John Louis Clarke was born on this date in 1881 in Highwood, Montana. Considered one of the “most under-appreciated artists” of our time, Clarke’s work would end up in galleries from Chicago to London, and even grace the walls of magnate John D. Rockefeller. Although he worked in several media, he became best known for his wood-carvings; few today realize, however, that he first learned wood-carving in Devils Lake, at the North Dakota School for the Deaf.
Clarke lost his hearing in late 1883, when smallpox and scarlet fever swept through his village at Highwood. The epidemics took five of his brothers, and although he was able to fight off the scarlet fever, it left the two-year old Clarke without hearing.
He was later given the Blackfoot name Cutapuis, or “The Man Who Talks Not,” since he rarely spoke. He preferred to communicate using a crude form of sign language, or by drawing pictures.
In 1894, Clarke’s father sent him to the North Dakota School for the Deaf in Devils Lake, where Clarke’s artistic aptitude was first recognized. He was taught to carve wood, paint, and sculpt in bronze and clay. Although he left the school after turning sixteen, he continued to create art in various ways. Eventually, he opened a studio near East Glacier and, in 1917, the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia began exhibiting his wood carvings.
Within a few years, he became known as “…one of the world’s best portrayers of western wildlife.” He carved near-exclusively in cottonwood and mainly wildlife subjects he found near his Montana home. John Rockefeller purchased no less than seven of his sculptures, and the Chicago Art Institute installed several of his pieces into its permanent display. Clarke even designed the mountain goat insignia that graced the sides of the Great Northern Railway cars.
“The Man Who Talks Not” passed away on November 20th, 1970, at the age of eighty-nine. Although he had lost much of his sight, he was still carving until his death; a friend said that the great artist carved not through sight or sound, but through “feeling” the wood beneath his hand.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
McCoy, Michael. 2007 Montana Off the Beaten Path.(7th ed.): p. 25. The Globe Pequot Press: Guilford,