For 56 years, Lee Clark has lived among the pieces that comprise his collection of Mexican art. Now Clark, 81, has found a new home for at least part of his now massive collection.
It was moving day at Clark’s central Bakersfield condo Aug. 3 when representatives from UCLA’s Fowler Museum arrived with packing cases and bubble wrap to take the first batch of pieces from the collection. As his health has declined, Clark has been looking for a place to which he could entrust his life’s work — more than 2,500 pieces of art ranging from the Stone Age to the modern era, including sculptures, ceramics, pottery, metal work, textiles, paintings, wood carvings and even pieces made with straw.
The Fowler Museum, located on the UCLA campus, specializes in global art, ancient and contemporary, from the Americas, Asia and Africa.
“It’s one of the finest folk art museums in the country,” Clark said.
The visiting Fowler group included not only museum staff but also museum director Patrick Polk and chief curator Matthew Robb.
“The nature of his collection is really in line with what the Fowler is about,” Polk said. “This is an amazing acquisition for the museum and we’re developing plans for putting things on display.”
Clark, who is probably best known in Bakersfield as the owner of the now-closed C.L. Clark Gallery on 18th Street, has also been a major patron of the arts in Kern County, as well as an educator in anthropology and art at Kent State University, the Universidad de las Americas in Mexico City and at Cal State Bakersfield. Holding a master’s degree in Latin American history and a doctor of philosophy degree in anthropology, Lee was an accredited senior appraiser under the American Society of Appraisers. But it’s Clark’s personal experiences that fuel his passion for Latin American, and especially Mexican, art.
“My grandfather was Cuban and had a sugar plantation before the revolution,” Clark said, referring to the Communist takeover in 1959. “I spent my summers there — I spoke Spanish fluently.
“My father was a collector, and I collected in Cuba as a child.”
While studying Latin American history in graduate school in 1960, Clark was able to participate with famed archeologist William Sanders in the excavation and restoration of Teotihuacan, one of the most important archeological sites in Mesoamerica.
“It was the first urban center in Mexico and dated before the time of Christ up to about 800 (A.D.) when it was destroyed by fire,” Clark said. “I think I was the only one that was collecting pieces there.
“The Indians were always bringing things in that they had found; they were digging in their yards and around the site.”
Clark said he began looking for all kinds of work, from antiquities to “discovering” new artists, sometimes entire families, many of whom are now regarded as masters — the Aguilars of Oaxaca; Irma Garcia Blanca; the Ortegas from Santa Cruz de las Huertas; Salvador Vasquez Carmona; and among the most valuable, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Zuniga and more.
There are fired clay works depicting family funeral scenes and other scenes of ordinary life; “tree of life” candelabra used in religious services; Day of the Dead figures; clothing, blankets and tableware; brightly painted cats, birds and jaguars known as ceramica fantastica (fantastic ceramics); vessels and bowls in various materials; paintings and drawings; masks and figurines; jewelry and other accessories.
It’s an immense collection that fills every room in Clark’s home. He lives among these works and can tell you the story behind every one.
It has taken Clark five years to find a home for his donation, a search complicated by its size and scope, and the level of care needed to maintain some very fragile items. There is also the issue of space — not just for storage, but for exhibiting the collection. The Fowler Museum had both the interest and the capacity to take the collection, or at least a good part of it.
“The first time I came here (to see the collection), my reaction was ‘Holy crap!’” Polk said. “It’s an amazing personal collection. We see how somebody has connected to Mexico all his life.”
Clark understandably is proud of what he considers one of the hallmarks of his collection: his personal stamp. Clark said he chose every piece — sometimes having to haggle for it — and he can verify the source of each acquisition.
“What’s really important is that we have the records and the backgrounds for these pieces,” Polk said.
Clark said Fowler staffers will return soon to pick up more pieces. What remains unknown is how many pieces they will ultimately take, and exactly what the museum will do with them. Clark said the initial discussions with the museum included setting aside some 1,500 to 1,800 square feet of exhibit space with his name on the collection. But that idea was walked back during this first visit.
“We’re still in the process of trying to figure it out because we’re just overwhelmed by how much there is,” Polk said.
“As for any institution, to consider a collection as a whole, that involves a lot of resources,” said chief curator Robb, explaining the process involves space, conservators, research, cataloging.
“We balance that with what (the collection) adds to our knowledge and our holdings,” Robb said. “And then, working with the donor, and his team in this case, we can identify what pieces are priorities to fill the gaps in our collection.”
Polk did mention the possibility of hosting a “Fowler Focus” exhibit in about a year, and Clark said his understanding is the museum will combine several temporary exhibit spaces to house the collection and add his name.
Watching Clark, it was easy to see this process is taking its toll. He is providing for the safeguarding of his collection, but the departure of even this first wave of beloved objects has left some very empty spaces in his home.
“I haven’t gotten used to it yet,” Clark said. “It’s very strange.”