The man who made me briefly famous died last week.
Tom Clark was 93.
Dr. Clark taught me Old Testament at Davidson College in 1958-59. It was his first year teaching at Davidson, and I was a freshman. Later he became better known as an artist and sculptor than as a religion teacher. But he showed some of his creative spirit and artistic talent in that Bible course.
When we got to the book, Song of Songs, he went to the blackboard and drew illustrations of the verses describing a young maiden, in chapter 4:
“Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
“Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing.”
To help us visualize that description, Dr. Clark first fashioned an outline of a face on the blackboard. Then he drew doves for eyes, goats for hair, and ewes for teeth. It was a beauty of a mess.
Then he quickly moved on to Isaiah, the next book in the Bible after Song of Songs.
Clark was an unforgettable Bible teacher. But, as his blackboard drawing performance showed, it was his talent as an artist that gave him real joy. It was that talent that later made him known throughout the world.
He had always enjoyed sculpting busts of students and his friends. His bust of my father so beautifully captured my dad’s warmth and gentility that we will always treasure it.
This hobby of sculpting busts led, indirectly, to his very successful business venture with gnomes. One day in 1978, while waiting for a student to sit for a bust, Clark saw a picture of a gnome and began a sculpture of it.
Joe Poteat, who became Clark’s business partner and best friend, saw the potential and organized an operation to reproduce the figures and manage their sale and distribution.
To reproduce the gnome figures and make them look like wooden carvings was a challenge. Clark told me in 2009, “I was very fortunate to have grown up in North Carolina because the furniture industry here had developed a method of reproducing furniture that looks like wood. It looks like wood, but it is a resin mixed with a flour.”
Clark’s former student, furniture man Alex Bernhardt, helped make the contacts to learn how to manufacture the artwork. Soon Clark was turning out gnomes at the rate of about one a week, and each one was then made into thousands of copies that were sent to outlets across the world.
Clark’s business, Cairn Studios, referred to him as an artist. He certainly viewed himself as an artist. But in his hometown of Davidson, some people turned up their noses and said his work was, while popular and commercially successful, something less than real art.
When I see the expressions he captured on my father’s bust and on the varied and joyful faces of his gnomes, I experience Clark’s artistry.
But I admit that I am also captivated by Norman Rockwell and Charles Dickens whose critics denied their greatness.
In my mind Tom Clark was one of the world’s great artists.
Now, how did Clark make me famous?
Back in 1984, I was running for the U.S. Congress and Clark had become a national celebrity as the creator of the popular gnomes. My campaign persuaded him to create a “DG” gnome to use as gifts for people who made contributions to the campaign. Clark sculptured a likeness, put an Army uniform and green beret on it, and added a Susan B. Anthony coin and other symbols for our campaign themes. I didn’t win the election, but as one of the few actual humans made into a gnome figure, I have been set apart.
Famous, if only briefly.
Thanks to Tom Clark whose fame will endure.
D.G. Martin hosted “North Carolina Bookwatch,” for more than 20 years. To view prior programs: https://video.pbsnc.org/show/nc-bookwatch/episodes/.