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CCU Atheneum: Artist Charles Clary reacts with shock to winning the ArtFields competition in Lake City. His
Artist Charles Clary reacts with shock to winning the ArtFields competition in Lake City. His "Be Kind Rewind" entry won more than 400 other entries and came with a $50,000 prize.

Charles Clary as art and life: ‘Be Kind Rewind’

by Mona Prufer
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Artist/professor Charles Clary is waiting patiently as the winners of the esteemed ArtFields competition in Lake City are called out. Honorable mentions are announced, then third place, then second place…

“I was thinking, ‘Man, I really didn’t win anything,’ when they called first place starting with ‘Be,’” says Clary. His winning work is titled “Be Kind Rewind,” an installation of 210 VHS video boxes artistically altered and displayed in a room-size exhibit that replicates a video rental store. “I was so shocked, I think I jumped back 20 feet.”

“Be Kind, Rewind” won the Coastal Carolina University art professor the top prize of $50,000 at ArtFields, where 400 other artists from around the country entered to win. The first thing he did with the prize money was upgrade his airline seats on a belated honeymoon trip to Scotland in June with his wife Katie, who teaches history. They were married in October 2015, but since both had just started as new faculty members at CCU last fall, there was no time for a honeymoon. On the Scotland trip, they are hiking 79 miles over eight days and staying at bed-and-breakfast inns along the route.

Scotland is a long way from Clary’s traumatic childhood in Morristown, Tenn., where he grew up with alcoholic, chain-smoking parents who divorced when he was in fifth grade. His mom was a hoarder, and the family lived in squalor, so life was especially difficult for three young children. Clary began renting and watching horror and science fiction films to escape from his reality. The movies, specifically the VHS boxes, morphed into one of his art projects, the one that eventually landed him first place at ArtFields.

“Be Kind Rewind” grew out of his response to his parents’ deaths two weeks apart in February 2013 to smoking-related diseases.

“It was a devastating time in my life, but I channeled my grief into the conceptual ideas of my work,” writes Clary in his artist’s statement. “Cancer is a disease that is a perfectly structured killer; it is beautiful in its architecture but grotesque in its eventuality. I began to think about nostalgia, longing for a childhood I never had, and parents that I needed.

“I repurpose retro-pop culture VHS from my childhood to re-envision the movies and fiction that became my surrogate parents and allowed me to find order from my chaos, beauty from destruction, and hope for more joyous times.”

After following and ultimately rejecting academic majors in music, microbiology and graphic design (“for a hot minute”), Clary settled on painting and earned a BFA from Middle Tennessee State University and an MFA in painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

His first sale was a music-related painting that he sold for $200, and it “blew me away.” Now he has set painting aside for paper assemblage and is among the top paper artists in the country, with lots of write-ups in art publications and notice from galleries nationwide.

“Some really great artists are pushing paper past what people thought it could do,” he says in a gallery talk. “This is my own dream, my own twist.”

Clary’s discovery of paper as a medium began when he happened upon a small paper store during a painting assistantship with artist/gallery owner Joe Amrhein of Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2007. He was fascinated with the 12-by-12-inch pastel sheets of colored, Martha Stewart paper he saw in the store.

“It kind of blew up from there,” says Clary, referring to his interest in paper and paper cutting. He also admits to being influenced by the street art and graffiti he saw in the city. “I love color, color is my passion.”

Clary has three main art projects: his “paper towers,” as he calls them, or boxes; his drywall installations with old, discarded wallpaper; and the paper “towers” visible through a hole in the drywall; and the VHS assemblages.

Using Exacto knives, he cuts freehand patterns into the sheets of paper, stacking them into beautiful architecture. Between the sheets, he places 1/8-inch diameter bass wood spacers that give the piece a three-dimensional quality that the viewer perceives through an “aggressive opening” in a slab of drywall. These pieces help to oust his personal demons and help him to “not get stuck in the past,” like when he punched a hole in drywall as an angry teenager.
“It’s very therapeutic to beat the crap out of drywall,” he says. “We find a way to cope,” says Clary.

His first exhibition was at SCAD, where he displayed his largest work to date, an 8-foot-by-45-foot panel with 300 paper “towers.” Famed designer Pierre Cardin purchased the large piece for his private art collection, the first significant sale of Clary’s work, and then Cardin invited the artist to Paris for a solo show at his gallery and a fancy dinner.

“It was a crazy experience,” says Clary, who finds it important to stay humble despite the accolades and media attention. “I never expect anything, so it’s always a surprise when my work gets noticed.”

In addition to the paper “towers,” Clary continues to work on his VHS boxes of old horror and sci-fi movies.
“Each VHS box becomes a sculptural piece unto itself, with the cut opening that interacts with the movie itself,” says Clary. “I appreciate the artistry of the special effects in these early movies, the macabre and dark, the idea of the lone survivor, I can relate to that.”

He takes an empty VHS box (he finds them at Goodwill stores, flea markets and yard sales), layers the colored paper, cuts intricate designs to fit the theme of the movie and its box, and packs it tightly inside the case.

Clary believes with “Be Kind Rewind” he is “saving things from destruction and giving them a new existence, making them even more beautiful in their second lives.” He has approximately 1,500 more empty VHS packages in his garage for the ongoing project, and he’s always looking for more.

The project’s title recalls the 2008 movie starring Jack Black, but mostly, it’s a “note to self” of a philosophy he tries to carry through life, as well as a constant reminder to the renters of video movies to “be kind, rewind” after viewing the films and before returning them to the store. It’s a philosophy he summarizes into try to be kind, try not to dwell on your past, go forward and be hopeful.


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