Clara Kent

Sponsored by The Pittsburgh Foundation and Opportunity Fund, the Exposure Artists Program (EAP) is guided by a shared belief in the need to support creative practice, to cultivate and fund diversity, and to advocate for racial justice in the arts community. EAP aims to elevate the work of artists through activities that create/generate/enhance visibility for the creative process, artwork and social issues of our time. Clara Kent is a 2022 EAP honoree.

In February 2022, The Pittsburgh Foundation awarded over $200,000 in funding to recipients of its inaugural Exposure Artists Program. This award is designed to support creative practice, and promote diversity and racial justice within the arts community. TABLE contributor Jasmine Zavala sat down with four awardees, each awe-inspiring and tenacious, who shared the impact that this grant has had on their lives and their artistry. One common theme: space. Whether physical, emotional or aspirational, each artist discussed how this award granted them more room to continue expanding their craft. Jasmine hopes that their stories inspire you to save a little art in your heart by attending one of their upcoming events, lingering at that mural a little longer, or even whipping up a sketch of your own. After all, as artist Clara Kent says, “Art is for all of us.”

“I think it is as natural as having the urge to walk when you’re a baby. You just want to move forward. That’s how music was for me. It wasn’t even a second thought,” says local multi-talented artist Clara Kent.

As she talks, she looks off into the air as if the answers to my prodding questions are floating in front of her. She pauses for a moment, considers her next thought and continues, “I knew that music was what I loved and what I wanted to participate in because it felt very in line with who I am as a person.”

The past few years have been busy for Clara as she has worked to help grow the Pittsburgh art community by performing with other talented musicians and forming meaningful partnerships with organizations through her company, Bounce House Studios and Productions.

“Bounce House began as an after-hours event at a venue and gallery space I co-owned called Flow Lounge. It was one of several events we held there, where we would host small open-mic events after hours. We’d just play music, enjoy each other’s presence, and have fun. That grew and grew and grew and people started to learn who I was as an artist because I would always perform live at those events. I was trying new sounds and people loved them,” says Clara.

Unfortunately, the space for Bounce House was lost in what Clara describes as “typical Pittsburgh fashion” to gentrification, but she used that moment as an opportunity to delve further into art and music. As I look through her brightly hued paintings of goddess-like characters in serene spaces, I selfishly lament that one of them, Keep Your Head to the Sky, has been sold. However, there is hope. Clara has continued painting and promises that there is more to come with new art and music. She’s made quite the name for herself in the meantime as the opening act for artists Nnamdi and Thundercat. She was also featured as a hometown creator in a Turner’s Iced Tea commercial for its 50th anniversary. “I’m in a very explorative, raw, creative state right now,” says Clara. “I’m just doing everything. Music and art, I’m exploring all types of sounds, and seeing what I can do with my vocals. My eyes and my ears are my main focus right now.”

Talking with Clara, it’s hard to not become enamored with the way that she describes her interests. Her passion emits from every direction. Her eyes widen with excitement and narrow with vocal underscores. She smiles generously, laughs often, and uses her hands to amplify her point. Clara even communicates creatively and shares her story with healthy doses of warm gratitude.

“I had really good and pure experiences when it comes to being raised and loved by Black women. I saw the challenges they faced and witnessed them be vocal about it. They were not afraid to speak up. That energy pours into every part of my artwork because I know how important it is for us to have a voice,” says Clara.

Black women in surrealistic spaces serve as her muses for her current paintings, but Clara’s forever muse? Her mother. An artist herself, Clara’s late mother fostered the perfect space for her daughter to create within. “I think that my mom is probably the biggest muse of my life, because she made the environment. We were living in this apartment in Wilkinsburg when I was a kid. She had the big, raw canvas murals; she would play vinyl records with jazz, old school blues, rock and roll. It was just such a hug of an environment. Incense burning, food on the stove. I remember that and how that felt,” says Clara.

She shares that core memories like those served as confirmation for the kind of life that she wants to live. When I think about Bouncehouse and its comeback in August at Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Sculpture , I realize that Kent is once again following in her mother’s footsteps by holding space for the city’s artists. Kent elaborates on Bounce House’s return by sharing its slogan: “We elevate the underground.”

“What I noticed in Pittsburgh, especially with Black artists, is that it’s very difficult to promote yourself here. I want to change that so I’m going to hold events for the next couple of years. The ultimate goal is to find a permanent space for Bouncehouse, because there’s a lot of talent here and they’re not getting any opportunities to convey that. That’s the goal for Bounce House; to elevate the underground,” she says.

Clara is proud to be working with a team of strong Black women who also want to foster growth within the arts community, but she’s inviting everyone to partake in this work. “I would also like to have allies come through because that’s what is so cool about what happens when you have a mix of people. At Flow Lounge (a former venue of Kent’s), you could tell that they had respect and that they valued the Black artists there. It wasn’t appropriation, it was appreciation,” she says.

When I ask her about what meeting these career milestones and receiving the Pittsburgh Foundation’s Exposure Artists Award means to her, she brings it back to space. “I think if you put a plant in a pot that’s too tight, its roots bind up, and it gets tense. With having an award like this I feel like I can get repotted. I get new soil! I can grow and reach certain goals so that the things I want to do in the future can actually manifest themselves.”

Read about other 2022 Exposure Artist Program honorees:

LaVerne Kemp

Winston Bell

Selima Dawson

STORY BY Jasmine Zavala/PHOTOGRAPHY BY Jeff swensen

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