If you see it, you remember it.
Connie Clark’s painting “Diversity” is an intricate assemblage of colors and lines, heavily textured. The lines through the middle of the painting, widening, perhaps sketch the trunk of a tree, or the tributaries of a river. The color red stands out, although blue, green, yellow, purple, orange—and what appears to be just about every color in between—can be spotted.
Clark is 84 and has been painting off and on for years. Lately, though, she has been painting more regularly, and has found her work—abstract, often with sharp colors of red and gold—quite popular, especially among her fellow residents at Mahoney Manor.
Growing up in Kansas, Clark made her way up to Nebraska along with her husband, Bob. She is funny and self-deprecating, an easy conversationalist, with a heuristic approach to her art.
Getting to where she is now with her painting, however, was a winding and bumpy road.
“I painted for a long time,” she said. “Tried to paint, I should say. I worked at it hard. It was just so bad. I tried landscapes and houses … and they were just so awful.” One day, she continued, she was going to get some paint when her husband told her, “Honey, you know you have no talent.”
This was the point of the interview where I winced and thought to myself, tough love.
“He didn’t mean that unkindly,” Clark was quick to add. “He was right for what I was trying to do.”
She was married to Bob for more than a half century before he died a few years ago. They had three children, and now Clark—who, she says, didn’t come from or marry into a big family—is the grandmother of five and a great-grandmother of one, with one more on the way.
It was after her husband’s death that Clark took up painting again. She knew, she said, that she could not draw, so she switched to abstract work.
First, in fits and starts, her painting begins by establishing texture, and then adding color.
“That’s where I really don’t know for sure where I’m going,” she said. “Sometimes I end up at a place so totally far away from what I intended.”
She ends up with works that seem to crackle, or explode, or maybe rain, with color. Nothing is left unpainted.
“If I see a bare spot, I fill it in,” she said.
“Diversity,” a painting Clark noted had “a lot of feeling,” is no exception. Clark gave that painting to her friend, Elaine Waggoner, whom she described as “a pretty good rabble-rouser.”
The painting now hangs in Waggoner’s law office. When I called her to talk about Clark, she told me she was looking right at it.
“I find it quite interesting,” Waggoner said. “I didn’t know she had it in her.”
Clark and Waggoner have known each other for more than four decades, originally meeting through their work advocating for women. Both have long been politically active; Clark herself, for example, was appointed by Gov. Exon to chair the Nebraska Commission on the Status of Women.
“Some days,” Waggoner said of “Diversity,” “I need a lot of staring at it.”
Clark knew the painting was perfect for her longtime friend after putting her brush down.
“When I finished ‘Diversity,’ I knew it had to be Elaine’s,” Clark said. “She understands diversity and can see the connections.”
“Connections,” by the way, is another strong piece. Descending lines of mostly red, orange and gold remind one of flames, while hints of a sky blue between create space. As with “Diversity,” the rich texture of the piece—beaded, almost like it is sweating—also stands out. It’s a bit like sitting close to a fire and seeing the horizon behind.
Clark’s biggest fans may be her fellow Mahoney Manor residents. She sold more than 20 paintings to them, for example, at a single show.
“People here have really been supportive,” she said. “They either like it or they don’t. When you get to our age, you don’t fiddle around too much.”
True to her unassuming nature, Clark put on a class she dubbed “Playing with Paint.” Limiting it to only a few students at a time—all residents of Mahoney Manor—Clark has provided an opportunity for others to learn about painting in a stress-free environment.
As with so many other activities, COVID-19 halted “Playing with Paint” and many other opportunities for showing and sharing her art. Clark has been vaccinated and is looking forward to activities resuming sometime soon.
One thing is for sure: she is not slowing down.
Waggoner summed it up well: “I am remarkably proud of her, at her age taking on a whole new task. She seems to be quite successful. She has done that many times with other things—taking on a business or an organization. It’s kind of in character.”
For what it’s worth, though, Clark said it still didn’t come easy.
“It can be tough for me to finish anything,” she said. “I leave drawers open. After I’ve taken what I wanted, I leave it open … I don’t understand how I can paint for hours. [But] I am very uncomfortable when I’m not painting.”
When I mentioned the adage I’d heard attributed to different authors—“The only thing worse than writing was not writing,” asking whether the same was true for painting—she said, “You hit the nail on the head.”