The Fourth River

Nature Will Overcome: An Interview with Pittsburgh Artist Seth Clark

By on May 19, 2015


–by Faith Cotter, assistant editor, The Fourth River

In many ways, the neighborhood of Lawrenceville in Pittsburgh, PA is the perfect setting for award-winning artist Seth Clark’s studio.

Clark is drawn to architecture that has been broken down by time and circumstance. In Lawrenceville, houses are being restored as other structures begin to tumble. On one brick building are deep gashes down the side, an open wound; on another, a mural of a bride walks up a painted stairwell to her new home. Not far away is the children’s hospital that overlooks the historic St. Mary’s cemetery and Allegheny Cemetery.

Lawrenceville is an area caught between decay and restoration. Clark’s artwork encompasses these themes perfectly through collages and drawings, and even more so in the cover art for the spring 2015 edition of The Fourth River. A collection of splintered houses are gathered together in either what appears to be a bird’s nest, collapsing in, or that of the beginnings of a star, about to explode.

Clark said that it depends on who you ask.

FR: What artistic medium did you use to create the cover art for the latest edition of The Fourth River?

SC: I tend to start with a lot of imagery from the Internet—natural disasters, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes. And so I do source a lot of imagery there, but I also take a lot of my own photos to work off of. Then I make digital collages. I use Photoshop to basically take a window or a wall from one photograph or a collapsing roof from another and combine them. This piece in particular was probably forty layers of different chopped-up pieces. I like to build a composition digitally, usually, and I tend to get a good idea of where I am going and what composition I want, and how it will fit on the canvas or panel before I start working.

From there, I do a quick sketch and then the collage. The paintings definitely start with layers and layers of paper collaged together, and I go back and forth between collage and ink washes until a good enough foundation is built up for me, and then I draw on top of that.

FR: What drew you to the kind of art that is inspired by the roles of nature and place?

SC: This subject matter, for me, honestly came from the materials I was using. I wanted to use collage and I used a lot of found scraps of old posters and receipts and things that I found on the ground. And so these already worn pieces of paper—these ephemeral things, old pages of books and whatnot—really lent themselves well to the collapsing, decaying subject matter.

That’s really how I started: the material defining the subject or the portrait.

Coming from a design background, I think the aesthetic of collapse and decay is really dynamic and makes for interesting compositions.

Also, the response to it—we all have different understandings of what this means: what an old, torn-down building is and how we see it, and that can change over the course of our life, depending on what we’re dealing with. There’s an innate quality to these things that I think is constantly fluctuating. The common phrase is “beauty in decay,” which is certainly a thing. Respecting history and seeing value in that is huge. It’s preservation in a way, but it’s also the world we live in. Things are collapsing around us.

FR: What was your goal for this piece, and did it turn out the way you envisioned?

SC: Because there is this layering process, a lot of evolution goes on while I am making a piece of art. I think I’ve been able to work like this for so long and I’m constantly interested in it, because the first layer of collage I put down is so different and tends to be completely obscured by the time I’m finished. I always start with a specific imagery in mind, but eventually ditching that sketch and letting the piece evolve on its own is really important.

Probably the last twenty-five percent of the time I’m putting into a piece, that’s its own. It is always surprising and great to see what the paper is saying, or this little spot of color that is sticking out just by pure happenstance, or this one letter or old text in a book that’s halfway wiped out from an ink wash or scribbled over. It’s fun and surprising to me.

FR: How does architecture tie into the environment?

SC: It’s really important to consider these huge, man-made structures that are being built. So much time and thought and humanity and hands are being put into them, but no matter what we do they are always going to fall.

Nature will overcome. It usually does. Even on the smallest level of these pieces, they’re made from paper and they’re sensitive to sunlight. Every little piece of these paintings individually is weathered and in a state of decay. Architecture and buildings, as hard as we try to defend them against the elements—we won’t win.

For more information about Seth Clark and his work, you can visit his website at