First published in Discover Magazine, 1 March 2017.
Artist Ada Clark speaks with Denise Mills about self-belief, taking art off its pedestal and living an uninhibited creative life.
Ada’s Place is an art gallery just walking distance from Millthorpe’s main drag. It’s a charming old brick building with no hint of the smattering of colour, artisanship and vibrancy contained within its walls, apart from the brightly coloured piece of pottery which sits atop the mailbox and a simple sign: Ada’s place. But perhaps just as impressive as the works of art contained within, is the strength and vivaciousness of the artist herself.
At 86 years old, Ada Clark is still a youthful woman. I doubt she’ll ever fit the “old lady” label – although you’d be forgiven if you were fooled for just a moment, given her difficulty with mobility. She recently broke her hip and has had trouble with her leg since she fell ill in Dubai, several years ago. “I can only walk with my stick now forever, which is a bit annoying,” she tells me. “However, it can’t be helped. And it won’t stop me! I’ve sold so many paintings over Christmas that I need to paint some more.”
Ada’s Place is filled with not only her fabulous paintings, but also cards, tablemats, brightly coloured pottery (which she creates and paints herself, but gets someone else to fire), embroidered purses and beaded jewellery. “My sister is 90 this year. She does all the beads. Paints them, varnishes them, and I add sterling silver. And we’ve sold hundreds of them. She also does the embroidery. So we’re a good pair.”
Ada moved to Millthorpe from the Blue Mountains when her husband, since passed, became ill with a rare disease. “The doctors suggested that he might survive if I got him to the country. I think it was a just a wild guess,” she tells me. But after twenty-two years, she’s certainly made the village her home. “I’m the oldest one in business here. If that’s a recommendation,” she laughs.
Looking around at all the colourful paintings: gouache, oil and watercolour, I can’t get past the fact that each painting was done by Ada herself, and not a range of artists from different parts of the world with different skillsets. Among the various other works which catch my eye, there’s an intricate watercolour of an old building in Millthorpe; a gorgeous landscape of Honfleur; and a painting of a woman she encountered on her travels in Uzbekistan – encapsulating such depth of character that I’m sure I’ve met the subject personally. All this is juxtaposed with brightly coloured abstract work; portraits and landscapes painted by Ada on a different day, capturing a different emotion.
I comment to Ada that I can’t believe her style is so fluid; she’s mastered so many genres. “That’s right,” she says. “Why shouldn’t you have lots of moods?”
She shows me a book of her art which displays yet another style – detailed botanical paintings of Australian flora she did for the National Trust. “I became an expert on Australian wildflowers. I did a calendar and I sold 9,400 of them. And that paid for a whole year in Portugal for my husband and I, which was great.”
Ada’s no stranger to travel, having been all over the world not only to paint, but to exhibit her work. I could delve into her many accomplishments: the interesting places she’s been; the Ambassadors who’ve opened her exhibitions; the delightful book she’s written called “On No Account Ride Donkeys”, which takes the reader on a trip through the Greek Islands; and the one she featured in, written by Molong local Marg Carroll, called “The Man Who Loved Crocodiles, and Stories of Other Adventurous Australians,” (an amazing read). But what is just as impressive, if not more so, is Ada’s inspiring attitude towards art and life.
“There are only two reasons people will buy art: it will increase in value or they really like it. I sell to people who just like my paintings. Maybe it might improve in value, but they’re not worried about that, my customers. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in giving them something that really appeals, and we’re communicating.”
Ada focuses on making her gallery somewhere to fully immerse yourself in art – the beauty and emotion of it – rather than making art something to be purely observed, shielded from both discussion and enjoyment.
“This is what you don’t get when you have an exhibition. You are twirled round and they say ‘oh meet the artist’ and you talk to this person for about five minutes, and then you talk to the next person, and it’s really not very personable. That’s what I love about having my own gallery – there are people who have never bought a painting before. They think that an art gallery is a rarefied atmosphere, and they think you’ve got to be quiet like a library. And I say ‘tell me what you think of it! If you don’t like it, I’d like to hear why! Tell me your reaction.’
“When art is put on a pedestal and people say ‘oh I’d better not say that I don’t really like Picasso, or I don’t like this or that, I’d better not show my ignorance’, nobody will ever learn if they have that attitude, will they? I think that art should be enjoyed by everyone!”
When you meet Ada, you want not only a piece of her art, but a piece of the liveliness and the certainty-of-self she lives by. It’s this personable confidence and unyielding passion for her art which has enabled her to create a career she loves – beyond rules and restrictions.
“Art is very individual. If anybody said to me ‘you now have to paint this that and the other,’ I think I’d rebel. One of the greatest joys I have is that nobody can get inside my brain, nobody really knows what I want to say, but me. And between me and the finished canvas – whether that is a good work or not – there is something I’ve worked out that I want to say. I have the freedom of doing exactly what I want to do.
“I’ve always lived by my art. A lot of people will tell you that it can’t be done. But you have to be adaptable; if you’re adaptable you can do a lot. Which is good, because who would employ me at 86? I can employ myself! I think it’s a great benefit. I always say to people when they’re young ‘stick at it!’”
While the benefits of living such an uninhibited life are clear, I ask Ada the secret to her success. Her talent is beyond question, but there’s something more to it: how do artists overcome the risk involved in living by their art?
“They have to have an almost conceited bias that they can do something different. When I say conceited it’s the wrong sort of word, but if you don’t believe in yourself, it’s no good starting. You’ve got to say to yourself ‘I’ve got something that is entirely me’. A bias towards yourself that you can say something different than the next person. And you’ve got to take that risk because if you don’t, you’ll never know. You’ll just never know. And a lot of people will not take that risk.”
Ada has one thing she’d like every visitor to take away on leaving her gallery, and for me, she achieved her goal. “I would like think that every one of the thousands who have come here have gotten a little bit more love of art. And life!”