not so much the subject matter that matters to me as the approach. There are a few pieces I've been thinking about doing that I need to find time for, but largely I am getting a great deal of satisfaction out of what I do for publishers. This is perhaps a result of being given by publishers a lot of freedom to express myself and be experimental.

And you've done several books now where writers explicate your paintings. Why did you decide to embark on those projects?
Here's how the idea came about: Writers were buying my artwork, mostly prints of my personal pieces -- those unattached as illustrations -- and writing stories or in some cases scenes in novels based on the images. I found what they were doing fascinating. An editor approached me with a desired to do an anthology that would contain some of my existing artwork. He asked me to come up with a way to incorporate my work into an anthology, so I suggested this unorthodox approach.

If you could go back in time and talk to your younger self, when you were just getting started, what advice would you give that younger self?
I would tell myself to relax and work hard, not to take myself too seriously, that I am not the brilliant artist I think I am, but that I have something to say all the same and that it would come out. I would explain that what I needed to improve my craft are time, experience and hard work and that to agonize over the flaws in my work is to agonize over the things that make the work my own, human, and to some extend makes the work worth viewing.

What new projects are you looking forward to undertaking?
I'm taking a rest from projects at the moment -- moments are sometimes very short -- and haven't really thought about it since The Paint in My Blood came out. If this book does well I might put out a second volume. At present, I'm just working on the assignments publishers have given me.

Thanks, Alan.

Copyright © 2004 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others. Prime published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat?.

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