Sentimental still life

The Arts

April 25, 2023

Painter Christopher Clamp finds beauty in simplicity, capturing ordinary objects with complex skills while evoking a powerful sense of nostalgia.

by Cathy Martin  |  photographs by Peter Taylor

Chris Clamp has a specific fondness for vintage objects — and his paintings evoke a nostalgia that can transport viewers back into their memories. So it’s fitting that the artist, in his east Charlotte studio, works on a pair of sturdy antique easels previously owned by other accomplished painters — one that belonged to renowned South Carolina portrait artist Michael Del Priore, who Clamp considered a friend, and another to British artist Hannah Gluckstein. 

“They have an energy, like a spirit to them,” Clamp says while showing me around his home studio, which is sprinkled with vintage toys, games and figurines that have appeared — or might soon appear — in his paintings. 

“You can work on anything — I mean, essentially I could make an easel just by putting some lumber against the wall. It’s a little more inspired,” says the artist, whose fifth solo exhibition at Jerald Melberg Gallery, Far From Home, is on view through June 3.

Clamp grew up in Leesville, S.C., a small town in Lexington County, where farming and factory jobs at nearby textile mills were the primary vocations. A vivid childhood memory: colorful scraps of plush velvet scattered around the house from the JB Martin factory, where his parents once worked.

His passion for art grew when he attended Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., where he earned a BFA with a concentration in painting. “I had an amazing experience there, because I came from a very small area,” Clamp recalls. “When I came to Winthrop, all the other kids had portfolios with slides and photos and all this stuff, and I didn’t have anything.”

But rather than feeling less than, Clamp was thrilled to finally be in the company of other like-minded souls. “I was so excited to see all these kids that were like me, that had this interest in art. I could see how talented they were, and it just inspired me to really work hard.”

 On a college trip to New York City, Clamp was introduced to the work of realist painter Stephen Brown and was immediately taken with his paintings of everyday objects — an onion, a ball of twine, a jar of olives. “I [had been] trying to paint in a more expressive, aggressive way,” Clamp says. “These paintings were so sensitive, and I thought that is what I want to do … just really embrace the beauty of something in these simple objects.” 

That realization coincided with a school assignment for a narrative still life painting. Clamp recalled his grandfather’s barn back in Leesville, which he still visited on trips home to see his family. Clamp’s grandparents had helped care for him and his brother while their parents worked shift work. The barn was chock-a-block of ordinary and peculiar items his grandfather had acquired over the years.

 “As a kid, I used to play with things — it was so magical,” Clamp says. As he grew older, and after his grandfather passed away, the objects held a deeper significance. “It started to kind of give me a little bit of a direction that seemed important to me — painting these objects that I’ve known for a long time,” Clamp says.

Meanwhile, he learned about professional art installation through a job at a campus art gallery, which he parlayed into a position as an art handler at Jerald Melberg Gallery, where he worked for 15 years, after graduation. After a short stint with a New York-based fine-art logistics company, he launched his own fine-art services company in 2019.  

All along, he continued painting still lifes. During a 2019 summer residency at Tryon Center for the Visual Arts (now McColl Center), Clamp created a series called Object as Portrait. Each of the 12-inch-square paintings represented someone he knew by depicting an object very closely associated with them. Several are inspired by family, including a painting titled “Lava.” 

“My grandfather worked on his tractor a lot, and his hands would get very dirty with grease and oil from the repairs. He would use Lava soap, and I found an old, unopened box of Lava soap on one of my visits. That is when I painted ‘Lava.’” A painting of a broken mug, given to him by a friend, was a self-portrait, Clamp says. “I had experienced a lot of terrible things around the time I painted this.” The mug rests on a swath of red velvet, a nod to his family history. 

Left: CAT’S GAME II, 2023, oil on linen mounted on panel, 16 x 16 inches, image courtesy of Jerald Melberg Gallery. Right: photograph by Peter Taylor

During this time, Clamp was also designing and building out his home studio, and once complete in July 2021, he took a monthlong break from his art-services business to simply paint. That’s when, with encouragement from his fiancé, Lauren Piemont, he had a revelation. Recalling his old friend, Del Priore, who passed away in 2020, he started questioning the trajectory of his life. “When am I going to take the chance to do the things I want to do in life?” he thought.  

 Fortunately, he already had several commissions in the works. One was a job creating illustrations for an interactive children’s book titled The Sun Comes Up. The clever puzzle book by Greensboro’s Mitchell Parsons tells the story of a little sailor boy who plays a game of chase with the sun — the reader must fold or unfold the “pages” in the right sequence to continue the story. For the illustrations, Clamp painted the author’s own cherished childhood toys — a teddy bear, Flipper and Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, among others. Several of Clamp’s studies for the book are on view in the new exhibition.

Today, Clamp peruses antique and thrift stores searching for unique objects, and his works sometimes take a more playful turn.

 “Some are just curious objects,” like vintage fortune teller cards or an old chess set in a cardboard box, weathered with age. Many of the items he’s drawn to remind him of his childhood in rural South Carolina, like a delicate cat figurine with a red bow around its neck that reminds him of his grandmother. “Their house was full of tchotchkes and little things like that. And this looks like something that she would have had.”

 Other times, he’ll create a subtle narrative, or add an element to “activate” the canvas — a falling feather or butterfly in flight. “Song of Sixpence,” a piece he’ll debut in the current exhibition, depicts a whimsical tin toy based on the old English nursery rhyme. A black bird hovers above the toy, in the shape of a pie, suggestive of an impending intrusion. 

Melberg calls the painting “a tour de force.”

Left: photograph by Peter Taylor. Right: study for CHASING THE SUN II, 2022
oil on linen mounted on panel, 8 x 8 inches, courtesy Jerald Melberg Gallery

 “I think that [Clamp] has a very acute way of seeing that some of the rest of us don’t have,” says Melberg, who opened his gallery in the early 1980s after serving as chief curator at The Mint Museum. He offered Clamp his first solo show in 2006. It’s important for people to take their time when looking at Clamp’s paintings, he says, in order to notice subtle details that are incredibly difficult to achieve, like an oh-so-faint shadow or the delicate curvature of an object.  

“He’s able to capture an essence that I think is astonishing,” Melberg adds. To help achieve that, Clamp uses oil-based paints that are more translucent than many modern pigments, requiring numerous, time-consuming layers to produce the desired effect — a technique similar to that used by Brown, the artist who inspired him on that early trip to New York.

The exhibition showcases a variety of Clamp’s works, from simple renderings of curious objects like a retro video game controller to more nuanced paintings of vintage items, like an old tin yarn container.

“To me, they’re so simple,” Melberg says of Clamp’s paintings, “but so profound.”  SP

Far From Home, a solo exhibition featuring works by Christopher Clamp, will be on view April 29 – June 3 at Jerald Melberg Gallery. The opening reception takes place on April 28 from 6-8 p.m. Clamp will also be in the gallery for Coffee & Conversation at 11 a.m. April 29. 625 S. Sharon Amity Rd., 

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