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John Clemmer, an artist, teacher and longtime Tulane University professor, regarded as a mainstay of cultural life in New Orleans since the late 1930s, died yesterday in Milwaukee. He was 92.
Clemmer's first solo exhibit in 1948 was held at the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans. His last public exhibition opened at LeMieux Galleries here in early January. He was widely recognized as an abstract painter, but his work was diverse and encompassed a broad range of materials and styles. Modest and self-effacing to a fault, Clemmer preferred to show many of his works at exhibitions in his own family home.
He was widely traveled, but spent most of his time between his home state of Louisiana and that of his adopted second home in Sheboygan, WI. Even when he was separated from the local landscapes of Louisiana, much of his work still reflected his love of the Bayou State, even when he was away in Sheboygan, where he also maintained a studio.
While working as a painter, Clemmer never was hemmed into a corner. He regularly painted portraits in addition to landscapes and abstract works. He maintained a significant body of three-dimensional work, many of which were substantial commissioned pieces.
Clemmer was a dedicated fan of classical music and typically spent several hours each day in his studio listening to compact discs or radio, while contemplating his work, drawing, writing or painting.
Born on a plantation near the town of Donaldsonville, Louisiana, Clemmer was steeped in the history of Louisiana and Wisconsin, from whence he father hailed. His mother's family's roots could be traced back to 18th Century Louisiana. When Clemmer was seven, his family moved to New Orleans. When he was 18, he received a scholarship to enroll at the the New Orleans Art School, operated by the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans on Royal Street in the French Quarter.
Clemmer quickly established himself as one of the better known artists of his day, associating with other significant artists like Paul Ninas, Enrique Alferez and Xavier Gonzales.
Married to the former Marjorie Fischer in 1941, the couple lived in New Orleans prior to America's entry in World War II. He worked for a short while at Higgins Industries in New Orleans building landing craft and PT boats and later served in the U.S. Army and the Army Air Force during the war. Following his discharge from service, Clemmer's relationship with his first wife ended in divorce. The couple had two children - a daughter,Trina, and a son, Erik.
He later married the former Elizabeth Scoville. They, too, divorced in 1953. In December of that same year, Clemmer married the former Dorothy Iker of Chicago, who was living in the French Quarter and attending Tulane Medical School. They had two sons, Jonathan and David.
John Clemmer's long association with Tulane University began in 1951 when he was first hired to teach color theory, basic design and drawing to students at the School of Architecture. He was promoted to associate professor in 1967 and then to full professor in 1974.
Appointed chairman of the Department of Art at Tulane's Newcomb College, Clemmer become the first recipient of the Ford and Maxine Graham Chair in Fine Art in 1981. He retired from an active teaching schedule in 1986, but remained associated with Tulane as a professor emeritus of art at Newcomb College.
Clemmer's work was exhibited regularly throughout his career locally, nationally and internationally. In 1999 the New Orleans Museum of Art mounted a career retrospective exhibition of his work encompassing the years from 1940 to 1999.
Following their respective retirements from Tulane University, John and Dorothy Clemmer divided their time equally between their homes in New Orleans and Sheboygan.
Clemmer is survived by his wife, Dorothy, his daughter Trina of Abita Springs, LA, his sons Jonathan of Danville, IL, and David of Santa Fe, NM, and his sister Marie Louise Dorsey of New Orleans, in addition to numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
Donations in John Clemmer's honor may be made to his favorite classical radio station, Blue Lake Public Radio (www.bluelake.org).
Published in Sheboygan Press on Apr. 14, 2014