The Stephen L. Clark Gallery does not grab one’s immediate attention from the outside. Located in a graceful 1867 house in a district later named Old West Austin, it is secluded behind mature pecan trees and leafy undergrowth. An old-fashioned sign hanging from a metal garden arch announces the gallery’s unpretentious presence at 1101 W. Sixth St.
Inside, the tall rooms — or rather, the ones that do not serve as workspaces for revered screenwriter, photographer and author Bill Wittliff — are replete with photographic art, much of it related to Texas, Mexico and the Southwest, as well as some paintings, sculptures, collages and books. Currently arranged for a 25th-anniversary show, the displayed images start to tell a story that reaches back decades before 1993, when Clark, former owner of the Waterloo Ice House group, opened the spot that pulls together so many strands of Austin culture.
In 1975, for instance, when Clark arrived in Austin, his college roommate and friend since 1959, Rick Williams, introduced him to the Austin photographic community. That illustrious group included the legendary Russell Lee, later namesake for the elementary school, widely respected Ave Bonar, and J.B. Colson, the head of photojournalism at the University of Texas. For his part, Lee was famous nationwide for his documentary images taken before, during and after the Great Depression, but he also founded the photography program in the art department at UT.
Clark opened the Waterloo Ice House in 1976, and it became a center for photographers. Clark and his friends formed the Texas Photographic Society. Johnny Edson introduced him to Keith Carter — “who more than anyone put Texas contemporary photography on the map,” Clark says.
“When I decided to change careers in 1993, Rick suggested that I sell his work, Ave’s and others’,” Clark says. “I went to Bill Wittliff and asked his opinion. He said that I was the guy to do it and offered me his ‘Lonesome Dove’ work as a fundraiser for his collection at what is now Texas State University.”
The Wittliff Collections in San Marcos now house Carter’s definitive archive of more than 20,000 photographs. Although the University of Texas preserves several vast photographic archives, including those at the Ransom Center and Briscoe Center for American History, the younger Wittliff Collections have focused on many of the same artists, photojournalists and themes that Clark emphasizes.
“The artists tend to have a regional connection, though not necessarily just to Texas itself,” Clark says. “Mickey Raphael — Willie’s harmonica player — brought me Jack Spencer. Jack’s work began in the South but later covered Mexico and all 48 contiguous states. Kate Breakey, from Australia, reflects the Southwest but has Australian and European images also. Keith’s vision was born in Southeast Texas, but he took it to Mexico and Europe. What they all have in common is a warm vision, knowledge of art, music, literature and poetry, and a dedication to the finest possible finished piece.”
The intersection of different art forms has always been a part of the Clark allure. For instance, the gallery sells some fantastic books, including Wittliff’s “The Devil’s Fork,” Kenny Brown’s “As Far As You Can See” and Peter Brown and Joe Holley’s “Hometown Texas.” Also available is Spencer’s stunning “This Land: An American Portrait,” a volume of incomparable images taken over many years of crisscrossing the country.
Clark actively participates in museum exhibits and the publication of books related to the artists he represents.
“The published book has been very important to my gallery,” Clark says. “The books spread the knowledge of the work, become a portfolio and prove to those that may not be familiar with the artist that the work has worth. The museum collection is further proof of that. For me in particular, the Wittliff Collections have introduced people to the work that might otherwise have no knowledge of it.”
Though unassuming, the gallery’s location at West Sixth and Baylor streets has been an understated factor in the gallery’s resilience.
“There is no doubt that my location has been helpful,” Clark says. “The geography itself — there’s a reason that Whole Foods and Waterloo Records, among others, are here — and the 1867 building where Bill has officed for over 40 years and O. Henry once lived has a feel to it that would be hard to duplicate. Bill has often said to me, 'It’s these walls. …'”
Not many Austin art galleries have survived 25 years.
“I have lasted because it’s just what I was supposed to do,” Clark says. “Bill has often said, ‘Whatever you are looking for is looking for you, too.’ Vanessa Redgrave came to my first gallery show, which was exciting, but not nearly as important as Kate Breakey coming in.”
Breakey’s exquisite photographs, often hand-colored, of plants, animals and landscapes are matched in intensity at the gallery by Austin’s celebrated collage artist Lance Letscher, whose work is now coveted by collectors and museums.
“Other galleries have asked how I got Lance,” Clark says. “His wife, Mary, was climbing Keith Carter’s fence when she was 8. It is a family of friends. There is no facade, no pretense. We present the real thing. It is a confluence of wonderful people. No tests need be passed to enjoy our gallery. A sense of wonder is helpful. I am the lucky beneficiary."
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