A Tribute to John Clarke

Born Harare, Zimbabwe 1946 – 2021

For more information and work go to : www.jfcclarke.com

Some years ago now, in the late 80’s, my father would take me walking along a river close to our home. I was no more than 3 years old. His feet made the gravel crunch under his weight as he led us to an embankment of clay next to a quiet brook. There we would sit quietly, pulling chunks of clay from the moist earth, forming little animals and people. I remember the excitement of this new ability he was sharing, a feeling of unlimited potential, in realizing that we could create things, shape them into being, give them names, discuss, reform and merge them back into abstract handfuls of matter to leave by the water for the next visit to our neatherthal studio, this was the game – an early memory and lesson from dearly departed South African artist JFC Clarke, husband and father of four, who died from cancer at his home on 22 January 2021.

JFC Clarke was born in Harare, in 1946, soon thereafter relocating to Barbeton with his 3 sisters and parents, and later Pretoria which became a homebase for the remainder of his life. As many of his friends and family will know, John was a traveler both internally through his art-making, and externally throughout the expanses of Southern African bushveld. He had a particular love for Botswana, and had many adventures into remote and wild places, where he often enjoyed sleeping under the stars, beside a fire on course hessian sacks surrounded by a few camping chairs, with the morning light revealing hyena footprints circling where he slept.

In many ways, the bushveld was his natural habitat. Urban life seemed to be a somewhat reluctant requirement to be maintained, if not endured, until the next opportunity to return to the thornveld with it’s birds, insects, animals, trees and stillness. This aspect of his life, is of particular significance when exploring the expansive body of artworks he has left behind.

It is a fitting coincidence that his birthday coincides with the 1969 moonlanding, a monumental moment in time that made a notable impression on his signature pastel landscapes. They are lit by an otherworldy and omnipresent light; compositions methodically shaped in pointalist earthen colors, forming everchanging and recognizable elements of stones, poles, platforms and vessels, that evolved into his unique visual language, one that he distilled until the very end.

JFC Clarke’s artworks are almost completely devoid of human figures, and yet the traces of humanity, architecture, and culture are clear in the simple, yet profound kraal-like arrangements of objects and platforms – empty stages that hold the echoes of past and future beings, like futuristic moon ruins. The stones and vessels shimmer like singing bowls, full of abstract allegory and meaning, open and safe for viewers to ponder and explore.

Much of his work alludes to the stillness, space and time of a lightfooted and respectful human presence in a natural world. This stoic and minimal essence is something he exuded in enigmatic abundance – akin to very low and high frequencies that are easily missed by the naked ear, existing outside of a more recognizable and melodic bandwidth. And yet, those who know him, will remember a quiet, kind, and powerful presence, a man who listened, and used his words with care and genuine intent.

Besides his large body of work in the mediums of pastel, pencil, digital drawing, and printmaking, he also applied his passion and time to a long and detailed study of legendary lowveld outsider artist Nukain Mabuza, who died in 1981 – a man who JFC Clarke never met,  but was deeply inspired and fascinated by – honoring him and his work in a publication he released in 2013 titled The Painted Stone Garden of Nukain Mabuza.

He also released a photographic book titled A Glimpse into Marabastad (2008), documenting explorations and observations of a culturally eclectic and fascinating area of Pretoria during a troubled time in South Africa history. These are to mention but a few areas of intest that John Clarke quietly and continually nurtured throughout his life.

In this increasingly fast, digitized and complicated world we currently occupy, the frequency and meaning of Clarke’s work can be both instantly recognized and appreciated, as well as easily missed, often requiring a quiet and meditative recalibration of focus to merge with and appreciate the essence of these windows into his inner world – perhaps similar to turning off the loud mechanical hum of a landrover engine in order to appreciate the micro-sonics of the bushveld, and of course, the stillness

In writing this, I recalled a quote from the Japanese warrior code Hagakure (meaning ‘hidden by the leaves’), written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. In some ways it echoes the way JFC Clarke quietly, passionately and consistently nurtured a deeply committed and often hidden love for his art-making practice, and the friends and family who he held in the highest regard, who will sorely miss his unique and wonderful presence.

Taken from the short chapter “Comrades of Smoke”

…”I have determined that the highest form of love is a love that is hidden within the heart. When one has met the object of one’s love and expressed one’s love externally, the stature of the love is lowered. For a person to keep his love burning in his heart secretly until he dies of longing – that is the original meaning of love. There is a song that goes ‘In the smoke that remains after someone dies of burning love, one can know that that’s what it was: secret inner longings that were never revealed until the very end.'”

In John Clarke’s death, we honour and celebrate the plume of smoke he leaves us; a lifetime of carefully drawn marks, his love and respect for nature, and heartfelt connections with family, friends and strangers, who’s lives he has enriched with his presence.


– Frederick Clarke, 23/01/21