A Man Fulfilled: Artist Clarence Heyward

Brooklyn-native visual artist Clarence Heyward paints narratives in words, portraits and figures.
by Charles Upchurch | photography by Geoff Wood

Clarence Heyward is a painter. 

In those words can be found the fulfillment of a man’s life. Last January, Heyward was working for a distilled water company. A mid-level manager with a wife, two little girls and a faded dream. Today, he is a full-time artist-in-residence at Anchorlight artist studio and exhibition space in Raleigh. 

In his airy, industrial workspace on Bloodworth Street, surrounded by charcoal drawings, vibrant works in acrylics and the chock-a-block trappings of la vie d’atelier, the 37-year-old Brooklyn native simultaneously exudes the relaxed air of someone in his element and the gratitude of a creative soul who narrowly escaped a close call. 

Canvases, from small to life-size, seem barely able to keep their subjects from taking form in three dimensions. There is intense humanity in the expressions, honesty in the angles of limbs, power in
a riot of hair and nobility in the carriage of a chin. They are black people, both foreign and familiar to the artist, the images often coupled with simply worded messages, symbological interplay charged with intent but open to interpretation. FIX YOUR FACE hovers above the depiction of an adolescent female loathe to smile. BLOOM floats among flowers that frame another young girl— one of Heyward’s daughters, he explains. PEACE. DIGNITY. BLACK LIVES MATTER. Words, portraits and figures elevated in a hybrid visual language, re- vealing much about one man’s relationship with the world around him, as well as with his own sublime talent. 

“I never paint just to paint,” says Heyward. “It’s always about something.” 

Some themes are self-evident. Others simmer below the surface. In the end, it’s about purpose—the artist finding the will to create in the face of imminent and inevitable critique. The courage to be one’s self, to be imperfect and take the path of most resistance in order to live with authenticity. By doing this, what he calls “painting his truth,” Heyward is able to channel the visual narratives of people who are often absent from the stories found in fine art, to honor their voice and preserve their legacies. 

His year-long residency at Anchorlight, part of the gallery’s Brightwork Fellowship program, began in June 2019 and will conclude with a solo exhibition on May 2. In his first studio space as a working artist, he has thrown himself into the work with abandon, producing three to four paintings a week. His portraiture, figurative acrylics and charcoal renderings have been featured at City Gallery Raleigh and the Cary Gallery of Artists, and are currently displayed at the Triangle Cultural Art Gallery in North Raleigh as well as the 21c Museum Hotel in Durham. At the North Carolina State Fair this past year, Heyward entered the juried show for the first time. He won. 

The Brightwork Fellowship, which incorporates elements of service, leadership and professional development, allows Heyward and other artists to interact with groups in the local community through the nonprofit organization Neighbor to Neighbor and the Art Club at Southeast Raleigh High School. 

“When students are told I’m an artist, they’ll ask, oh, you’re a rapper?” says Heyward. “And when I say I’m headed to the studio, they’re like—you gonna work on some beats? No man, I’m a painter.” 

Mentoring students in Raleigh and helping them plan an exhibit to be staged at Anchorlight in April, gives Heyward an appreciation for the education he received in New York. 

Heyward grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he was placed in a middle school for academically gifted students. He gravitated to art, and soon found himself accepted to LaGuardia High School for Music, Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan. Life would never be the same. “I learned that you can have a career in art,” he says, “and I also learned that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.” 

At LaGuardia, Heyward met a vocal major named Desirai. They clicked, and by their senior year, the two were dating. After graduation, when she left New York to attend North Carolina Central
University, the young man followed to study art in Durham. The couple eventually married, and Heyward took a job with a water delivery company while still in college. The money was good, and work soon won out over classes. Then came the first of two baby girls. Five years later, another. Heyward was promoted to management. More than 11 years had moved beneath his feet. But art called him back. 

“My mom told me she was looking forward to retirement so she could finally do what she wanted to do,” says Heyward. “That woke me up.” 

In January, with the support of his wife, now a math teacher, he quit his job. By May, he was
a Brightwork fellow at Anchorlight. “You get blinded by a little bit of money and you’re scared to take the leap,” he says. “I didn’t have a plan, but it’s working.”

Like gesso on canvas, a foundation has been laid. Inspiration is everywhere. He paints family members and people he meets on the street. His daughters, a sister-in-law, an interesting face in the park, a figure from a Gordon Parks photograph. A portrait of James Baldwin, stunning in the talent it reveals, is paired with the writer’s words: I AM A MAN. 

A more complete description would read, in Heyward’s case, a man fulfilled.