Jim Clark: Imagineering at Work

Photographs by Jean Walbridge

Jim Clark is a folk artist who uses both sides of his brain – the right side for creativity and the left side for analytical thought – to transform discarded pieces of wood or metal into artistic creations. Friends marvel at Clark's ability to see what others may not. He seldom runs out of ideas for objects he wants to create. His imagination resembles a sculptor's three-dimensional thinking. It is easy for Clark to visualize a dog pull toy, a sea bird, or an “Archangel Tex” in a block of wood.

Sometimes his ideas coalesce in a twinkling – a piece of rough fence wood or a scrap of rusty metal become a junkyard dog weathervane. At other times, he mulls over a sketch for weeks until it jumps off the page as a Cow-Jumped-Over-the-Moon balance toy.

Clark wants his meticulously crafted folk art whimsies to bring a smile to a viewer’s face. His engineering mindset specifies that weathervanes are always positioned to tilt into the wind. and all his whirligigs are tested outdoors before they’re sold. He usually carries a pen and paper in his pocket to sketch the objects he envisions in his mind. He may see a store sign or an art object that sets his imagination working and begin sketching. The result might become a standing Texas Sam mailbox or a circus lady balancing toy. Clark has scavenged “good old wood” – 1930s and ’40s yellow pine perfect for carving – from dumpsters at remodeling projects in neighborhoods where he’s lived. He often stops his red pickup truck, “Toy,” to pick up old wide fence boards left by the side of the road.

The son of an artist, Clark and his sister, Midge, were introduced to old master paintings by their mother at an early age. Their mother took both children to visit museums and historical sites wherever their dad’s Army Air Corps career took the family. Clark's penchant for drawing and painting was nurtured by these experiences into a life-long habit. At age 11, Clark became a Boy Scout and started whittling neckerchief slides of his own design to earn a merit badge. He still has most of the nearly four dozen he made. He was a classroom artist throughout his school days including at the Air Force Academy. As a member of the second graduating class in 1960, Clark served as art editor of the campus newspaper, The Talon.

Clark could be considered a self-taught folk artist. Without formal training he has been crafting whimsical rooster weather vanes, wooden Uncle Sam whirligigs sitting on metal velocipedes, and fanciful dog pull toys for decades. Clark's artistic talents are clearly seen with his diverse carvings like a winged Gabriel weathervane, children’s riding toys, rugged Composanto crosses or ladybug foot stools.

He created folk art during the same years he was flying F-102s and F-106s for the Air Force, which included a tour in Vietnam. His experience flying planes transferred to figuring the aerodynamic design of a Canada Goose weathervane soaring above his studio. As side winds hit the goose, it realistically banks much as an airplane would, increasing its bank as side winds increase.

Clark's problem-solving skills have been evident after his Air Force career whether at his day job as a combat design effectiveness analyst for General Dynamics and Vought Aerostructures or as a weekend avocational artist/craftsman. Clark has often looked to the skies – at birds, clouds, wind, and especially airplanes. As a second lieutenant at Bartow Air Base in Central Florida, where he began pilot training, Clark discovered military base hobby and wood shops where he made American antique-style furniture for his BOQ (Bachelor Officers' Quarters) room and later his own homes.

Taking advantage of experimentation, Clark learned how to achieve the patina of age for a weathervane or whirligig, using shoe polish and milk paint, hand-filing the grain and removing just the right amount of color to make the piece look naturally weathered. His expansive files are full of images from books and magazines for future reference. He is obsessive about researching the anatomical details of his animal or birds. He knows, for instance, that roadrunners have double fore and aft toes, that birds’ feathers are aerodynamically ranged, widest at the body, narrowing toward the edges, and that possums have 50 very sharp teeth.

High-energy has been Clark's way of life. For most of his professional career, his work was top secret and couldn’t come home with him. Instead, he channeled his energies into making decorative shelves and tables along with toy animals for his two children. During his 20 years in the Air Force, Jim and his family were stationed in many places from Ohio to Labrador to the state of Washington. In 1980, he retired from the military and went to work for General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Tex.

Clark married Jean Walbridge 21 years ago. She has been his chief cheerleader and unofficial publicist ever since, showing his work to individual collectors as well as galleries and arts and craft promoters. The couple has been active in the Folk Art Society of America and attended annual conferences for a dozen years.

His wood and metal whirligig “Pike” (1998) was shown in the special exhibit, “All Creatures Great and Small” (April 2011 – January 2013) at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, as part of the collection of Carl Mullis, which is in the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia. Earlier this year Clark’s “Moonlight Ride” was included in the exhibition Spiritual Journeys: Homemade Art from the Becky and Wyatt Collins Collection at the Hilliard University Art Museum, Lafayette, La.

He has made outdoor sidewalk signs for commercial businesses like the bar and art gallery known as the Bull Ring on Fort Worth’s historic Northside as well as a bas relief Madonna and Child for a local Catholic church. His work has been featured in such publications as Colonial Williamsburg’s Christmas catalog, Early American Homes Magazine and Southern Living.

He received an Outstanding Craftsman Award for his 1800s-style chalkware from Early American Homes Magazine. He won First Place, Amateur for his footstool in the 2006 First Horned Lizard Preservation Society Artfest in Austin, Tex., and was named Best of Biennial Exhibit at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center in 2010. Clark's creations have been shown by the Museum Store at the Museum of Fine Arts in Colorado Springs, the Evelyn Siegel Gallery in Fort Worth and Classics on Main in Salado, Tex.

Clark has also tried his hand at making southwestern jewelry, crafting innovative silver and turquoise rings, bracelets, and belt buckles. He has participated in silversmithing workshops at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. He and Jean have become avid collectors of all things southwestern and display those items in their Fort Worth home. “I like art and buy art,” Clark says.

He designed the glazed green Texas-themed tiles that decorate the fireplace surround he built in their den, as well as the shelves that hold the southwestern-style carvings of abstract Madonnas he’s adapted from the technique of Alan Houser, a Native American sculptor.

Through the years Clark has made charmingly naïve chalkware lambs, squirrels, and pigeons, creating his own molds. Inspired by early itinerant wood carvers Wilhelm Schimmel and Aaron Mountz, he’s carved a veritable folk art menagerie, including winsome creatures like “Howdy Bear,” “Geronimo” (an American bison), and “Gray Cat.”

Clark became a docent in 2000 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, giving tours focusing on the paintings and sculpture of Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington. He could often be heard telling visitors about the way these two self-taught artists instinctively used the physics of light and shadow to add dimension to their early Western bronze sculptures.

A serendipitous discovery occurred while the couple browsed at the Rhinebeck (N.Y.) Antiques Show. An oversized weathered wood and metal rooster weathervane was being sold as a new piece of folk art. Jean immediately recognized it as an early work her husband had made. She told him so, and in a moment of bittersweet realization, he asked, “Did I really do that?” Jean also explained her discovery of Clark's creation to the vendors who were delighted to meet the artist.

Clark’s once analytical engineer’s mind is slowly dimming with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, but the one-time fighter pilot and aerospace engineer isn’t short on creative problem-solving. His current project is the focal point in a light-filled, spacious woodshop Clark designed 18 years ago in their back yard. His current work represents a full-circle return to his inventive mechanical bent.

These days he works with plasticine clay to design prototypical model cars with an airfoil shape that he says will be very different from what people drive now and manufactured of light-weight titanium. “I’m having fun thinking of car designs, and I have lots of ideas for a school bus and high-speed trains,” Clark says as he runs his hand over the smooth surface of his current model. He quips that his creation will have both “a bonnet and a boot,” referring to British terms for a hood and trunk.

Of this new direction, Jean says she knows “It’s unrealistic” and a far cry from his former artistic projects, but she’s glad that “he’s happy with it and keeping his creative mind active.” Though the subjects and materials for Clark's art are changing now, there is a clear connection between his current concerns with titanium airfoil vehicles and his earlier solutions for combat aircraft.

Jim Clark's collection displays his ability to use the right and left sides of his brain in tandem to pursue innovative solutions to the artistic and scientific problems he has set for himself.

Jean says, "Jim has always seen folk art as problem solving. As long as he has that challenge and there's an artistic glint in his eyes, we're okay."