Brilliant colors dominate Charlene Claye's art

When Charlene Claye found a long-ago letter written by her father, she framed it along with his photo for her family.  It was a reference to his life and discernible evidence that he had been here. Dr. Claye will leave her mark for posterity with her works of art, a portion of them currently on exhibition at The Collective.  She has translated her experiences, adventures, academic achievements, health setbacks and struggles into a tangible and visual philosophy.

Central to most of the 40 pieces in the exhibit is a figure or figures surrounded by geometric patterns, mosaic tiles and intricate sometimes quilt-like designs.  Images of the sun rise up in a number of pieces.

“The sun represents a new beginning,” she explains.

Peppered among many works are Bible verses, music scores, newsprint, butterflies and flowers, arrows representing pain or anger, symbolizing her emotions at a given time.

Vibrant color is a dominant aspect of Claye’s art.

“While a student at Texas Southern University, color invaded my art, found a home and stayed…The vibrancy of color in my travels in Africa definitely had an effect as did the mixture of patterns and designs.  In aboriginal art, the surface is covered entirely without any blank space…”

Charlene's talent was discovered in high school

Details about Claye’s academic and professional credentials are available on The Collective’s website, and a fuller description of her life and training are published in a catalog available at The Collective.

Charlene began her life as an artist as a sophomore at Houston’s Yates Senior High when her art teacher recognized her talent and entered her into a citywide contest where she earned an honorable mention.  This sparked her interest in art as a career, and she enrolled at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. as an art student in 1962.  She left when she became aware of the school’s art curriculum limitations.  She enrolled in Texas Southern University in 1962, then studied industrial design at the University of Bridgeport, Conn., from 1963-66.

It was while studying under Dr. John Biggers at TSU that she began to incorporate a more personal, intimate style into her art.  She was painting a still life in class when Dr. Biggers snatched her painting off the easel and advised her “to paint life, our life, our community.”

Stunned and speechless, she changed her subject matter to the life she saw around her, portraying people fishing, working, cooking and socializing.

Her own life has not been a “still life.”   In her youth she participated in the 1963 integration movement and spent a week in jail.  She studied and learned French in Paris and traveled to the exotic destinations of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Botswana, the Ivory Coast, Brazil and Hong Kong. Professionally, she has been a college instructor, museum administrator, appraiser of fine art and furnishings and a public school teacher of art and French.  Academically, she has earned a bachelor of fine arts, a master in art education and a doctorate in education.

Her sight falters

It was in Brazil in 2001 that she began to lose her sight and was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment.   She learned Braille, developed mobility and daily living skills while battling concurrent side effects of depression, nausea, “loopiness” and adjustment to the new level of sight with the help of a therapist.  In 2012 she was hit by a car while crossing the street, limiting her physical mobility even further.  It took intense physical therapy and a hip replacement before she was able to walk again.

In addition to her art, Charlene works with the Arkansas Services for the Blind program and provides inspiration for the disabled and elderly people where she lives in Hot Springs--handling activities such as fundraising, scheduling events, getting speakers and representing the residents as a member of the Board of Commissioners.

She continues to draw, paint, make things and sew.  By scaling down the size of her paintings, she has found that she is better able to access the tools on the sides of her board, paper or canvas.

Never one to shy away from the unknown, she has accepted the fact that her sight will continue to diminish.

“I’ve entered a new phase in my life,” she explains.

“It’s become a new adventure.”