Michael Clark Sr. has a reputation. When he goes to art shows, the other artists know him as the ATM killer – the guy who persuades customers to pull out cash and buy his stone carvings until the ATM is empty. It’s a pretty good reputation to have.
Clark has been carving stone since he was eight years old. A technique he picked up from relatives who lived in the Nome area. Even a dangerous accident he had when he was learning the craft didn’t stop him.
“I was working with a carving tool on a kayak and the tool punched through the kayak and severed an artery in my thumb,” Clark said. “I was home alone at the time and it took me quite a while to stop the bleeding. I almost passed out.”
Clark got serious about his stone carving about 20 years ago. He said it was a woman who inspired his motivation.
“I didn’t own a home. I didn’t own a car. But I told her if she would stick with me, I would make it work and figure out a way to become successful,” Clark said. He invested $15 dollars in a piece of soapstone, made what he describes today as a horribly ugly carving and sold it for $75. A career was born. And that girl is still with him today, along with five sons, most of whom have picked up their father’s carving technique.
Clark says he works with every available stone in the world. Even the one he’s allergic to. That’s right. Apparently, you can be allergic to rock. When Clark uses Italian marble, he breaks out in hives. That doesn’t stop him, though.
Meanwhile, Clark’s stone carvings are now scattered across the world. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks bought several when she visited Alaska. Clark says they are now on display in the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. Members of Ray Charles’ band also picked up some of his carvings.
Clark knows his customers. Not only in the way an artist intrinsically knows what his customers want, but in the literal sense of actually wanting to get to know them. In fact, he asks for their autographs.
If you go to an art show featuring Michael Clark’s work, look for the table cloth with all the signatures on it. That’s his. He started collecting signatures early in his career and now has multiple table cloths filled with autographs that not only make a fitting backdrop for his artwork, but serve as a testament to its popularity.
“Once I had improved my talent and people saw my work, they wanted to get to know me,” Clark said. “And I wanted to get to know them. So I started collecting their autographs.” And now, the Sharpie pen company sends Michael a healthy supply of pens, free of charge, as a sponsorship of sorts.
Michael says he can barely keep up with the demand. As he says, he’s been sold out for 18 years. It’s a pretty good position to find yourself.
So if you want to get a Michael Clark carving, keep an eye out for art shows where he’s going to make an appearance. Clark usually appears at the Charlotte Jensen Native Arts Market during Fur Rondy at the Dimond Center in Anchorage, the art show at the Alaska Federation of Natives conventions and CIRI’s Holiday Bazaar at the CIRI headquarters in December. Don’t forget to show up early. And bring some extra cash. With Michael’s artwork around, you can’t count on the ATM being full.