Henry Ray Clark American, 1936-2006


Born in Bartlett, Texas, Henry Ray Clark moved with his family to Houston after the Great Depression. At age fourteen Clark dropped out of school and soon entered a life of gambling, drug dealing, and pimping that earned him the nickname and alter ego “The Magnificent Pretty Boy.” In 1977 a series of drug-dealing convictions led to his sentencing under the “three strikes” law (enacted to remove persistent offenders from the community) to serve twenty-five years in prison for attacking a man in a betting dispute and use of a lethal weapon. While serving time in Huntsville State Penitentiary, Clark began to draw. He was discovered by William Steen, a Houston artist and arts advocate, present when Clark won a juried prize in the 1989 Texas Department of Corrections Art Show—the same event at which Frank Jones (p. 141) had been unanimously awarded first prize the 1964 inaugural show.

Using pens and markers on manila envelopes, Clark typically portrays a single, central character (an extraterrestrial being, esoteric demigod, or allegorical figure); like an insect trapped in amber, the subject usually appears within a solid color field, which is peppered with a few emblems of interplanetary whim: a sun, small rocket ships, swooshes, twinkles, and stars. Beyond this nucleus, there’s always a kaleidoscopic framework that occupies most of the composition. The artist bends line and color into an overall effect of controlled asymmetry, fluidly integrating organic shapes, shadings, or abstract scripts and flourishes that resemble numbers and notation. Clark’s visual poetics imply an urgency to obliterate any vestige of untouched surface, a case of horror vacui somewhat reminiscent of Adolf Wölfli (p. 243). Clark’s works are often so saturated with ink that they become furrowed with texture. A short declaration of name and provenance of the subject is often present, e.g., “I am starfire from the planet star.” Clark’s cast of characters has the aura of a magnified deck of fortune-telling cards, at times solemn and cryptic, at times witty. Evident in the declarations is the unfettered confidence of a man who despite being physically captive reasserted himself as the autocrat in the worlds of his own invention.

Clark was released from prison in 2001. He died in 2006 after trespassers broke into his home and shot him. His work has been included in numerous exhibitions, including Living Folk (Hirschl & Adler, 1990), Passionate Visions of the American South (New Orleans Museum of Art, 1993), Spirited Journeys: Self-Taught Texas Artists of the Twentieth Century (Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, College of Fine Arts, the University of Texas at Austin, 1997), Seeing Stars (Menil Collection, Houston, 2012), and Insiders (Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York, 2017). Clark’s work can be found in the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.).