Profile of an Artist: Clarence Major

The post has been adapted from “Profile of an Artist: Clarence Major,” which originally appeared in “The Bridge,” volume 14, and was written by Alexandria Machado and Katherine Nazzaro. During the Spring 2017 semester, Clarence Major was kind enough to answer a few questions we had following his appearance in one of Bridgewater State University’s Visiting Authors Series.

“Artist.” It’s a word we often hear to describe a creator; someone who elicits wisdom of the human mind and spirit from the great beyond and then transcribes it for the world to see. Clarence Major is a direct embodiment of this: poet, writer, and painter, he has submerged himself in numerous art forms over the decades, creating and then releasing these manifestations into the ever-growing body of art.

Major was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1936, grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and has had his share of life experiences via home, travels, and people met along the way. At “The Bridge,” we have come to understand artists seem to share one similarity: the ability to connect. On some level, all art links to something, whether that be the artist themselves, the viewer, or even just a connection with the art’s own inception. In reading some of Major’s poetry and viewing his art, we can see a deep relationship between the art forms. A significant portion of Major’s poetry is about painting, or addresses art itself; representing a portrait or a landscape that incorporates fragmentary feelings of color, brief moments in time where we are forever captured. So, in the fascinating links between words and paint, where do we locate the bridge that connects these mediums?

In the Fall of 2016, Bridgewater State University had the honor of having Major as part of the Visiting Authors Series, an event held each semester with the intent of introducing a writer and their work to the campus community. In wondering whether the mediums of writing and painting inspire one another or remain mutually exclusive, Major confirms a connection between the two, stating that, “They are similar in the sense that both (writing and painting) employ narrative, symbolism, allusion, metaphor and so on.” And further elaborates on the connection, “Because of these similarities, I work back and forth across the two forms easily. One feeds into the other.”

Major has spent years working with this dichotomy and has been awarded multiple lifetime achievement honors for his innumerable contributions to the art community. In learning of Major’s prolific production, we couldn’t help but be curious about who his inspirations have been. Although each artist has their own voice and style, we cannot discount those that have paved the way for future movements to emerge and continue to flourish this infinite body that cannot be destroyed, only built upon. So who inspired Major, a man who has inspired so many himself? He informs us, “Where drawing and painting are concerned, I was influenced early on by French Impressionism and French and German Expressionism. In writing, my earliest influences were poets such as Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire; and the American poets William Carlos Williams and Robert Hayden. I love the way they worked in the American idiom.” Major has also been inspired by such varied artists as Vincent van Gogh, Cezanne, Rembrandt, Vermeer and writers such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Wright, Phillip Roth, Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Saul Bellow.

Many of Major’s European influences arose from his time spent living abroad in France and Italy. Travel can truly inspire one’s own work as Major supports, “Living in Nice for a year and a half and in Venice for nearly a year, both places influenced my painting and writing. The time in Venice was perhaps the most productive times. Living so close to great art enriched my painting and writing. In Venice, it was like living in a museum.” In this confession of inspirations, we find the confirmation that pre-existing art can influence art that has yet to be created. Major represents this process very fluidly in a polymorphic style that both evokes images through his writing and stories through his paintings. This bilateral relationship through writing and visual art is emblematic through the correlation of space and time. When writing, Major specifically speaks of the similarities and differences between painting and poetry. These similarities have fascinated him from the beginning of his career as he states, “Painting is primarily spacial and therefore takes place in space. Writing, on the other hand, takes place in time. It is a spoken art form.” With art allowing us to climb exponential heights very rapidly, we can see through Major’s work that his influences in writing and painting also allow him freedom and honesty to navigate his art with meaning and purpose.

But how can others harness this type of relationship with the muse, a dynamic struggle that every artist can relate to? That illusionary figure that haunts and often plagues an artist’s process, offering love and turmoil in her wake. So how does one create in the absence of inspiration, particularly in writing? Major’s advice to this is simple: “Force yourself to write even when you don’t feel like it. Practice is going to make a difference. And remember: rewriting is essential, rewrite as often as possible. And in the process, learn how to be objective about your work. Become your own best critic!” This can translate to most any aspect of life, and Major is an exemplary figure for this motto. Practice may not always make perfect, but it does make great art. So how does an artist of such prolific caliber, as Major, balance it all? Dedication seems to be the answer in completing multiple projects at a time, as well as prioritizing. While working on multiple projects, Major informs us, “If I am working on a long project, such as a novel or a large canvas, there are times when I am compelled to stop, and say, write an essay or a poem. The demands of daily life often dictate when I can work and how I can work.”

Promotion of work is an additional component artists balance, and Major has done an ideal job at getting his work out to the masses, so we wondered how he finds time to create as much as he does while still traveling for readings and events, but Major insists “Getting the work done is the most important thing. I simply put off things that take time away from my writing and painting.” Despite this focus on process, he still devotes time to support other artists and serves as a judge for numerous literary awards. Major always holds other’s work to the same standard he holds himself to, showing his commitment to integrity and consistency, deeming it “hypocritical to do otherwise.”

When asked during our Visiting Authors Series how poetry is still relevant today, Major responded in part that it addresses issues in a way nothing else can. Poetry is a special kind of conversation. With so many talents, so much work to admire, and now a lasting connection to our campus, it seemed fitting to end with something readers can savor and respond to as they will in Major’ s own words from his poem “Weather”:

All of humanity is a black-and-white photograph
century after century, faces looking out of shadows at us, nameless and dateless.
They all stay enough of the same to look alike
with the light coming first from one
direction then another, day after day.

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