Every Hoboken resident knows the basic history of the town, from its founding by Colonel John Stevens as a resort area to its heyday as a dock, port, and transportation hub, to its decline in the mid- to late-20th century and its rebirth as a haven for musicians and artists fleeing the rising costs of New York City, to its current incarnation as the tavern-and-condo capital of New Jersey.
History isn’t really as hard and firm as the books and blogs make it out to be, of course; just because Hoboken has become a town noted for its rising property values instead of its bohemian art scene doesn’t mean all the artists packed up and moved away in an orderly fashion circa 1995. Hoboken still has a thriving arts scene, and still attracts folks like Ocean Clark, a traveler putting down some roots in the area and making a name for himself with his visually-arresting paintings and vibrant social media game.
Born in Tillamook, Oregon to a big family (he has 13 bothers and sisters), Clark describes his parents as artistic but frustrated by the need to earn a living and raise their family. He studied fine arts at Florida A&M University, worked as a street artist in New Orleans, and traveled all over the world and the country before finding himself in the Hoboken area. You’ve likely seen Ocean Clark’s iconic paintings around town or online—he’s got very active presences on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
We sat down with Ocean recently to talk about his art, Hoboken’s appeal and influence, and everything else under the sun.
HoLi: You attended Florida A&M University, where you studied Fine Arts, but you’ve said you didn’t really come into your own as an artist until you lived as a street artist in New Orleans. What was that like? How valuable do you think school is for an artist?
Ocean Clark: I have 3 art degrees, but I learned so much more about my craft from street vending in NOLA. Still, art school has it’s benefits—don’t get me wrong. You learn work ethic and techniques, but I already had a great work ethic. Growing up on farms and cattle ranches and hopping all over the country in a hippie family taught me that. My parents had lots of kids and worked every odd job they could find to feed us, and they put us to work on the land as well, and sent us out to find work and help provide for the family at an early age. I’ve never known life without hard work and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love hard work, which is probably the secret to my success!
I’ve been a full time artist since 1997 and have made a great living from my work. My college degrees definitely helped me in the journey, but they aren’t in painting! My focus in college was sculpture and photography; I quickly discovered that those are both hard to sell compared to paintings. So I started reading every painting book I could find and watching Youtube videos.
But what I learned in NOLA was more important. The thing about street vending in New Orleans is you get a thousand people walking by on a slow day, and they’re drunk—and so they’re honest! You get more honest critique in an hour than you might get in months at art school.
HoLi: You’ve got a huge artistic family (your twin brother River is a photographer, for example). Is there sibling rivalry in your family, or it all support all the time?
OC: Most of my brothers and sisters are artists, but none of us overlap fields. We’ve got tattoo artists and photographers and architects, etc., so even if there was competition it wouldn’t really be rivalry. We can bounce ideas off each other and it’s usually just support and help that comes back. My parents were both very loving and supportive, always helping out strangers in need even when we had nothing to give. As a result all of my siblings grew up with huge hearts.
HoLi: Your subjects tend towards old-school pop culture. Is part of your process approaching these icons from a distance – in other words, does the fact that many are no longer alive and performing allow you to play with their image and iconography more?
OC: I just paint the people and things that I like. If I’m listening to Johnny Cash today, then that’s who I paint. Although I paint hundreds of custom portraits a year too, so there’s a lot of random subjects in my work. I just love the process of smearing colors around; I’ll paint anything people ask me to paint—it’s all good fun!
HoLi: You do a lot on social media, including flash auctions of pieces. Does social media inform your process or artistic choices, or is it just a social/commerce platform for you?
OC: I do a ton of business on social media, mostly on Instagram and Facebook. I do an occasional giveaway or auction, starting at my cost of paint and supplies. I just love the gamble and energy of it, to be honest—it keeps my followers on their toes and allows my work to be available to everybody, not just the wealthy.
Honestly, I haven’t raised my prices in like 12 years and I don’t plan to any time soon. I work more efficiently the more I learn, so I’m faster each year. That means I make more money per hour; I don’t need to get rich, just make a good living.
HoLi: You’ve lived in different areas—Oregon, New Orleans, Florida, and now Jersey. How does this area compare? Does Hoboken ever offer you any inspiration?
Yup, I’ve lived all over: 47 states and 5 countries. Each place has it’s own beautiful nature; Hoboken is great, NYC is great, there’s a lot of life here—tons of people. Which is of course good for business! Plus its a central travel hub so if I feel like hopping a plane anywhere in the world I can at a moment’s notice. In some ways I’d rather live on a remote beach somewhere, but then you’re stranded and can’t travel as easily as you can while living here.
HoLi: One thing we here at HoLi love about your work is the kinetics of the backgrounds.
OC: That energy you love in the backgrounds of my paintings is my specialty! I’ve worked long and hard for some 60,000 hours to develop that style, so I can embody the very essence of the life of a person—the energy of their music, not just a face. Any decent artist can paint a face, but capturing a bit of love in the painting for the person you’re painting, their energy or the joy in their smile—that’s a real goal of mine on each piece.
HoLi: Your studio is appointment only. Folks can see much of your work on your Instagram. How can folks arrange to see your work in person? Do you take on commissions?
OC: My studio is appointment only mostly because I work odd hours; I’ll often paint till sunrise and sleep all day, then change it up the next day because I’m too inspired to stop painting when I should go to bed. As a result, I don’t keep regular hours, but I do love giving tours of my studio! There’s literally maybe 2,000 paintings here, so y’all should come browse! Walk around and find one you love, and then I’ll paint your favorite family member into it, or whatever you want!
Frankly, custom work is my specialty and no job is too large or too small—or too weird! If you want to come by my studio just text or call me at 504-920-7757, leave a message if I don’t answer. Or email me (at [email protected]) your favorite photos and ideas and I’ll send you my price list and creative suggestions!
Here at HoLi, we’re glad that Hoboken continues to attract artists of Ocean Clark’s caliber—not to mention people who have Ocean’s unique view and joyful attitude. The town could use more of both. Check out Ocean Clark’s work online, and if you’re looking to add more incredible art to your world, give him a shout and get the ball rolling towards a one-of-a-kind piece—and support a local artist while you do so.