The Power Plant

June Clark: Crossings and Commemorations

MAY 22 2024
by Samantha Lance

My whole practice is spiritual. All of those people who came before me—my parents, my aunts and uncles, the people who lived in the building I grew up in—they’re all here; they’re all pushing me and saying, “Yes, you can do this.” —June Clark

June Clark is a Toronto-based visual artist who retraces her personal journey and familial histories through photography, sculpture, printmaking, and collage. She was born and raised in Harlem, before immigrating to Toronto as a young adult in 1968. Clark and her husband left the United States within a span of 48 hours for him to escape conscription to Vietnam. It is estimated that 1.9 million service personnel were drafted by the American Selective Service System over the course of the Vietnam War (also referred to as the American War in Vietnam, 1955–1975). When Clark settled in Canada, she was surprisingly hired the next day to work in administration for the Chair of Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Toronto. Yet, due to the sudden separation from Harlem, she found herself deeply homesick and in search of the “familiar” while adjusting to her new environment.

Then, when her husband gifted her a camera, Clark started to make pictures of street scenes that reminded her of growing up on 8th Avenue in Harlem. “I walked around looking for imagery that brought me home or made me feel as if I was home,” she reminisces. “I didn’t know what I was looking for. I would just see people on Bathurst Street sitting on their stoops or their verandas, and this, to me, is community, so I would photograph them, and they seemed to love it, so I kept it up.” As Clark continued to develop an interest in art and photography, she also looked back to how her mother carved out a career as a milliner. Although it took years for Clark to declare herself a photographer, she found artmaking to be a meditative process where she could reconcile with memories sheltered in her archive.

June Clark, Family Secrets, 1992. 18 cigar boxes and mixed media Courtesy the artist and Daniel Faria Gallery. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2024. Photo: Henry Chan

June Clark, Family Secrets, 1992. 18 cigar boxes and mixed media Courtesy the artist and Daniel Faria Gallery. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2024. Photo: Henry Chan

While she looks to her departed ancestors to guide her hand, Clark also listens to her materials during the creation of a new artwork. She explains: “The idea happens. I decide what I want to say and what I need to say, and then I find the materials with which to say them. It’s a very different process than photography, where you find images, but the idea of my collages and my sculpture—the idea comes first.” In her first survey exhibition, Witness, presented at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, she presents installations and assemblages to hold on to Harlem and the people who played a part in shaping her identity. In her installation Family Secrets (1992), Clark displays eighteen black cigar boxes containing found objects, mementoes, and personal treasures. Arranged in a row like a non-linear timeline, the vintage relics mark important moments or milestones in her upbringing. Clark’s repositories reference childhood memories related to school, religion, superstitions, and family. Many of the boxes have a mix of everyday objects, including dolls, clothespins, thread spools, coins, cowrie shells, keys, and wishbones. In some of the containers, Clark has also cut, collaged, or submerged photographs of family members in resin. One particular box holds a small red Bible that she found in her father’s coat pocket after he passed away. As Clark opens up these memory boxes to reconcile with her past experiences, she also prompts us to reflect on the keepsakes we carry with us and consider whether they offer anecdotes of haunting or healing.

June Clark, Family Secrets, 1992. 18 cigar boxes and mixed media Courtesy the artist and Daniel Faria Gallery. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2024. Photo: Henry Chan

June Clark, Family Secrets, 1992. 18 cigar boxes and mixed media Courtesy the artist and Daniel Faria Gallery. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2024. Photo: Henry Chan

Clark continues her walk down memory lane in her large-scale mixed-media installation, Harlem Quilt (1997). For the first time in twenty-eight years, she temporarily returned to Harlem in 1996 when the Studio Museum invited her to participate in an artist residency. Upon her arrival, she recalls feeling a mix of emotions: “I got there, and I realized that nothing had changed in Harlem, and absolutely everything had changed.” As she had done in Toronto, Clark chose to take to the streets as a means of reclaiming a home she once knew. But this time, she instinctively put her Leica camera on her hip to make pictures of her surroundings rather than looking through the viewfinder. After processing the rolls of film at the end of each day, Clark realized that she was looking at her hometown through the eyes of her seven-year-old self. As a way of materializing her multiperspectival relationship with Harlem, she photo-transferred the black-and-white images onto more than three hundred pieces of fabric cut from clothes that she bought at a local Salvation Army Thrift Store. While a string of lights individually illuminates the soft, textured fabrics in the gallery space, it draws us into an intimate encounter with hazy images of sidewalks, strangers, and buildings in Harlem. With this work, instead of chasing shadows, Clark becomes a witness and allows herself to see how her community has transformed in her absence. As the patterned fabrics pay homage to the histories of enslaved Africans who shared their heritage through quilting, Clark’s photo-transfers emulate the lives of everyday Black people from multiple perspectives.

Clark teaches us what it means to truly witness our personal and collective growth while belonging to multiple communities. The freeze-frames and memory boxes arranged side by side in their own installations suggest that our past and present selves, the strange and familiar, do not have to exist separately from each other. When we allow the unpredictable to guide our viewfinder and learn to release our hold on the shutter, perhaps our re-encounters with people and places become spaces to accept, celebrate, and commemorate change.

June Clark, Harlem Quilt, 1997. Photo transfers on fabric, light fixtures. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2024. Photo: Henry Chan

June Clark, Harlem Quilt, 1997. Photo transfers on fabric, light fixtures. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2024. Photo: Henry Chan

Bibliography

Daniel Faria Gallery. “June Clark: Photographs.” Frieze (website). Accessed May 14, 2024.

Jessica Lynne, “June Clark’s Perseverance of Memory.” Momus (website). July 11, 2023.

Olan McEvoy, “Vietnam War: annual number of U.S. military personnel conscripted 1964-1973.”%20since%201917) Statista.com (website). February 2, 2024.

In/Tension with June Clark | Episode 12. Podcast hosted by Neil Price, produced by The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. YouTube. February 27, 2024. Video.