Clarke still growing as an artist
Vernon Clarke always had an urge to create.
He would spend class time sketching elaborate landscapes in the back of his notebook, and his family really didn’t understand his interest.
“My father, Cecil, was determined to make a better life for us,” he said. “I was born in Jamaica. My father left when I was 10 to work in London, and moved the family there a few years later. He was a hard-working man employed by British Rail. He didn’t really understand me doing art.”
He followed his father’s expectations.
At 17, Mr Clarke joined the Royal Engineers. After six months of training he was stationed in West Germany, guarding the Berlin Wall during the height of the Cold War.
“When I first got there, I mostly just tried to look like I knew what I was doing,” he laughed.
“But I caught on quick. I do remember one day this boy from East Germany came from under the wall. He was very dirty like he’d been hiding, and very scared we’d shoot him. He was about 12. We couldn’t understand how he’d gotten past the wall. But once you were in the west you were in the west. East Germany was a deadly place. His family would never have known what had happened to him. His story would not have been printed in the newspaper.”
Much as he loved the work, art remained his passion.
In his spare time he sketched, painted and took photographs around camp, gaining himself a reputation as a “Picasso”.
“One day my sergeant appeared and asked me to paint his portrait,” he recalled.
“He wanted to give it as a gift. He asked me what I would charge. I said: ‘Let’s not talk about money. You know that Scotch you have in the sergeants’ mess? Would you get us a bottle? And a box of those cigars that you guys smoke’.”
He arrived here in 1973 to marry a Bermudian he’d met in London. They had a son, Paul, before they divorced.
In the meantime, Mr Clarke found a job with a company making doors, windows and awnings.
“I didn’t much like the work, but it paid well,” he said.
He got a job at Casemates in 1974, working as an engineer and prison officer.
“I was with them for 22 years,” he said. “I was on the transition team when the prison moved to Westgate Correctional Facility in 1994.”
He didn’t like the new prison. He felt there was less air and sunshine, and he had no workshop or tools.
“They said they would find something else for me to do,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh no you won’t’.”
He moved to the Prison Farm, then took early retirement in 1996.
He’d shown his art for years and had even won awards for his work. He decided to take it further.
“After I left, I applied for art school,” he said. “It was something I’d always wanted to do. I was 47.
“Art school exposes you to the wider world. If you go to the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, for example, the work takes your breath away, but you are just looking at pictures. You don’t get that history and depth.
“I went to the Bermuda College and spoke to Charles Zuill. He has been a mentor to me. He suggested I do a research degree.”
Mr Clarke moved to England with his second wife, Pamela, and their daughters, Shani and Nikki, and began studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
“The three-year programme there opened my eyes,” he said. “It was brilliant. It absolutely improved my art.”
One of the most important pieces of advice he received was to allow himself to make mistakes.
“One of my professors said I had to give myself permission to do that,” he said. “I’m 68 now and I still feel myself growing.”
His exhibit, Vernon Clarke: A Retrospective, ends at the Bermuda Society of Arts today.
“It shows the progression of my work over the last 30 years in chronological order,” he said. “You can see the line of progression — my hand getting more steady, more confident and more decisive.”
Some of the work is on loan from customers, some comes from his own house where, at the moment, there’s a lot of bare walls and empty nails.
“I can’t show you much,” he said pointing to a blank space over the mantle. “Most of it is in the gallery.”
The price of his work has gone up considerably since that bottle of Scotch he received as his first payment. Some of his pieces now sell for $20,000 a pop.
He has a studio in his Southampton home, filled to the brim with paint, frames and canvases in progress.
“I can paint anytime,” he said. “The trouble is when my family see me in the studio, they think I’m not working and they want things from me. That can be hard. Sometimes they get upset when I say no, I can’t help them. I’m working. When inspiration strikes you have to go with it. Sometimes I try to sleep, but the inspiration keeps me awake.”
When he’s not working on his art, he’s usually gardening in his backyard.
“I’m currently growing some pineapples,” he said. “They take about a year. I’m really excited because yesterday they were green and today they’re finally ripe.”