Clark Huling | Old World Ambiance

The Goat s Milk Vendor, oil, 12 x 18. All photos by James Hart.,painting, southwest art.
The Goat’s Milk Vendor, oil, 12 x 18. All photos by James Hart.

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Clark Hulings’ wife Mary was flipping through a food magazine last summer when she found what might be a good place for her husband to paint. The magazine featured cuisine from a region in northern Italy, and most of the dishes revolved around lamb, pork, and chicken. “So there have to be a lot of lambs, pigs, and chickens raised there,” Mary said to her husband. In his mind’s eye, the artist immediately imagined a scene: A few chickens scratch in the dirt of a barnyard on a small family farm. Clothes hanging on a line flap in the wind. Old tools are propped against a weathered stone barn.

Clark Hulings and Pixie. photo, southwest art.
Clark Hulings and Pixie.

Hulings and his wife routinely hunt for scenes like this in rural Italy, Spain, and France. They use clues from guidebooks and other sources like food magazines to find areas likely to yield the artist’s favorite subjects: scenes that could be from an earlier century. “If there are no forests, and it’s not an area known for vineyards which are boring to paint then it has potential. We know that if it’s hilly and rocky they can’t use tractors, so we’re apt to find little truck farms and animals. If lumber is the main industry, we stay away,” Hulings explains, sitting on the latilla-shaded patio of his Santa Fe home. A few feet away a fountain splashes quietly into a small pool, and vines climb the adobe wall.

Hulings’ 26-year-old home has elements of old Europe in its ambiance: a sunny, enclosed front courtyard; a cool, stone-floored interior; thick walls. These architectural elements appeal to the artist because they remind him of Valencia, Spain, where he lived for a time as a child. Much of his artistic sensibility and his attraction to scenes that recall old ways resulted from that experience. And for many years he has created masterful, finely textured, and powerfully evocative oil paintings of such scenes, selling them consistently through galleries and group shows.

A Faded French Farmhouse, oil, 20 x 30. ,painting, southwest art.
A Faded French Farmhouse, oil, 20 x 30.

Now collectors have the rare opportunity to view a large selection of Hulings’ paintings in one place. The artist’s first major solo exhibition in 23 years opens November 6 at Nedra Matteucci Galleries in Santa Fe. A 72-page catalog accompanies the exhibition of 35 new paintings, which will be sold by drawing on opening night. Hulings says he decided to do the show, after considering it for about five years, to remind collectors that he’s still around and to introduce his work to new collectors who may not be familiar with it. At the same time, he says, the show offers a break from the competitiveness of group exhibitions where works in different genres are judged against each other—where a still life, for example, might compete against a painting of the Grand Canyon.

The Little Cherry Seller, oil, 14 x 17.,painting, southwest art.
The Little Cherry Seller, oil, 14 x 17.

As he talks about his art and life, Hulings’ manner is thoughtful and straightforward, warmed with occasional smiles and flashes of humor. He is serious and justly confident when it comes to his painting, yet he always seems just a little bit pleasantly surprised that so many people love to buy what he loves to paint.

When Hulings was a young child in Spain, his father collected paintings by local artists. Later, growing up in New Jersey, the young boy was exposed to museums in New York City. With a small box of oil paints he began copying the paintings he had seen, and soon he was taking private art lessons. After high school Hulings studied at the Art Students’ League in New York City.

Covered Market, Guanajuato, Mexico, oil, 24 x 40.,painting, southwest art.
Covered Market, Guanajuato, Mexico, oil, 24 x 40.

The artist was introduced to Santa Fe in 1944 after graduating from Haverford College in Pennsylvania. His health was poor, and the humid Southern climate of Louisiana, where his parents were living at the time, would have been far from ideal for the young artist. He traveled instead to Santa Fe, where he recovered his health and painted. When Hulings left New Mexico he returned to the Art Students’ League and began to support himself as a commercial illustrator and portrait artist. During this time he took a four-month painting trip to Europe, where he found his artistic voice. Soon he returned to Europe, this time spending three years painting, sketching, and taking photographs. Back in New York, he began selling paintings based on his European material, and eventually he abandoned his illustration work.

A Corner in the Potting Shed, oil, 20 x 24.,painting, southwest art.
A Corner in the Potting Shed, oil, 20 x 24.

In 1972 Hulings and his wife settled in Santa Fe. His debut on the realist art scene came in 1973, when a painting of the Grand Canyon in winter earned him the Prix de West award at the National Academy of Western Art’s first annual show in Oklahoma City. Since then he has participated in numerous shows and won many awards, but he has done only one other large solo exhibition, in 1976 at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

In Spain Hulings gained a fondness for donkeys, and over the years the “little beasts” have become common subjects in his paintings. He smiles, recalling a memory from his boyhood years in Spain. Every morning, very early, a man would walk up the street leading a cow, stopping at most of the houses. The apartment building in which the Hulings lived had an elevator; when the man stopped at their building the maid would ride down with an empty saucepan and come back up with the pan full of warm, very fresh milk for the family’s cafe con leche. With morning light shimmering on the ancient stone street, it’s the kind of scene the elevator unseen, of course the artist is likely to paint.

Yet as the world has spun through enormously rapid transformations in the past decades, Hulings has had to look harder to find little corners of the world where markets, farms, and village streets are reminiscent of earlier times. “When I was first in Santa Fe there were donkeys here, and women making soap,” he says. “You can still find things like that in the countryside in Europe, but you have to hunt for them.”

Hulings isn’t sure what, specifically, attracts him to these scenes. “I can’t explain why certain scenes grab me,” he says, “but when artists are trying to create a painting and go looking for subject matter, the ones that I consider successful have a natural eye, an instinctive ability to stop and say, ‘That’s it.’ You can be driving along at 50 miles per hour and suddenly there’s a combination of things—a farmhouse on a hill, the fences, whatever—that all fit together. Someone without that vision won’t even see it.”

In the hands of a less-skilled artist, a painting of a farmhouse on a hill could come across as a cliché—so familiar it doesn’t hold the viewer’s attention. But Hulings points out that most clichés do contain wisdom worth repeating. Similarly, he creates paintings with themes that bear repeating, that appeal to many people. In this sense, he says, cliché is not such a bad thing.

Where his work diverges from the true cliché, however, is in its design and execution, which compel the eye to linger, find interesting details, and feel encompassed in the atmosphere of the scene. And always, no matter how materially impoverished the scene, there is dignity. There is the quiet sense that those who live on the farm or buy and sell in the market have strength, pride, and a lifelong accumulation of skills to take care of themselves and their families.

“My motivation is to take a scene that somebody else would think is a slummy, ugly farmyard, with trash and tattered underwear hanging from the line and things like that. I think I have a motive to make it beautiful. I would never paint anything to make fun of it,” he explains.

And even in places like rural Europe, not all hardscrabble living offers the same degree of potential for a Hulings painting. “I’m not interested in poor stuff that isn’t picturesque,” he says. “Now, I will put a plastic water bucket in a market scene, because when the light shines through it you have that lovely lime color, or orange. I might not put a brand new Valvoline oil keg in there, but I will put in an old, picturesque one.” All of which is evidence of Hulings’ love for the ambiance of Old World scenes. As he says, “New isn’t bad, but new doesn’t grab me, doesn’t stir me up.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Nedra Matteucci Galleries, Santa Fe, NM

Featured in October 1999