Local attorney's legal work funds passion for making, showing art


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Tom Clinton says that people who knew of his decision to cut back on his legal practice in favor of pursuing a career creating art assumed that he hated practicing law.
“I didn’t at all,” he said. “I enjoyed what I did, I got to work with smart people, and I always found it very interesting... I just had gotten to the point where it was time to do something different.”

So thirteen years into his practice at Varnum, which focused mainly on Chapter 11 bankruptcies on behalf of either the debtor or the lender, he decided to go back to school at Kendall College of Art and Design.

That move has been an excellent one, according to Clinton himself but also to Grand Rapids art lovers, who have benefited from his and Kendall instructor Paul Amenta’s installation-based SiTE:LAB exhibits.

Indeed, the Progressive Women’s Alliance recognized them with one of its “Strong Voices” awards last week.

SiTE:LAB sets up temporary displays of art in a variety of venues in Grand Rapids.

Last April and May, SiTE:LAB used the building which formerly housed the Grand Rapids Museum to show works of hundreds of artists, incorporating the unique features of the old museum.

For example, artist David Greenwood’s performance art piece featured a hooded rower in an old boat in one of the diorama-like exhibit spaces. Clinton said he thought that work really captured the spirit of the show.

Clinton said that when he heard that Paul Amenta was moving on from a former project, Activesite, to develop SiTE:LAB, Clinton arranged to meet with him to see how his talents could move it forward. The partnership has been productive, with Amenta curating the shows and Clinton serving primarily in an administrative role.
“While Paul makes the aesthetic decisions, most of what I do is administrative and regulatory, take care of permits, finances, fund-raising. It’s not straight legal work, but it is an intersection between my legal skills and my art practice.”

Clinton still works as an attorney, serving as corporate counsel for a Holland-based company, Optera, which has a joint venture with TPK Optical Systems Taiwan to manufacture “innovative touch sensors and display components.” Clinton says that the distinctive quality of the touch screens the company distributes is their large format.

Optera developed over the years out of Holland’s Magna Donnelly, formerly Donnelly Corp., for which Clinton also worked from 1997 to mid-2010. During that time, he was still considered to be an employee of Varnum, though his office was at the company in Holland.

He cannot say enough about Varnum’s role during his transition. “They were supportive of my decision to do something else, to go to art school. They were the ones who found me the job with Magna Donnelly, and by finding me that job they eased the transition.”

Clinton’s education followed the same path as that of many lawyers: an undergraduate degree in political science (from University of Michigan) and a Juris Doctor from University of Michigan Law School. That is, until he received his BFA in Printmaking from Kendall in 2002.

Prior to his decision to expand his career, Clinton was “mostly an art collector,” with a lot of artist friends. “Ever since high school I’ve loved art and collected it,” Clinton says.

That came to the forefront when he served as President of the Board at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts. He was working as an attorney when he joined the board but it was during his presidency that he decided to make good on his passion for art.

Though his work with SiTE:LAB is rewarding, Clinton’s passion is creating art himself. He participated in both ArtPrize contests with his own work — and although he says that he has moved slightly in the direction of installation art, “it still involves print-making.”

He is represented by LaFontsee Galleries, and says he is excited about the gallery’s upcoming move into the East Hills area, “right into what I believe is becoming the new gallery district for Grand Rapids.”

In accepting the Progressive Women’s Alliance award, Clinton said that his and Amenta’s hope with SiTE:LAB is to create venues that allow more viewers to appreciate that art is being made right now, and to focus on the meaning of the work. The PWA reception included some performance art by three Kendall students that had previously been part of a SiTE:LAB event.

In fact, Clinton says, the model that he and Amenta use is largely to give art students opportunities to explore the world of art in ways they are not taught at art colleges. “They teach you about how to make art, but not how to live and work as an artist, how to exhibit your work, for example.”

The projects include individual student art as well as group pieces a faculty member may ask an entire class to develop. Some exhibitors may be
recent graduates who submit proposals, and some may be faculty members, but the focus is on  emerging art shown in ways that encourage wide audiences.

SiTE:LAB has some exciting events coming up. On July 29 and 30, they will host an installation at Blandford Nature Center, which is located at 1715 Hillburn N.W. There will be dozens of site-specific works of art scattered throughout the Nature Center’s large property, which includes forest, meadows, wetlands, and farmland.
SiTE:LAB’s 2011 ArtPrize entry will be in the former Junior Achievement building at 2 East Fulton St., where the group has organized an event before. The venue will feature artists from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. A documentary will be filmed about the project.


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