Spotlight On ... OT Artist Pat Cleary

by JoAnn Frekot

Pat, thanks for agreeing to have this month's spotlight shine on you!

Let's start with where you were born, and the role of art in your childhood.  

Watertown, New York is a small working-class city near the Canadian border and the Thousand Islands, and that is where I was born.  My maternal grandfather and stepfather, both laborers with only eighth grade educations, guided me into manhood, as my father died when I was six years old.

The only early family influence on my interest in art was my mother, who was a committed seamstress and hobbyist.  She taught me to "knit one then pearl two" when I was seven years old.  Perhaps the fourth-grade teacher who suggested that I had an "above average ability to draw" embedded a desire to do art at some point later in my life.  I'm not sure about this, though, because as I matured my interests focused on sports and science.

The need to work at a variety of jobs throughout high school and college helped turned my head from art and directed me toward a career with sufficient financial independence to raise a family.

Above, "Granddaughter," Pat Cleary

What did you do professionally?

My convoluted education took me to the University of Cincinnati, then to grad school at the University of Rochester and Stanford University, and finally post-doctoral training at UC Santa Barbara.  From California, I joined the Medical School faculty at the University of Minnesota, and for 42 years published papers, chased research dollars, trained a covey of PhD and MD scientists, while conducting scientific research.  I investigated the molecular biology and immune response to the bacteria that cause strep throat and autoimmune disease.

Did you practice any kind of art prior to retirement?

My appreciation of form and lines that meander in space began when I was in grad school at Stanford.  I started drawing and carving abstract figures into wood a couple of hours per week to escape the intensity of doing science and feelings of inadequacy at that world-renowned university.  

In the lab, I learned to do experiments that tested ideas.  I sometimes worked from a mental image of a linear array of genes, a protein bound to a gene, or the physical impact of a gene on a virus or bacterial cell.

 I explored these images experimentally, I soon realized that cutting a figure out of a block of wood that represented something I saw in my mind's eye was actually similar to doing science.  I was never certain what would emerge from either activity, and in both, mistakes and unexpected problems emerged that influenced the outcome.  Some of these outcomes were not so great, and sometimes they were better than expected.

Above,"Recumbent Figure," Henry Moore

A more concrete example of the relationship between doing science and art is understanding the motor that drives syphilis bacteria through tissues and secretions, nearly as dense as cement.  Sixty years ago, before scientists could see the motor, they developed images of how it might look, as they identified and isolated more than 50 genes and proteins that compose the motor.

Ultimately, microscopy produced a real image of that bacterial motor.  It is, in fact, shaped like an actual electric rotor motor.  Did interpretations of experimental data drive their mental constructs of microscopic bacterial motors, or did glances at human-invented electrical motors that run lab equipment inform their conclusions?

It sounds like art was a part of your professional life as a scientist.

As an adult, I was interested and read about the lives of artists, thinking that they lived more romantic, adventurous and free lives than scientists.  Perhaps some of you can testify to that impression.

To expose my children to fine art, in 1974 my wife and I purchased "Great Museums of the World," edited by Arnoldo Mondadori.  Each of the twelve volumes contained photos of the best from each museum's collection.  

I was attracted to El Greco's elongated figures, Carravagio's incredible realism, Modigliani's distorted faces and the progression of Francisco de Goya's paintings...from beautiful portraits of the high and mighty to deranged allegories as he personally developed tertiary syphilis.  (I used his paintings in my lecture on sexually transmitted diseases to biology students at the University). 
Above, "Saturn Devouring His Son," De Goya 

Of course, I was also enchanted by the energy and beauty of Rodin's sculptures. 

(Left, "The Three Shades," Rodin)

What led you to focus on your art?

One of my biggest fears with retirement 11 years ago was boredom.  First, I took bareboat training on Lake Superior.  It took a scary sail on a chartered boat to realize that boating on the big lake was not for me.  Next, I pulled out my carving tools, trying to revive my grad school interest.  I enrolled in Introductory Sculpture class at the U of M art school.  This was a definite spiritual experience for me.  I once again realized that drawing was an essential skill for sculpture, and it was also fun.

How did you come to join OT Artists?

A little research led me to the Old Town Artists' Wednesday night Life Drawing sessions.  After a year or so, their desperate need to pay the rent resulted in an invitation for me to join.  That was about eight years ago.

What do you like about being part of the studio?

Since I've joined the studio, I've met and interacted with many incredible artists, enjoyed multitudes of conversations with creative folks who share many of my life's values, but who also see the world somewhat differently than those with whom I routinely engaged in my previous work life.  Evolution is driven by diversity, and I seek it out whenever possible.

Any thoughts on where your artistic journey will take you next?

Many of the master artists that we admire struggled technically as they aged.  I started doing art at a time when their work began to suffer.  Now I must accept and adjust what I can do.  I continue to enjoy those hours of escape into the shadows and light in my mind and surroundings.  I feel privileged to hang out with members of OT Artists, and will continue to paint the colors that best tell my stories and depict the lines and movements I adore.  

I've retained a collection of hardwoods over the years which beckon me to return to my carving tools.  Oh, if I just had more time!


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