I AM THE DAY STAR by Henry Ray Clark
The art of Henry Ray Clark seems to perfectly embody the contrasting polarities of his life. The co-existing realms of reality and fantasy, hard boiled street wisdom and naivete that seemed to be present throughout his life, come together in his art. He could simultaneously be a schemer and a dreamer, a hustler and an artist, and that is where his particular genius may lie.

Henry Ray Clark was born in 1936 in the small East Texas town of Bartlett. His family moved to Houston when Henry was about five years old, probably seeking better opportunities in the big city than could be found by most African Americans in the post Depression small towns of East Texas. Young Henry also saw the opportunities of city life and dropped out of school after the sixth grade to "go up on the streets". According to Henry, as a young teenager he was schooled by his uncle in the ways of street hustling and gambling. Henry liked the easy money and being accountable to no one. He had found his calling. Indeed, Henry Ray Clark was a compelling figure in both appearance and personality. Handsome, with deep blue eyes, he came to be known on the streets of Houston as "Pretty Boy" and then "The Magnificent Pretty Boy", either by his own boastful naming or by one of the many women who knew him, it is not clear. He eventually turned to a life of crime. Clark's life of drug dealing, pimping and other hustles was decidedly small time in the grand scheme of things, though to hear about it through Henry's eyes, he was a formidable and influential "kingpin", always on the verge of the next last score that would set him up for life. Over the next twenty five years, the harsh realities of a criminal life eventually caught up with him. In 1977, following a series of drug dealing convictions, he was found guilty of assault and sentenced under Texas' "Three Strikes" Law to twenty five years in Huntsville State Prison. There, Clark was introduced to the prison arts programs and began to draw. Clark found that drawing provided him with a release from the confinement of prison. Using ball point pens and salvaged manila envelopes, he began creating images of far off galactic worlds inhabited by powerful and sometimes, benevolent beings. He developed a characteristic drawing style involving detailed patterning and line work. A typical drawing, such as the one below, would depict a central alien-like being who is surrounded by a multi colored geometric field, accompanied at the top by some text that identifies the figure and its powers. As his art developed, Henry also developed a personal mythology surrounding his drawings, identifying himself as the extraterrestrial being and possessing its powers. A good storyteller is often convinced of the truth in their stories and Henry's drawings of these other worlds served as his evidence for their existence. According to Clark, "I know they are out there, because I have been there. Every night when I go to bed, I travel in my spaceship going to all of the places I put on these papers." He continued, "I can't draw nothing but things that come out of my mind. There are so many galaxies that our world has never come in contact with yet, but one day when we do I will be up there looking down at everybody saying "Here I am, The Magnificent Pretty Boy!"

Henry Ray Clark continued to serve his time and draw. His incarceration seems to have provided him with one of the central dichotomies of his life. While "on the street" Henry was consumed by a chaotic life involving hustling and survival. Prison, with its regimentation and time, provided him with the circumstances to explore a deeper world of fantasy, creativity and artistic expression. In 1989, Henry participated in the Huntsville State Prison Art Show, the same event that in the past had resulted in acclaim for inmate Frank Jones some years earlier. As with Jones, Houston artist and arts advocate William Steen was in attendance. Steen befriended Henry and became his liason with the world outside of prison. William was instrumental in presenting Clark's work to the public, finding homes for his fantastic drawings in private and public collections, both nationally and internationally. Henry was eventually released and returned to Houston. He tried to build a life as an artist and capitalize on his self proclaimed greatness, which included a short lived restaurant called The Magnificent Burger, whose building was decorated with murals painted by Henry. He always had many plans, based on influential people learning of his remarkable skills, that never quite materialized. These included creating drawings of entertainment and sports stars that could be marketed to them and their endorsement companies for high prices. The drawing at the left, of Tiger Woods, is an example.

William Steen's role as Clark's advocate was eventually given over to Houston artist Jack Massing, one half of the collaborative partnership known as The Art Guys. I had the opportunity to talk with Jack about Henry Ray Clark and his art. Jack began by saying, "I was initially interested in Henry as a person, though I did like his work. The work grew on me the more and more I got to know Henry. Eventually i became very fond of his art." He went on to add, "I was really interested in the technique that he had, that was very detailed and very tight, and very interestingly balanced...not symmetrical. Henry had a system by which he made his drawings and he intentionally made them asymmetrical. I liked the patterns and the seeming naivete of the patterns...the evocativeness of the patterns that seemed to me to be very African. He was obviously channeling things from his environment and experiences, though he would not have been aware of them or have been able to articulate them as a trained artist might." I asked Massing what he may have learned from Henry Ray Clark as an artist. He commented, "Henry taught me a lot, such as his optimism. I would reflect on this while working in the studio. If I was feeling down or frustrated, i would think of Henry and how much his life challenged his art making." He went on to say, " Henry had an unfaltering notion that what he was doing was very important, that what he was doing had very powerful associations with the people who were close to him. This connectedness to the people in his life was very important to him and could easily be missed by others who only saw one side of him."

Jack went on to describe an unappreciated aspect of Clark's character and art that reflected this close connection with people. This took the form of poetry. According to Massing, "The poems formed a strong connection for Henry. If he wrote a poem for someone, it meant they were very important to him. Henry thought that the poem established and reinforced their connection and that the relationship, through the poem, made him more powerful." In a poem titled "Happy Birthday Cheryl, I Know What You Will Be" Clark, over watchful eyes, writes,

Cheryl, if you ask God for his help and mean it he will hear you
and you will have the rest of your life in joy
I must tell you this God gave me a look into your future and only I know
what you will be, but he also made me your Guardian Angel
The Magnificent Pretty Boy

The drawing at the top of this article is a particular favorite of mine and captures many of the dualities of Henry's life and art. The patterning of the drawing is especially fine, achieving a sense of flowing movement. Its central image is described in the drawing's inscription, "I Am The Day Star. A Light That Shineth In A Dark Place. I Will Arise In Your Heart". Henry Ray Clark's life included many dark places. He was aware of these as they co existed with the optimism that drove his art. He is often quoted as saying "They can lock my body up, but they can't lock up my mind. As long as my mind can create something beautiful to look at. I am a free man, and I will live forever in my art."

Henry Ray Clark died on July 29, 2006, the victim of a robbery and murder in his home.

His art was most recently shown as part of the exhibition "Seeing Stars" at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas in 2012.

My thanks to my good friend, Jack Massing, for his championing of Henry Ray Clark and his insights for this article.

Mr. Spaceman was written by Roger McGuinn and recorded by the Byrds for their 1966 album Fifth Dimension. It is whimsical song about the possible existence of extraterrestrial life and captures the sense of optimism in Henry Ray Clark's art. Its lyrics telling of "creatures that come in the night" echo Clark's nocturnal flights of imagination. The singer's plea for escape from earthbound life and imploring " Won't you please take me along, I won't do anything wrong" seems to capture some key elements of Clark's life and art.

♫ 07 Mr. Spaceman.m4a