Rediscovered: Kate Freeman Clark
Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Written by Caitlin Adams | Photographed by Joe Worthem
A gallery in Holly Springs houses a collection of over 1,000 paintings kept secret for 40 years.
The Kate Freeman Clark Art Gallery in Holly Springs will be a bustling scene during the Art Gallery Gala and Auction on May 11. The soiree, the museum’s much-anticipated fundraiser, brings together art enthusiasts for a night of dinner, dancing and bidding.
But the venue was not always an epicenter of festivities and art consumption. The property’s former resident, Kate Freeman Clark, rarely left the premises.
“She was essentially a spinster,” said Walter Webb, director at the Kate Freeman Clark Art Gallery.
Clark, who was born in Holly Springs in 1875, left the family home in the 1890s to pursue an art education. She moved back to the property in 1924. For the next few decades she lived a quiet, unremarkable life in North Mississippi, only gaining notoriety after her death at age 81. It was then that her secret was revealed: for 29 years, Clark lived a separate life as an accomplished artist in New York City.
Clark’s neighbors and acquaintances were shocked. A few friends knew Clark had studied art in the Northeast, but they didn’t have even the slightest inkling of the magnitude of her career. After taking art classes in Memphis, Tennessee, Clark moved up north and enrolled at the Arts Students League in New York. Her work, overseen by her teacher and mentor, William Merritt Chase, was heavily influenced by the impressionist movement of the era, particularly the plein air style of painting.
“Instead of sitting in a chaise, the artists would go out to a field, or sit on a beach and paint,” Webb said. “Whatever they saw in front of them — that’s what they would paint.”
For years, Clark’s vibrant paintings, ranging from towering canvases to sketches no larger than a cigar box, were shown in galleries along the Eastern Seaboard. But after the deaths of her mother, grandmother and Chase, Clark lost the inspiration to continue her career.
“She was left on her own and tried to make her own way without these strong supports,” Webb said.
In the tide of new movements in art, the style of painting at the time had shifted away from Clark’s firmament, plein air, toward the modern. That, coupled with the reality of being truly alone for the first time, did not bode well for Clark. She packed her bags and brushes, and fled home to the South, leaving behind her life as an artist. Her portfolio — more than 1,200 oil paintings, sketches and drawings — were put in wooden boxes in a New York storage unit, where they sat for more than 40 years.
After Clark’s death, administrators of her estate were led on a scavenger hunt that ultimately revealed a tin box tucked away in a linen closet. Clark may have kept her talents hidden from her neighbors while she was alive, but she had firm plans for her artwork once she was gone.
Inside the box, a pile of papers outlined the extensive collection she left behind — a gift she donated to the people of Holly Springs. Clark also detailed lavish plans for a gallery — including gardens, a costume display and a library of her father’s books — but the funding she left behind did not match her grandiose vision.
Now, 62 years after Clark’s death, her artwork is a cornerstone of Holly Springs’ culture. The art gallery is unassuming from the exterior, but inside, red walls boast Clark’s plein-air landscapes, portraits and still-life scenes of fruit and flowers. Her paintings, along with a few paintings by Chase, fill the museum’s three rooms. The space is a popular venue for weddings, meetings and fundraisers, and will be the site of next month’s benefit.
Proceeds from the upcoming gala will go toward management and upkeep of the gallery. A live auction will give art connoisseurs a rare chance to bid on a Kate Freeman Clark original, as well as more than 100 items in a silent auction.
“We’re trying to be more selective and find items that people can’t just buy anywhere,” Webb said.
Items will include vacation packages, jewelry and artwork from former visiting artists who have shown work at the gallery.
For more information about the Art Gallery Gala and Auction, and to buy tickets for the event, visit katefreemanclark.org.