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 Robert Verity Clem  (1933 - 2010)

About: Robert Verity Clem
 

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/Connecticut      Known for: wildlife-birds, water landscape painting

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Ad Code: 3
Robert Verity Clem
from Auction House Records.
PEREGRINE FALCON
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following was published in the Cape Cod Chronicle on September 23, 2010:

Artist Clem Remembered For Ability To Capture ‘Essence” Of Birds

By Tim Wood

Chatham- It wasn’t unusual to see Bob Clem driving around town in his station wagon, piloting his wooden boat on the water, or out walking, binoculars in hand.  But few who saw this polite, unassuming man, a resident here for 50 years, knew of his reputation as an artist.

Mr Clem, who died in his sleep last Friday, Sept. 17, at age 76, was considered one of the foremost bird artists in the country.  A loyal following awaiting his new paintings with anticipation, and his one major published book, The Shorebirds of North America, is considered a classic in the field.

“If there were a pantheon of bird artists, Robert Verity Clem would be there,” said Amy Montague, director of the Mass Audubon Visual Arts Center in Canton.  “He is almost universally acknowledged as ranking among the greatest artists to focus on birds,” along with other luminaries such as  George Miksch Sutton ( with whom Clem, as a developing artist, corresponded), Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and John James Audubon.

Mr. Clem’s paintings not only depicted birds, especially shorebirds, in precise, realistic detail, but also captured their essence as well as that of the surrounding landscape, said Jim Baird, a friend of Mr. Clem’s for 30 years.  He recalled a series of paintings showing multiple images of a raven diving, accomplished in a series of brush strokes.  It now hangs in his study.

“It is an amazing thing to look at,” said Baird, curator emeritus at Mass Audubon.  A painting included in Shorebirds of North America shows what Mr. Clem was able to imbue in his paintings.  The piece shows a single Eskimo curlew, at the time on the verge of extinction, alone on the frozen tundra, walking into the sunset.

“To me it said everything anybody needed to say about the Eskimo curlew,” Baird said.

“Not only do ornithologists  and birders who know what the bird should look like rave about his accuracy, but even people who can’t appreciate it to that regard are just in awe of the artistry he brings to his work,” said Montague.  In 2000, the Visual Arts Center, which owns 28 Clem paintings, mounted an exhibit of his work.  The only word she could think of to describe how people responded to the work is “reverence.”

Yet it was not only the birds, the landscapes and other details of his paintings were infused with a subtlety augmented by a muted an limited pallet of colors, she said.  Many of his paintings depicted the fall, winter or spring- rarely the full blossom of summer- and he loved to show bare trees because it brought out their structure and architecture.

“You could look at a rock he painted and it would seem like almost an infinite pallet within the limited pallet he would choose,” said Montague. ”Looking at his paintings, I think, helps you appreciate the world in a different way.”

Mr. Clem was a self-taught painter, showing artistic talent at an early age growing up in Hamden, Connecticut.  He became interested in birds and the natural world through the illustrations of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and the artist became his “ghost” mentor, Baird said.  He learned the principles of landscape painting by observing muralists and background painters at the Peabody Museum of Yale University.  By age 11 he was painting birds, and he was recognized for his talent by his mid teens, when he began a correspondence with artist and ornithologist George Miksch Sutton, who had been mentored by Fuertes.

In 1955, industrialist Julius Fleishmann commissioned Mr. Clem to paint birds in his Naples, Fla. Aviary.  For the next decade, Mr. Clem spent six months of the year engaged in that activity, during which time he developed his talent and honed his skills in watercolors.  A series of prints of some of those paintings have become much sought-after collectors’ items.

In 1967, Mr. Clem produced the paintings for The Shorebirds of North America, written by Peter Matthiasen, which at the time was the definitive text on the subject.  In subsequent years, his paintings focused primarily on shorebirds and raptors, both of which were of keen interest to him.  His work can be found in many private collections and museums throughout the US.  Four of his paintings held by the   Audubon Visual Arts Center are on view at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard through Nov. 15.  They include a large 1966 painting of a gyrfalcon which Mr. Clem said was one of his best works.

He often traveled to exotic locations to paint, including Iceland and Africa, but was just as happy to stay at home and paint shorebirds on Monomoy or Morris Island.

A year-round resident of Chatham for more than 50 years, Mr. Clem also cared deeply about the natural environment.  He served on the Chatham Conservation Commission and was been a trustee of the Chatham Conservation Foundation for many years.  Two years ago he contributed property behind his Nameless Lane home containing seven acres of marsh and more than a half-acre of upland to the commission. He said at the time the land was vital for the survival of the surrounding habitat, and expressed his intention to donate the land on which his home sits to the Foundation.

“Then this will be a complete environment, if you will, protecting the valuable core of the marsh.” He said at the time.

Mr. Clem leaves his life partner of 35 years, Louise Russell; his Chatham cousins and their wives: Gene and Nina Doggett, Kim and Toni Doggett, Charlie and Carol Baldwin, as well as Wick and Cynthia Doggett of Concord and Chatham and Sally and Tom Skillin of Danvers and Chatham.

A memorial gathering will be held at a later date.  Donations in his memory may be made to the Chatham Conservation Foundation, 104 Crowell Road, Chatham, MA 02633.

Information provided by Cynthia Moore.

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