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Congressman Hansen Clarke takes refuge in art

Michigan politician Hansen Clarke, B.F.A. '84, has always lived an unpredictable life.

Growing up in an impoverished Detroit neighborhood, he received a full scholarship to study art at Cornell. After his mother died during his freshman year (his father had died when Clarke was 8), his studies suffered, and he lost his scholarship. Family, friends and professor emeritus Zevi Blum all supported his return to Cornell, and he earned his B.F.A.

Involvement in campus government -- including an election for student trustee he won against Ann Coulter '84 -- led him to Georgetown Law School and a career in politics; he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

"I knew that at the end of my term in the Michigan State Senate, I'd either be a member of the U.S. Congress or I'd be a full-time artist. And both of those prospects were so exciting to me," Clarke says.

Once he was in law school, Clarke stopped making art for several years. "That was a big drought for me. ... [But] it wouldn't let me go, probably because I had the foundation from studying it in college. It hounded me -- every week for the 18 years that I didn't express myself. It was there constantly."

He continues to paint and credits art with grounding him and helping him to serve in elected office.

"Art has had an enormous impact on how I have performed as a public official," says Clarke, a Democrat representing Michigan's 13th district. "I'm more effective, more open-minded, more decisive, more aware, more responsive, more clear and focused and willing to serve when I'm also expressing myself visually as an artist. ... I'm more open and better able to listen. What people are looking for in their elected officials these days is for people to serve them authentically, and you get that by being yourself as a human being, and I get that by drawing and painting."

Clarke says his art is a private pursuit, and time constraints make him "work small" with watercolor blocks and ink.

Law school, he says, was the "acceptable" route he took after people questioned why he studied art, but his B.F.A. means more to him.

"It's the one academic achievement I am most proud of: I have a bachelor of fine arts from Cornell University," Clarke says. "It took much of my life to really see the value in it, but now it's so important to me. Art and Cornell showed me how it can all be interrelated. Cornell offers a unique opportunity in the Ivies for a young person to explore all those different things. ... Only at a place like Cornell would I have been able to develop my skills as an artist, run for office and take other courses, like in government with Ted Lowi, all at the same time. That is an extraordinary experience."

Clarke also believes "in the value of the visual arts as a way to help develop Detroit economically, the way it did for Manhattan. I'd like to use my position in Congress to promote the power of the arts, personally, academically and as an economic development tool, [and] be a spokesman for the visual arts."

Aaron Goldweber is communications director for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

Media Contact

John Carberry