- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) - Each and every one of the thousands of art pieces Matt Clark has sculpted has at least one recycled, broken piece of scrap metal. It can be anything from a discarded corn seeder disk to a part to an air handling system that’s long been out of commission.

But there’s one important distinction that ties it all together: His art’s real purpose isn’t about recycling; it’s a symbol for the journey his life began to take when he was just 17 years old.

Halfway through his senior year of high school, Clark’s dream of becoming a world champion cowboy was halted when his own truck ran over him while he was working on it, and he suffered a severe spinal cord injury.

“(Ranching) was my big deal,” said Clark, a native of southern Utah. “My junior year in high school, I actually made it to the national finals.”

Before sustaining the injury, Clark had purchased his first welding machine when he was 15 years old. Clark grew up just north of Enterprise, Utah, and his father introduced him to welding when they visited a local welder’s shop. Not knowing if he would be able to weld again after his injury was a concern.

“The biggest thing was that my hands didn’t even work,” Clark said. “Even now, even though there’s some movement there, they’re very weak.”

Through trial and error, Clark found ways to modify his tools to accommodate his disability. His first test run was attaching a hammer to his hand with duct tape, but he said that wasn’t realistic in a working environment. He then tried a Velcro mitt he could wrap around his tools, but they frequently flew out while he was working.

Clark’s ultimate solution was a hammer with a handle he can slip his hand easily into and he doesn’t have to grip. In addition, Clark had to lighten springs in his welding guns so he could push them easily.

His welding practice initially began with trailer hitches and various repairs, but he eventually dug into his scrap metal pile and decided to have some fun with steel as an art medium.

His first ever creation was a “crude” dinosaur he made for his mother, Clark said, which he still has. Clark left his position at what was then Dixie State College as an administrator over the disabled student services to pursue art full time in 1997.

“I started out doing the art on the side, as more of a hobby,” Clark said.

Eventually, Clark graduated from the small dinosaur sculpture and went on to create life-size horse sculptures that landed him the privilege of being the St. George Art Festival’s featured artist last year. Clark said he’s been involved in the festival for over 20 years, and the focus was on his horses last year.

Perhaps the most unique part of the sculptures, though, is that the horses are made entirely of discarded metal scraps.

“I’ve always used the broken piece, and it’s a symbol of what happened to me,” Clark said. “I didn’t go on to become world champion cowboy. I had to go on and become something different, so I don’t focus on what these parts were before. Now I’m looking at what I can combine them to be to become a new entity, kind of like what I had to do … (The pieces) are worn out and broken just as I was.”

The final touch to each horse is its own “heart.” Clark deliberately places a heart inside his horses that symbolizes the whimsical nature of his work and helps bring the sculptures to life.

For this year’s art festival, Clark said his pieces will be a bit more contemporary. Among his offerings will include delicate birds made from discarded silverware mounted on steel bases. Kent Perkins, St. George City’s former leisure services director, said Clark is one of the few artists who refuses to plateau in his work.

“He’s a special guy who has great desire to succeed and be relevant with his artwork,” Perkins said. “It’s so fun to watch him to see how he’s grown as an artist, and he has that drive to be better. We wanted to recognize that last year by selecting him as the featured artist.”

This year, the festival will host 115 artists at the Town Square. Perkins said the two-day event beginning April 14 is geared toward the whole family, providing a cultural art experience to local families and out-of-towners in a wholesome way.

Holding an event that’s still thriving after 38 years is telling, Perkins said, that it’s important in the community.

“I can’t remember a year where we can say we were the same as the last year,” Perkins said.

While his local fans approach him and talk about his “gift,” Clark makes it clear that his career was no gift to him.

“It didn’t come naturally,” Clark said. “I had to earn it.”

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Information from: The Spectrum, https://www.thespectrum.com

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