From potash to painting: Saskatchewan artist James Clow takes flight at internationally renowned exhibition

Ravens have long been a symbolic animal in different cultures around the world.

Whether they represent death, life or simple trickery, their long history in folklore has always inspired Saskatchewan artist James Clow.

He works underground in the dark, hot, dusty tunnels of a potash mine by day, but Clow’s background is firmly rooted in art.

James Clow

After receiving a fine arts degree from the University of Regina and a classical animation diploma from Sheridan College in Ontario, his itch to travel the world led him to Europe and later Vancouver, where he worked as an animator for the likes of Universal Pictures, Walt Disney and DreamWorks.

After computer-driven animation took over from the traditional hand drawn sketches, Clow became disillusioned with the industry and decided to come home to Saskatchewan to be closer to his ailing mother.

That’s when he discovered his unexpected interest in potash mining after noticing the rotor groves etched into a mine’s walls and the delicate dance the miners undertook when moving the huge machines inside the holes they had cut.

“I guess I see art wherever I look,” he says. “To me, this was an art form — how they are able to move this equipment in those conditions, and to see those sculptural rotor groves carved into rock.”

It didn’t take long for potash, and his experiences as a miner, to become just as inspiring to him as the ravens he loves to paint. He even spent 90 days straight trying to find a way to incorporate the potassium-rich salt into his work.

Though he had worked as an animator for many years, he hadn’t picked up a paintbrush since his university days in the mid-1980s. He started out wanting to be a painter, but the curriculum wasn’t quite what he expected, so he shifted focus to animation and screen printing. His paintbrushes were left to gather dust for more than 20 years.

“My wife said I was miserable without doing artwork,” Clow laughs. “One day she actually brought home a canvas and the worst set of paintbrushes and paint in the world and just said, ‘Paint!’ ”

James Clow was recently featured at Birds in Art.

That was five years ago, and it seems her intuition was correct. When he isn’t underground he can usually be found in his basement studio or outside in his yard, furthering his experimentation with new techniques and creating works of art that are slowly making their way into corporate and private collections.

Those five years also led him to one of the biggest moments of his art career — an email from the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, telling him his submission for the Birds in Art exhibition had been accepted.

Birds in Art had its inaugural show under a different name when the museum first opened in Wausau, Wisconsin in 1976. Over its 43-year history it has become an internationally renowned exhibition of avian themed artwork by more than 1,000 different artists.

To be chosen for the exhibition is a highly competitive process. This year alone, the museum saw 904 submissions by 575 artists from around the world; only 92 artists from 14 different countries were chosen to show their work alongside the gallery’s master artists, which include names like Carl Brenders and Robert Bateman.

Amy Beck, marketing and communications manager for the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, says it’s difficult for an artist to be chosen in the first year they submit artwork.

“It’s a high bar to even be juried in, but once you’re in Birds In Art you’re really part of the family,” she says.

Beck notes the museum was impressed with the intricacy of Clow’s work and the different layers that go into the painting and mixed media elements, like the hand-oxidized, sterling silver background that give his Birds In Art submission, titled Arizona Sun King, a glow that moves and shimmers in a way that’s hard to capture through digital media.

“He really describes visually the intelligence of this bird and the respect he has for ravens,” Beck says. “And he does this depiction of the raven without using black at all.”

Clow’s painting was one of about 15 pieces of artwork from that exhibition purchased by the gallery to add to its permanent collection.

James Clow’s painting Arizona Sun King, created using acrylic and sterling silver, was chosen to be part of the 43rd annual internationally renowned Birds In Art exhibition at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin.

Clow’s discovery of the museum came by complete coincidence after a series of spur-of-the-moment stops on a road trip with his wife.

The trip was originally supposed to take them from Saskatoon to Ontario, but a detour to visit a John Dillinger museum soon turned into a stop at the local Harley Davidson dealer. The dealer, after overhearing Clow passionately discuss the art in motorcycles with his wife and his hobby of painting ravens, suggested they take another detour to visit the nearby art gallery.

Clow and his wife decided to continue their road trip but visit the museum on their way back to Saskatoon. When they finally made it there, he was immediately impressed by the gallery’s passion for keeping art accessible.

Though it was too late to submit for that year’s exhibition, Clow was told to submit next year after he shared some photos of his work with the curator. There was “not a chance in hell” he would have done it if he had originally realized just how prestigious the exhibition was internationally, he says.

“Once I was accepted I started looking into this, looking at YouTube videos of past exhibitions and listening to artists talk about going and what’s involved — I was just like, ‘What did I sign up for? I’m just this potash guy who likes birds,’ ” Clow remembers.

His discovery turned out to be the perfect storm of talent, luck and timing. Birds In Art gave him the opportunity to showcase his work under the same banner as Bateman — and in essence brought his life as an artist full circle.

Bateman had been an inspiration to Clow since he was 18 years old, when his mother brought him a book of Bateman’s art and told him “maybe one day you will be as good as him,” he recalls.

“It was surreal. I got him to sign (the book), which was hard for me even to ask. My mother passed away three years ago — it was actually while I was painting my first raven — and all my life she encouraged me to do art and now, there is my painting in the same room as Robert Bateman’s.”

All the artists showcasing work at Birds in Art are invited for the exhibition’s opening weekend festivities. Clow will never forget it.

“It was unbelievable. I never in my life expected to be treated that way,” he said. “Just treated like a rock star, like you were royalty, right from the get-go.”

The gallery was so interested in the techniques and inspiration behind his work, it selected him to be one of nine artists telling their stories on the exhibition’s audio tour. He was also asked to give a demonstration of the hand-oxidizing techniques he uses when working with materials like gold, sterling silver and copper.

Unfortunately, Clow had to turn them down on the in-house demonstration — the process smells like “a sewer backed up,” he says.

Instead, he put together a step-by-step guide on a piece of plywood so tour guides could showcase the intricate details of his work.

Clow said he never expected to be so welcomed into the Birds In Art family as a potash miner who paints when he can find the time between the long shifts underground.

Beck says it isn’t uncommon for many of the artists to be part-time — but she was fairly impressed, if not slightly surprised, when she learned about Clow’s day job.

“He does share some commonality in that not all the artists who gather have been able to devote their full-time professional career to pursuing art — but not many travel a mile straight downward to mine potash,” she laughs.

Though Clow began the opening weekend feeling like an amateur among professionals, an encounter with Bateman changed everything. Bateman had been sitting behind him on the bus ride back to their hotel when Clow noticed his arm pop through the seats, offering the opportunity to view his personal sketchbook.

“This sketchbook that he handed me was like a personal diary of places he had been around the world,” Clow says.

“We started talking about art education … and I mentioned being an animator and how I learned to draw from the inside out — as soon as I said those words he said, ‘Thank god somebody understands that.’ ”

The whole experience left Clow excited to continue expanding his techniques and portfolio — but he doesn’t plan to leave the mines anytime soon.

“The reality is, I go back to the potash mine,” he says.

“It’s this bizarre Cinderella story where I got picked out of the slums, put up on a pedestal for a week … It was an insane week — I wasn’t expecting all this.”

epetrow@postmedia.com

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