Authored by Marty Kelly
Claire at work
“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is a laughable sentiment for most St. Andrew’s faculty, particularly for Claire Whitehurst, one of our Upper School art teachers and an artist herself. This SA alum (‘09) gets her artist blood honest–and got it early too. When a young Claire got in trouble at school for eating a variety of Crayons, paper, purple gluesticks, and Elmer’s glue, her mom picked her up and said, “It’s okay. I ate glue too.” And there was the time her dad made a costume out of cardboard and went to a Town Hall meeting dressed as a sturgeon (yes, a fish) to emphasize the harmful effects of ATVs on stream beds. Even her brother, Andrew, another alum (‘11), is a musician in New York. And then there’s Claire, who, before she sat down for this interview in my room, grabbed a tissue from my desk, which was used solely for doodling, never nose-wiping.
Somehow my conversation with Claire quickly turned to a discussion of our self-diagnoses (hers: synesthesia and trypophobia; mine: trichotillomania and cleithrophobia). But her diagnoses seem kind of perfect and almost helpful for her artistic soul–and a lot more fun. Her synesthesia of associating words and numbers with colors is not only fitting but really kind of inspirational for an artist–and really incomprehensible and fascinating for those of us for whom words are, well, just words (don’t get me wrong; I’m an English teacher: words have loaded meanings for me too, just sadly not colors). Claire realized she wasn’t alone as a synesthete in high school when a fellow student said, “My name is yellow. What color is yours?” In fact, in describing her art, Claire says she is “obsessed with color.” Makes sense. Like the eating of her art supplies when she was little, Claire physically senses art, which also explains her trypophobia: holes are too visceral, too much like open wounds, she says. Claire, who has always been compelled to draw, actually first loved art through the natural world: through drawing science diagrams and making a diorama of planets. Even now nature influences her art, which she describes as “organic shapes” and “sourced from biological things” such as bird migration patterns. Claire says she is often forced to call her art abstract, but that labeling does not sit well with her. “I like art that’s about stuff,” she says, so even though some might view her art as abstract, it’s always about something–even if dreams. “I daydream a lot,” she confesses (it’s okay, Claire; I think my students do too). People, of course, have various opinions about art, and she says sometimes people might prefer “more realistic” art to hers, which she dubs more “lofty, dreamy, whimsical.” However, Claire also loves the moments when people say to her about a piece of art, “I don’t know what this is,” and she can agree and say, “I don’t either!” Other times, people assign their own meaning to her art, which is also just fine by Claire who lights up remembering one woman telling her about a piece, “It reminds me of this dream I had when I was little.” Moments like these fuel Claire who is always “so fascinated by how strong connections can be when you have so little information.”
Now, don’t let all this talk about dreams and whimsy fool you. Claire recognizes the unfair but bad rap that artists typically get; she knows that “people talk down about artists all the time” because the perception is that artists are somehow “lazy” or “unmotivated.” She made it very clear that stigma doesn’t fly with her: “You have to sit down and do the work.” “I’m in my studio every day for at least an hour,” she says, and these are the hours she keeps when she is not planning for a show. When Claire is preparing for a show, her studio hours are before school, after school, and all weekends (you know, on top of being a teacher). “The only time I don’t produce is when I don’t feel good,” she says, a fact that does not surprise me in the least given how Claire seems to be intensely and viscerally tied to her art.
Even in high school Claire was a dogged artist, so much so that she says, “I drove Jerry Goodwin crazy.” Mrs. Goodwin, frequently trying to get Claire to her next class, would be met with obstinate retorts from Claire: “I’m not done!” Reflecting on these memories, Claire says, “I just wanted to do what I wanted to do.” Given her own headstrong desires when it came to art, Claire gives her own students plenty of room to run. “I just want to get them excited. I just want them to make one thing that they are excited about,” she says, “and then chase that excitement.” As for being a fulltime artist, Claire says she actually really likes the dual role of artist and teacher: “I like being around an environment of questioning.” In her classes Claire is working as her students are: tinkering with art, toying with designs, and problem-solving alongside students. Teachers doing their craft as a means of teaching their craft has got to be one of the most effective tools in teaching ever, right? After I told Claire what an awesome example and tone she was able to set for the students watching her and taking their cues from her engaging in her craft, she said, “Don’t write that in there. Wait. Are students going to read this?” I think she was afraid I was going to give away all the trade secrets of teaching that are working really well for her (don’t worry, Claire; I will give all the money in my wallet to the first student that mentions this blog to me). I also really love that Claire credits others tied to the SA community such as Celia Wood and Ginger Williams Cook with a profound impact on her life as an artist, going so far as to say they are the reasons she is an artist. She calls Ginger, another local artist, “the captain of my ship.” I am pretty sure Claire is going to be someone’s captain too.
Like many artists, Claire has difficulty letting go of her art when it sells. “They are like my little puppies,” she says of her pieces, “It makes me sad. Because I won’t ever see them again.” But like a true teacher/creator/parent, she also knows when it’s time to let go and says to each piece: “It’s time for you to go off into the world.” In fact, Claire is about to start getting 15-20 new pieces ready for a major solo show in Los Angeles in April of 2022. In addition, Claire already has pieces hung in St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, at Jackson Academy in Jackson, and two pieces at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn. She has also just finished 50 hand-done books called Mirror Drawings of pair drawings with loose narrative (that’s right, she’s also a writer) that will be out November 2. Don’t worry; if that’s not enough, Claire also has shows coming up in January (Memphis, Tennessee), in February (Tbilisi, Georgia!), and in March (Atlanta, the other Georgia). I just texted her this afternoon to confirm these locations, to which she replied: “I CONTAIN GEORGIAN MULTITUDES.” Yes, Claire, you do. And not just Georgian ones.
To see more of Claire’s work, visit Claire’s website.
For a better, fuller interview by Steve Turner, visit here.