Pulling up to the home of local artists Claire and Robert “Bob” Clements, a kaleidoscope of eastern tiger swallowtails with stripes of black and pale yellow clumsily dance among a row of scarlet-starlet marigolds in full bloom. Lush greenery obscures the house at first glance from the road, making it all the more thrilling when you see the unusual architecture. If you’re lucky, a flutter of butterflies will escort you down the pathway, lined with purple queen cleomes towering over a bed of pink periwinkles, towards the front door.
“Some new people moved into our neighborhood, and I stopped to meet them,” says Bob. “I said where I lived, and they said, ‘Oh yeah, Bar H Court; we like the house that looks like the Hobbit’s.’ I said, ‘Oh, well that’s my house!’”
“When we were building it,” Claire adds, “we described it to someone and she said, ‘That’s not a house, that’s a dollhouse!’”
Built in 1972 following several years of design work by Bob, their home’s architectural influences are difficult to pinpoint, inspired more directly by individual buildings than historic trends. With its vaulted arches, large windows and a passive solar building design—a progressive consideration given the year—the Clements’ home looks like the setting of a modern fairy tale.
“Some friends of ours have a very modernistic house—a Bauhaus-looking house—in a perfect square that used to be yellow,” says Bob. “Someone said that was the cheese box, and ours was the lunchbox.”
“Once they painted theirs and added on to it, it didn’t look so much like a cheese box,” says Claire. “But ours still looks like a lunchbox.”
Hobbit-hole, dollhouse, lunchbox: Call it what you will; Athenians will have a rare opportunity to explore the Clements’ stunning home during WUGA’s Artists in Residence event on Saturday, Aug. 15 from 3–5 p.m. Launched in May 2014 as a fundraiser for the public radio station, Artists in Residence is a monthly series of open-houses through which the public can tour the private homes, studios and gardens of local artists. The series has raised close to $7,000 since its inception and has also been very successful in broadening the station’s audience by appealing to art enthusiasts, honoring local artists through public recognition and documenting the rich cultural offerings that help build Athens’ reputation as an arts destination. Participating artists benefit from far-reaching exposure over the airwaves, and many have sold works or received commissions as a result of hosting their open houses.
“In a time of many grim news stories and an uncertain future for the planet, getting to know artists is fun and uplifting,” says event founder Pat Priest. “They seem driven to create beauty, to experiment and to more deeply take in the beauty around them. Their homes reflect this vibrancy and creativity. It’s inspiring.”
Artists in Residence has opened doors to the homes of some of Athens’ best-established creators, including curator Didi Dunphy, architect Lori Bork Newcomer, photographer Jeremy Ayers, mosaic artist Krysia Haag, potter Rebecca Wood and painter John Cleaveland. With their illustrious careers and beyond-charming personalities, the Clements make the perfect hosts for this month’s open house. After meeting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh while pursuing undergraduate degrees in art, they both went on to attend Penn State University to earn masters and doctoral degrees in art education. They have been married 54 years and have lived in Athens 46 years.
Now in retirement—Bob is a professor emeritus of the Lamar Dodd School of Art at UGA, and Claire has traveled all over the state to teach—the couple focus on creating art full-time, frequently finding inspiration within their own garden. Full of lady slippers, sweet briar, ivy, succulents, hosta, American honeysuckle and hibiscus, there’s no shortage of enchantment. A posse of small, prancing fairies even encircle a shaded picnic area and were created by sculpture artist Harold Rittenberry, a colleague of Bob’s for two decades.
Claire founded the Athens Plein Aire Painters group 18 years ago and continues to organize free gatherings for locals to meet up and paint their environments in a positive atmosphere. An award-winning painter, her most distinctive pieces are those that incorporate layers of cut paper with botanical themes.
Bob is a multi-disciplinary artist whose paintings capture beauty in Southern landscapes, whether through specific locations like the canola fields on Hog Mountain Road and cherry trees on East Campus or more ambiguous Queen Anne’s Lace “from just up the road” and hay bales “from all over the place.” He is also a strong supporter of public art, beautifying Athens through commissioned sculptures such as those outside the Athens-Clarke County Library and at Argo Apartments on South Milledge Avenue. Several more of his sculptures are scattered throughout the garden.
A true power couple, to say the least, Claire and Bob often find their artworks complementing each other side by side on gallery walls. All too fittingly, they were selected to create the Empress and Emperor cards for “Athens Arcana: A Contemporary Tarot,” the Athens Institute for Contemporary Art’s deck of mystical, artist-designed cards that was released last December. More recently, they’ve shown works in juried group exhibitions, including the Ladies’ Garden Club’s “Summer” show at the Lyndon House Arts Center and “Southworks” at the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation. Beginning on Wednesday, Sept. 23, the duo will share a selection of works in a joint exhibition at the Athens-Clarke County Library.
Their profound admiration for each other is made obvious through their never-ending encouragement and genuine interest in each other’s work. Though they often apply to the same juried exhibitions—ultimately leaving their fates up to the tastes of jurors—they never experience feelings of competition towards each other.
“No, it’s a big world out there,” Bob says with a laugh. “That’d be like the right arm competing with the left arm.”
During Artists in Residence, attendees will find a full house of art. In the living room, guests can get a sneak peek at Claire’s collection of glass paperweights, which will be featured in the next installment of the Lyndon House’s ongoing exhibition series, “Forty of Something: Collections From Our Community,” toward the end of August. On the opposite wall, rows of shelves display an impressive collection of artwork the couple has collected over the years, with many familiar locals, including Amanda Burke, Mary Porter, Mary Engel, Carol John, Cheryl Washburn, Hope Hilton and Noah Saunders.
“Those are all pieces that we’ve purchased from artists. We didn’t trade, we purchased, because I believe artists should be paid in legal tender like everyone else is,” explains Claire. Amen to that.
In addition to all of the artwork adorning nearly every wall possible, visitors can see pieces in progress within the couple’s sunny studio, an addition that was built onto the house three years ago by Michael Songster, who also helped design modern homes along Pulaski Heights. Follow the stairs down to the home’s lower level—past paintings of Bill Paul’s meadow, Mike Strong’s irises and Lake Herrick on a snowy morning—and you’ll find a room full of custom-built storage racks covered in even more paintings.
Lynn Boland, Pierre Daura Curator of European Art at the Georgia Museum of Art, will speak on the Clements’ careers around 3:30 p.m., and guests will be treated to hors d’oeuvres from Marti’s at Midday and wine from Shiraz.
On Saturday, Sept. 12, Artists in Residence will drop in to the home of Michael Lachowski, who in addition to his celebrated role as the bassist of Pylon and his career as the public relations specialist for the Georgia Museum of Art, is also an active multi-disciplinary artist working primarily in photography. The series will close out the season on Saturday, Oct. 10 with Ron Meyers, an influential potter and UGA professor emeritus, whose red earthenware pieces are immediately recognizable by their expressionistic, colored slip paintings of wildlife. The full 2016 lineup is still in the works, but confirmed artists include Andy Cherewick, Jill Carnes, Jan Perkins and Jill Biskin.
“There are so many outstanding artists in the area,” says Priest. “I don’t imagine we’ll ever repeat an artist, though I’m sure people would very much like to return to the artists’ magical homes.”
To learn more about the Clements, turn the dial to 91.7 FM or 97.9 FM on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 2:40 p.m. for their interview with WUGA radio host Michael Cardin. Tickets to Saturday’s open house, which takes place at 155 Bar H Ct. on the Eastside, are $10 for Friends of WUGA and $15 for others. Reservations can be made by contacting Abbie Thaxton at 706-542-9842 or email@example.com.
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