As students, faculty, and staff prepare for the first day of classes of the spring 2021 semester on Tuesday, those on campus will have the opportunity to enjoy a new artwork adorning a wall in the Commons in the McCombs Campus Center. The 4’-by-8’ canvas, Shaping the Future, is a piece by Norma Clark ’97, P’00, an SU studio art alumna and Georgetown resident who specializes in abstract painting.

Commissioned by the university to create an artwork representing diversity, Clark based her painting on photographs and videos of academic and campus life, student–faculty interactions, athletics, and iconic buildings that she found on Southwestern’s website. The initial request was for a mural, but health precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the artist from working on such a large piece in a public space, so the alumna switched plans to a smaller canvas that she could work on in the safety of her home. The result was Shaping the Future, whose title was the brainstorm of her daughter, Cecilly Carlise Clark ’00. “Since my daughter went to Southwestern, she came up with the name,” she recalls, “and I thought it was a good one because that’s what schools do: they help students shape their future and what they’re going to do in life.”

“That’s what schools do: they help students shape their future and what they’re going to do in life.”

Clark began her preliminary research and pencil sketches at the end of August 2020; she completed the painting in November, and the piece was installed in the Commons on January 7, 2021. The finished work features several iconic SU landmarks, including the Lois Perkins Chapel and one of Clark’s favorite spots on campus, the grand circular staircase in Alma Thomas Fine Arts Center. Discerning eyes will also spot some familiar faces (e.g., Assistant Dean for Student Multicultural Affairs Terri Johnson and Ernest Clark ’69, SU’s first Black student and graduate) and beloved university symbols, such as a Pirate bike. But the painting also exhibits that indelible Norma Clark flair—“those things [that] are true to what I do,” she says—with eye-catching trademarks such as arterial branches, geometric shapes, bold hues, and certain “disguised” objects and buildings that reflect her love for abstract forms and gestures.

Like any commissioned artwork, the process of designing, painting, and revising a piece according to a client’s feedback is different from that of work developed on spec: in a commission, Clark says, the focus is the end product and the patron’s approval, whereas in her independently inspired paintings, “the process is what my work is about”—she creates from a rich array of personal emotion and complexity, adapts according to her own unique vision, and creates the piece in her own time. Still, the project was an enjoyable experience, one that she appreciates having to distract her during the isolation of the pandemic. “I was trying to include the things [the university] asked me to,” she shares, “but I also just looked and picked things that spoke to me that I wanted to see in the painting… . It was fun. I enjoyed doing it.”

You can view another of Clark’s recent artworks, a mural cocreated with fellow local artist Devon Clarkson titled Preserving History, behind Georgetown City Hall. In 2021, Clark will be collaborating with three other artists on a mural planned for behind the Georgetown Arts Center.

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