Gary Clarke

Written By: Alexandra Martin and Katlyn Gabriel

Gary Clarke is an artist who works for the Holyoke Creative Arts Center (HCAC). He has worked there since 2003 as an upholsterer and a teacher. He has been in Holyoke since 1980 after his job transferred him to the area and he originally worked as a renovator for the Department of Mental Health (DMH). He was working two jobs at the time, and when his job at the DMH changed he stayed in the city to work his second job as a night teacher. He has continued teaching upholstery through the years, and it is his passion in life.

Gary teaches a class in upholstery for the HCAC. There are a few other classes similar to his, but not many in the area. His students come from all over New England and the surrounding states, including New York. However, Gary’s class is unique in it’s own way. He sells supplies on site for a discounted price and since the HCAC is a nonprofit organization, all of the proceeds go into maintaining the machinery that goes into upholstering. Students can store their pieces in the classroom so they don’t need to carry heavy pieces of furniture around, and they can get the necessary supplies at a discounted rate. This process is helpful for beginners and it makes it easier for people to get into upholstering if they don’t need to go through so much extra effort to transport their piece and find the supplies they need.

The classes that Gary teaches are set up much like old one room schoolhouses. People of all abilities work in the same area and learn together. Gary likes teaching this way because the beginners and less experienced students in the class have an idea about where their lessons will be taking them, and the more experienced students have the opportunity to help teach. Gary says that he doesn’t think YouTube is a good place to learn upholstery because it can be inaccurate and the videos are usually too short. Typically, around five hundred hours of experience are required to really learn how to upholster, and YouTube videos generally only explain the “how” and not the “why” of the craft. Videos are not able to spark as much interest as a class and there’s no option to ask questions on YouTube, which are important to learning.

To get where he is today, Gary had to start very young. He began upholstering when he was sixteen because his mother wanted him to stay out of trouble after school. At the time she needed the living room furniture reupholstered and she decided to have Gary learn the craft. He was taught by the owner of a small antique and upholstery shop near his house. He didn’t stop with the living room furniture though; eventually he reupholstered all of the furniture in his house.

He continues to upholster today, however he focuses on teaching: when he does make upholstery, he usually won’t fully upholster the piece until a potential customer shows interest and gives him ideas for a finish. He sells his pieces regionally and he enjoys the creativity that this allows him. For anyone who wants to follow a similar path, Gary gives this advice: “Nowadays, it’s just if you want to follow it, you do.” There’s a waning interest in the craft, especially in traditional upholstery. With the advent of the staple gun, upholstery was made much easier, and the modern technique is more popular because of this. Gary considers his greatest contribution to Holyoke to be his general support of the city. He has worked as a renovator, an artist, and a teacher for many years and has brought a lot to the city. He truly loves Holyoke, from its buildings to its history; the town itself is set up perfectly architecturally and geographically, and it is rich with art and culture.