Anything But Normal: Why VCU's Sonya Clark and Darryl Harper May Be Richmond's Premier Art Couple 

click to enlarge Virginia Commonwealth University’s music department chairman, Darryl Harper, and acclaimed artist Sonya Clark, chairwoman of craft and material studies, met in college and formed a unique partnership.

Scott Elmquist

Virginia Commonwealth University’s music department chairman, Darryl Harper, and acclaimed artist Sonya Clark, chairwoman of craft and material studies, met in college and formed a unique partnership.

At first glance they seem proof of the cliché that opposites attract. She is cheerfully provocative, a child of the middle class, an artist whose work evokes multiple levels of meaning from everyday objects. He is quiet and strikingly self-possessed, raised from poverty through disciplined mastery of the technically unforgiving clarinet.

Sonya Clark and Darryl Harper are, by any measure, an extraordinary couple.

In a relaxed conversation at their home, a one-time milk-bottling plant turned into a jewel of individualistic interior design, the differences are a recurring theme: yin and yang, the tortoise and the hare. They met during college when Harper was a 17-year-old freshman and Clark a 19-year-old sophomore.

“He is not normal,” Clark jokes. “That is why I selected him. Normal is not interesting to me.”

Now 30 years into their complementary partnership, both head their respective departments at Virginia Commonwealth University — crafts and material studies for Clark and music for Harper. Their parallel disciplines seldom intersect. But when they do, as when they attended the International Society for Improvised Music in Switzerland last July, the deeper connections surface.

“We really enjoy the rare opportunities to collaborate,” Harper says. “We were both talking about embodiment, one of the ideas behind the work that drives the work.”

Clark’s project explored the timbre, the quality of sound independent of pitch and loudness, of music played on a violin by bows strung either with straight blond hair or one of Clark’s African-American dreadlocks. The concept is very much of a piece with Clark’s brilliant, powerfully emotional, prize-winning interweaving of race, history and craft.

“There was one moment when [violinist] Regina Carter was playing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ that brought people to tears,” Harper says.

His contribution was a talk about saxophonist Ralph Bowen, a musician whose propulsive jazz acrobatics are delivered with deadpan restraint by a middle-aged white Canadian. Some people were even angered by the footage of Bowen playing because of the jarring disconnect. “You shouldn’t sound like this,” Harper says. “And look like that.”

For most of their relationship, and more than half of their 19 years of marriage, they lived apart. “In different combination of cities,’ Clark says. “Never in contiguous states. Boston and Madison, Boston and Richmond. That kind of travel is a young person’s game.”

“There was a gentleman named Charles who worked in the Detroit airport shining shoes,” Clark says. “We saw him often, he knew we were married. But over the years he only saw us together once.”

Clark arrived in Richmond first, in January 2006. Harper visited, including a memorable performance in Carter’s band at the Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond. He accepted a position with VCU, rising quickly from adjunct to acting chair to chair of the music department.

“We are basically a tortoise-and-hare story,” Clark says. “You can guess who might be the tortoise. Darryl is a great planner. I always look busier, running around in circles, but he almost always ends up two steps ahead.”

“Speaking for both of us,” Harper says, “we sincerely and genuinely believe in our colleagues. They do amazing work with students and creative work on their own. It’s exciting and a privilege. Sonya is throwing all these compliments my way but I have a very inspiring partner in life.”

“Have you heard him play?” Clark nods toward Harper. “Right back at you.”

“Sometimes I wish I was Darryl,” she continues, smiling. “He has the ability to be completely calm in situations where I would lose my mind. But if you talk to his mother, as a child he was crazy, running all around. And my parents thought I was an introvert. We both have the other within us. This household does not need two of me.”

“Or two of me,” Harper says.

“I don’t know,” Clark says, mock considering. “Maybe two of you would work.”

“We’d never speak to each other,” Harper says.

Their sudden burst of mutually surprised laughter provides a brief, blazing glimpse of the secret behind their relationship. S

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