Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989 brings together works by over 65 artists and collectives to highlight an exciting period in Toronto’s art history. One of the artists featured is June Clark, whose work is being shown at the AGO for the first time. Created in 1989, Clark’s Formative Triptych “feels fresh, urgent and, sadly, timely, which it surely was when it was made” (Toronto Star). The AGO caught up with June Clark to talk about her work and her influences.
AGO: You were born in Harlem, NYC and moved to Toronto. Do these cities influence your work and/or artistic practice?
June Clark: Both cities influence my practice. When I abruptly moved to Toronto in 1968, I used a camera and walked the streets to search for “familiar” images in which to re-live and savour a richness I missed and that I thought I’d lost. It was both the discovery of the unfamiliar and memory of the known that captured my imagination. Of course, I could not re-create Harlem, but I found a bond of humanity that one can usually find anywhere one goes if the eyes are open.
AGO: Do you have a favourite place or memory in Toronto?
June Clark: My memories take me back to Toronto in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when my activities centred on Bathurst Street (Queen to Dupont), Baldwin Street and Kensington Market. Baldwin Street was where I found a family of like-minded women who embraced me and helped me develop my photographic skills, including the presentation of my photographic images. We called ourselves the Women’s Photography Co-op. The Baldwin Street Gallery, owned by Laura Jones and John Philips, was a welcoming place to learn and work. While I was commissioned to photograph other parts of Toronto, for my personal art practice, I preferred Kensington and Bathurst Street.
AGO: You’ve lived and worked in Paris and New York, but you are currently living in Toronto. What has kept you here?
June Clark: In 1968, the original plan was to move to Montreal. However, the politics of Montreal intervened, and I was already making friends for life in Toronto with a freedom I couldn’t foresee in other places.
AGO: How do you think Toronto has changed from the ‘70s to today for young working artists? Is it better or worse, or just different?
June Clark: I honestly cannot say how a young artist finds working in Toronto today. Actually, I believe that that would be a very interesting discussion with someone my age and a young artist comparing pros and cons of practice between then and now.
One could probably say that it is just different, in that artists do not have a choice but to just do the work and to find ways to make it happen. There is one ironic aspect that I can report, which is that with the advent of social media, I don’t see the kinds of campaigns we used to wage with just the post and telephones (land lines). We were able to mobilize across the country on survival issues that affected us, like grants, artists’ fees, jobs, etc. At one point I knew roughly 90% of the practicing artists and photographers across the country. I’m not sure this is the case today.
AGO: You work in all different mediums. Is there one you prefer, or that people seem to respond to more?
June Clark: I’ve always received positive responses to my photographs, photo-etchings and other prints from audiences and collectors. On the other hand, positive response to my box works and assemblages have mainly come from journalists and critics. As far as my preferences go, I usually decide what I want to say and then use the material that will visually “say” it effectively.
AGO: Formative Triptych, which is on display in Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989, feels incredibly relevant. Do you feel more in step with the current art scene today than in the late ‘80s?
June Clark: I’m not sure what “in step” means with regard to an “art scene”. I believe that one will always be behind if one is trying to be “in step”. Formative Triptych feels new and relevant and that helps me to know that it is successful. While I do read art commentaries, I don’t relate what I read to my work. I respond to and act on what I read on the business and current events pages and how these actions or pronouncements affect people.
See June Clark’s work in Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989, included in AGO general admission.