Artist Gerald Clarke sends a message within his Beer and Soda Can Basket art that is contemporary, traditional and universal.
It all started with Clarke noticing that the shape of a satellite dish was about the shape of a Cahuilla Indian basket, but of course, a lot larger. He envisioned this out-sized modern basket base with a traditional design reminiscent of those made by Cahuilla women who gathered their basket-weaving materials from meadows and mountains native to the Idyllwild area. The process the women used to make pliable their materials before shaping them into baskets was “pounding and splitting.”
Clarke pounds his beer and soda cans before he glues them onto the satellite surface in a Cahuilla design. While he does this, he is cognizant of the ancient and beautiful designs his people created, and how environmentally friendly they were using natural materials at hand that were “fixed, recycled, repurposed.” However, he is simultaneously aware of debilitating effects of diabetes from too much canned sugar, and the control that alcohol can have over the hearts and minds of his people. He’d like to pound out diabetes and alcoholism from his culture.
As an artist, Clarke can create a beautiful image with his pounded cans and make a big statement. Likewise, he wants the impediments holding back contemporary native culture to be tamed so that his people can live big and beautiful lives. So, Clarke is not “romanticizing anything, just depicting parts [past and present] of the [Cahuilla] culture.”
He says he hopes his work “reminds us all of our own humanity” of which the negative is always a part.
Casinos, now often a source of economic prosperity for Native Americans, may have some pitfalls attached, but they do give back to their people by sponsoring and donating to native traditional cultural enhancement projects and education. The money casinos donate goes to educate native youth and the general public about the rich and ancient ecologically friendly and creative spirit of the traditional Native American life. That this tradition is passed on, customs remembered and the language revived, is essential to contemporary pride in culture and for the native culture to have its rightful place in prosperity.
Clarke said, “I’m an artist and a teacher; I’m a family man and part of the Tribal Council; I identify more as a community member, than just as an individual.” Remembering Cahuilla traditions, and in an effort to keep them alive and current in his family, he and his daughter, who is a senior in Creative Writing at the Idyllwild Arts Academy, make trips to gather acorns together, then crush them into flour the old way.
For his last compeleted satellite dish basket, Clarke used 668 cans. For his next project, he will be using more than 1,000 cans.
From 3 to 6 p.m. Friday, March 23, Clarke will give a talk at the Idyllwild Library. Clarke currently teaches Ethnic Studies, with a focus on indigenous people, at the University of California, Riverside.