|John L. Clarke with A Blackfeet Encampment, 1956, wood frieze, Montana Historical Society, X1959.12.01.|
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 941-735
Monday, June 30, 2014
John L. Clarke
Artist J. K. Ralston said that when John L. Clarke finished carving a bear, you could smell it. Clarke was a gifted wood carver, highly celebrated in his own lifetime. John D. Rockefeller even purchased eight of his carvings. The grandson of trader Malcolm Clarke and his Piegan wife, John was three-quarters Blackfeet. His grandfather Malcolm was killed in 1869 over a dispute with his in-laws. His father, Horace, was shot through the head during that incident but recovered. When John was a toddler, scarlet fever claimed five of his brothers and left him profoundly deaf. He was sent away to schools for the deaf in the 1890s and educated at North Dakota and at Montana’s state school at Boulder. There he learned wood carving. Clarke mostly communicated through sign language and was known by his Blackfeet name, Catapuis, which means the Man Who Talks Not.
Despite his handicap, Clarke was highly gifted, largely self-taught, and spent most of his life carving spectacular wildlife at his studio in East Glacier. His work includes clay sculpture, paintings, sketches, and the famed mountain goat insignia of the Great Northern Railway. His last work was a carving of a grizzly bear freeing itself from a trap. Clarke did this remarkable carving almost entirely by feel, his ninety-year-old eyes so clouded with cataracts that he could hardly see. Clarke’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States and in London, England. President Warren G. Harding commissioned an eagle holding an American flag that he displayed in the Oval Office during his presidency. The John L. Clarke Western Art Gallery and Memorial Museum in East Glacier commemorates the work of this exceptional artist who was one of Montana’s finest native sons.