A cultural gift to treasure

Over-the-top-giving is something the average citizen can’t afford during this or any other holiday season. It may be fun reading about one-of-a-kind posh presents Neiman Marcus touts, but faraway trips in regular planes – let alone private ones – are out of the question for most people.

So few folks are gifting their families or friends a trip to Japan just now. But in the coming year perhaps a considerable number can afford to visit a truly special place where some 1,700 works of Japanese art from the 10th to 21st centuries are readily displayed, as visitors from around the world are now discovering.

Those living in California are even luckier when it comes to readily finding their way to Hanford, a city 30 miles south of Fresno in the central San Joaquin Valley. It’s an easy 200-mile drive from Los Angeles or San Francisco, a train trip via Amtrak or by United’s commuter planes and car rentals. A city of about 52,000, Hanford is surrounded primarily by dairy country that retains much of the area’s rural roots. Drive six miles south of Route 198 to the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, a destination casual passersby might miss; but for many, this is a treasure that leaves an indelible impression and a desire to return again and again.

Google www.ccjac.ort/aboutus/interview.html to read an in-depth interview with founder, Willard “Bill” Clark. It’s reprinted from Orientations Magazine and though written December 1998 it offers excellent insight about the passion, dedication and philanthropy of this man and those whom he inspired with his enthusiasm.

Additional Web site interviews describe how, in spite of amazing success in the business world as well as the collectible one, Clark, now 78, never forgot growing up on the family ranch that dates back to 1874, his university years in Berkeley and Davis, and four years of military service in the mid-1950s. While stationed in Hawaii, this naval officer frequently visited Japan where his love affair with that country’s art truly blossomed, as did love and marriage. His wife, Elizabeth, who taught school at the same Hawaiian base, quickly shared his enthusiasms – and still does.

Clark maintains a wry sense of humor as he describes his first encounter with Japanese art at age 12. A sixth grade geography book photo in the one-room schoolhouse he attended fascinated him. He calls it “a genetic trait” when he tells of being “an addict early-on” and recounts adventures collecting barbwire, bird nests, butterflies, coffee grinders and American stamps.

Though the fifth generation of dairy operators, Clark knew he didn’t want to herd cattle upon returning to Hanford in 1958. A parallel story to his expanding art collection is how, in 1971, he launched his own animal genetics company, World Wide Sires, Inc., and how his acumen eventually developed it into the world’s largest broker of frozen bull semen for artificial insemination, with distributors in 66 countries, including Japan He eventually sold this company and today retains 17.2 acres of the 170 now owned by his oldest son. By 1995 Willard and Elizabeth established the foundation that became today’s center, now the center of his life.

Clark gives full credit to Dr. Sherman Lee, former director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, his valued early adviser, and the center’s board of directors. He praises several sponsors such as Union City Bank and since he still travels extensively seeking art treasures he appreciates and praises the dedicated staff that includes director and chief curator Andreas Marks, and curatorial assistants Céline Meye and Keiko Tanaka along with eager interns.

As you approach the compound, the wood-trimmed, plaster-walled gallery appears as if it had just been moved from Japan. It looks like the low-slung style of the Edo period, 1615-1868. Actually, it is an ultramodern earthquake-resistant building with fracture-resistant windows and skylights of heat-reflective glass, which filters out ultraviolet rays.

Visitors remove their shoes upon entering the main gallery; then they are immediately immersed into a world of quiet serenity that finds folks speaking in awed whispers as they view the beautifully presented displays which change four times a year. It’s impossible for the entire collection of 1,700 works of art to be exhibited at one time. Clark says the center’s collection includes: 671 paintings ranging from pairs of full-sized screens that can stretch to more than  30 feet to small poem cards; 114 contemporary Japanese ceramics; 109 textiles including Noh robes and period kimonos; 221 modern woodblock prints; 110 bamboo works of art; and 11 wood sculptures dating from the eighth to late 18th century, including the permanently displayed Daiitoku Myoo, one of five “Wisdom Kings” the Center’s founder calls “our signature piece.”

In addition to the gallery the museum complex includes an office building and library consisting of 10,000 volumes on Japanese art and culture; an outdoor kitchen and large parking lot; a concrete storage chamber with double fire doors; the Clark family home, garden and lake; a guest house and curatorial assistants’ apartments.

The site and sight encountered upon entering the Clark Center’s Bonsai Exhibit “takes your breath away,” visitors report. More than two dozen bonsai – the word means “tree in a pot” and describes an art that evolved more than  4,000 years ago – are on display. A three-page information sheet encourages a self-docent tour of this tranquil, peaceful place Clark says is “one of the three major bonsai gardens in California.” It offers yet another reason why visitors  might want to wander for hours at this amazing oasis.

Memberships starts at $50 and offers many benefits for those who support the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, 15770 Tenth Avenue, Hanford, CA 93230, as it’s evolved in just a dozen years. Many make a point of attending all four annual exhibits such as the current “Generosity in Clay: Modern Japanese Ceramics from the Natalie Fitz-Gerald Collection” that runs through Jan. 30, 2009.

Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and free for children 12 and under. Gallery hours Tuesday through Saturday are 1-5 p.m., with docent tours offered Saturdays at 1 p.m. Special tours may be arranged by contacting the center in advance at 559-582-4915, fax 559-582-9546. For more information, visit www.ccjac.org.

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