Cate Clark estimates she spent 200 hours creating the mosaic behind her.
One of Clark’s tile mosaics, Dancing Bunnies.
Colorful, multi-faceted artist finds medium that pulls it all together
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
Cate Clark is not your typical grandmother. Even among the adventurous, independent, silver-haired women of Placitas, Clark takes “free spirit” to new levels.
Seated on an island of cushions on the floor of her “everything” room—that everything including guests only if they sit on the floor and arrive fragrance-free—the lithe artist, dancer, and massage therapist exudes the sort of natural high that makes you want to order a glass of whatever she’s having.
“I’m an introvert with extrovert tendencies,” she says, searching for a unifying explanation for her unusual life choices. “My interior landscape is so important to me, it spills over into what’s important to me in the world. Not a lot of external, mainstream things matter to my internal world.”
That’s why you won’t find Cate Clark espousing the usual goal-oriented ambitions or external measures of success. What matters to her, it seems, is how things feel, how they resonate at a deep internal level.
Take her latest art form, mosaic panels. Clark had been a ceramic artist for more than a decade after studying at the well-known Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, where she lived for ten years (in a home-built Earthship, no less). Last year she got involved with the Placitas Wildlife Mural, a collaborative mosaic project led by Laura Robbins and Cirrelda Snider-Byran. In no time at all, Clark was completely hooked on the medium.
She had reached a point of easy artistry with her earthenware masks, based on Tarot and Green Man archetypes; mosaics presented a universe of new challenges and subject matter. Clark dove in, and over the space of a year has turned out an impressive body of work: nearly a half-dozen large panels representing hundreds of hours of cutting glass, modeling and glazing clay, and arranging the pieces into harmonious compositions. Combined experience in painting and sculpture pay off when it comes to mosaic, an ancient art form enjoying a renaissance in Placitas, thanks to Robbins, et al.
“I just loved the way mosaic looked,” Clark says of her instant enchantment with the colored tiles. “Something about the gleaming shards, and combining them with intentionally-cut ceramic, creating something new, like collage.”
Metaphorically, mosaic does make sense for Clark, who gravitates toward techniques for integrating real-world interactions with the mysterious wellsprings of the internal. Born in Quincy, Illinois, and raised in Albuquerque in what she calls a mainstream American family, she quickly emerged from the checkpoints of a conventional biography—marriage, childbirth, remarriage—to the rhythms of a different drummer.
Her second husband was a musician and free spirit who tapped her art skills—she had won art classes as a child—to access her natural delight at treating life as play. “We would play music and dance, the whole family,” she says with a nostalgic twinkle. “I used the skills and materials from my childhood and brought them into my daughter’s life. My ‘mother’s brag’ was that I had a six-year-old who could be trusted with an Exact-o knife!”
Fast-forward to 1993, when Clark was riding on the wings of inspiration with a new man. She sold the trailer in Placitas where she was living with her daughter and moved to Montana, where land was available for $800 an acre. “It was the hippie dream,” she laughs now. “It wasn’t practical at all. It was like, ‘I’ve got $600 in my pocket, let’s go to Montana and buy land.”
This is precisely what she did. Over the next three years, the couple built an Earthship, where Clark lived until they split up and sold the property in 2003. A veteran of odd jobs, she found employment in Helena with an older dentist. Working with him taught her the skills that would help her succeed as a massage therapist, work she had done on the side since 1991.
By the time she left Montana, Clark had fully embraced an “alternative” lifestyle. She was working in clay and had found a dance group made up of artists and massage therapists who practiced a silent form of bodily communication called Contact Improv. Her daughter had moved to Idaho, where she now has two young children. Free of attachments, Clark bought a pickup truck and started traveling around the Northwest, looking for her next roost.
She knew she had to leave Montana, whose social homogeneity had never sat well with her. “For the ten years I was there, I could never forget that I was an outsider,” she says. “Even though I’m white, people could tell I was a free spirit.”
Her travels took her to Santa Fe, where she hooked up with the local Contact Improv group and discovered a much larger community known as Embody Dance. “Then I knew where my next home was going to be,” she says with finality—Santa Fe. She rented a house in Placitas, temporarily—and is still there five years later.
“Business keeps me here,” she says with a shrug. “I love my clients.” Clark also has a neighborhood following for her artwork; the recent Placitas Studio Tour was her best yet, with strong support for her new direction.
At least twice a week, she makes the trip to the City Different for her dance groups, which serve at once as friends, family, church, therapy, and expressive outlet. “I feel a lot of acceptance in this community,” she says with the lushness that colors her voice in talking about ecstatic dance. “It’s friendly, inclusive.”
With both Contact Improv and Embody Dance, “it’s an experience where I dance from my own center, my own groundedness,” Clark explains. Both forms are experiential rather than performance-oriented; there is no audience but the dancers themselves. “It’s free-form, spontaneous. You dance on your own, but it’s contact-friendly. Many people consider it their spiritual practice,” Clark says.
Kept busy with a full-time massage practice, her art making, and dance groups, Clark makes no apologies for retreating to an alternate universe. Her daughter is quite conservative, she says with a smile; her sister is totally mainstream. Yet, for Cate, who finds herself free of attachments again, the choice is to pursue “people who are like-minded, with like interests.”
On Meetup.com—which is where I first ran into her—Cate Clark belongs to a dizzying number of groups: Heart of the Tribe Drum Circle, The Inner Circle, The Santa Fe Institute for Dream Studies, Soul Dance, Active Boomer Singles, ABQ Dance Crew, The Work of Byron Katie, Albuquerque Artcrawlers… and others whose names slip her mind.
Fearlessly adventurous at age fifty-one, Clark embraces new experience with a readiness more typical of youth. On the Placitas Artists’ page, composed before she started making mosaic, she describes this tendency in terms that echo the harmonious placement of odd-shaped tiles:
“As differentiated aspects within the individual are made conscious and added back into the collective deck of options, we begin to heal our whole selves. We learn to appreciate free will and assume the power and responsibility for the roles we animate in our plays of choice.”
See more of Cate's work at www.riverstonecate.com.