Russell Stuart Cedric Clark (registered as Cedric Russell Stuart) was born in Christchurch on 27 August 1905, the son of Mary Elizabeth Wyatt and her husband, William Clark, a plumber and tinsmith. He was educated at Christchurch Normal School (1911–19) and Christchurch Boys’ High School (1920–21). At an early age he showed an interest and ability in art, and was encouraged by his family to attend art school. In 1922 he began evening classes at Canterbury College School of Art, and from 1923 to 1928 he also enrolled in day classes. During this time he was awarded several prizes for drawing and modelling. His teachers included Leonard Booth, Richard Wallwork and Cecil Kelly, but by far the most influential was Archibald Nicoll. In 1925 he joined the part-time staff of the school and also became a working member of the Canterbury Society of Arts.
The following year Clark began exhibiting elsewhere in New Zealand, first with the Otago Art Society and the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington, and then in 1927 at the Auckland Society of Arts. However, the need for a regular income forced him to consider a job in commercial art, and from 1928 he worked in Christchurch for the Jewell–Skinner Advertising Agency. The following year he was offered a position in Dunedin by the printer and publisher John McIndoe, which he accepted. On 29 September 1930 he married Eunice May Ingham in Christchurch.
Slightly built and dark-skinned, with a mop of wavy dark hair, Clark was seldom seen without a cigarette to his lips. For a number of years from 1932 he held evening and Saturday morning art classes at McIndoe’s design studio, which became popular with many younger Dunedin artists, including Doris Lusk and Colin McCahon. He also began illustrating more regularly, mostly for a satirical broadsheet published by McIndoe and (from 1934 to 1936) the University of Otago Medical School student magazine the Digest. In 1934 he showed work at New Zealand Society of Artists exhibitions in Christchurch and Dunedin.
In 1936 Clark was commissioned to paint a 25-panel mural for the City Hotel in Princes Street, Dunedin. In 1939 he was one of three artists commissioned to paint murals for the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition building, and he took part in the 1937 Royal British Colonial Exhibition in London. Feeling the need for change, in 1938 he accepted a position with the Wellington advertising agents Catts–Patterson Company. When the New Zealand Listener began publication the following year he became its first designer, and continued to work as its main illustrator until 1962.
From 1940 Russell Clark began his long association as a principal illustrator for the New Zealand School Journal. Over the following years his imagery was to become familiar to a whole generation of primary school children. In 1941 he left Catts–Patterson to join another Wellington agency, Carlton–Carruthers. However, he was keen to serve as a war artist and in March 1942 approached the prime minister, Peter Fraser, offering his services. He was called up in November but full approval was delayed and he was posted to a vehicle depot as a sign-writer. It was not until 1944 that the appointment was confirmed. In February that year, with the temporary rank of second lieutenant, Clark joined the 3rd New Zealand Division. Over the following nine months he was active sketching and painting operations in the Pacific, mostly on the Solomon Islands.
On his return to Wellington in November 1944 he was posted to the Army Education and Welfare Service, with which he remained until his discharge in July 1946. During this time Clark worked up many of the studies made in the Pacific into finished studio paintings. Over 100 of his works are held in the National Archives war art collection. After a brief return to commercial art, which he found had become less fulfilling, he successfully applied for a teaching position at the Canterbury University College School of Art. In January 1947 he left Wellington with his family and returned to his home city. His output of work increased and the following year he began exhibiting with The Group. In August–September 1949 he held a solo exhibition at the Dunedin Public Library.
The 1950s was perhaps Clark’s most productive and experimental period as an artist. As well as illustrating for the Listener , the School Journal and other publications, he painted, made murals and sculpted, utilising distinctively New Zealand images. Visits to the Tuhoe people of the Urewera country on assignment for the School Journal between 1949 and 1951 provided new stimulus. His treatment of Maori in illustrations, painting and sculpture was distinctive and his imagery had a naturalness that had rarely been achieved by other New Zealand artists.
By the late 1950s sculpture had become more dominant in his work than painting, and he was strongly drawn to the stylistic direction of the British sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. As his profile rose, Clark was sought by architects to work on commission for both corporate and public projects. Among his noted public commissions were sculpture murals for the Timaru telephone exchange (1957) and Christchurch International Airport (1959), an anchor stones sculpture for the Bledisloe Building in Auckland (1959), the Opo memorial sculpture in Opononi (1960), and works at Hay’s department store in Riccarton, Christchurch (1960), and Riddiford Park, Lower Hutt (1964).
Clark’s high level of activity in the early 1960s culminated in a major exhibition of painting and sculpture at the Canterbury Society of Arts gallery in June 1964. The following month, having been granted six months’ study leave, he left for Europe. He visited art schools and galleries, and painted and drew, although as a result of an accident he was hospitalised for a time in England. His first and only overseas trip, it enabled him to see first-hand works of traditional and contemporary art, and to study advances in sculpture techniques and materials.
In January 1965 Clark returned to his position as a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts. His wife had died in 1959, and on 14 December 1965 he married a 22-year-old student-teacher, Rosalie Peace Pahl, in Christchurch. Early the following year the effects of a terminal illness became evident, and his last important exhibition was held at the NZAFA in Wellington in May. Russell Clark died in Christchurch on 29 July 1966, survived by Rosalie and two daughters of his first marriage.
Although considered stylistically eclectic, Clark became a force in New Zealand art in the middle of the twentieth century by creating imagery that was a distinctive interpretation of New Zealand life. As an illustrator he achieved national recognition, but it was in the area of public art – mural painting and sculpture – that he made his most significant contribution. By introducing adventurous contemporary forms to public sculpture in the 1950s Clark helped change attitudes toward art in public places.