We all have at least one teacher who's made a lifelong impact in our lives. And often, students also have that effect on the teacher. That’s how it was for Clifford McDonald, who taught art to a group of 11 boys at the Visible Men Academy from their kindergarten year in 2016 through fifth grade—the same duration of his time there. For their elementary school graduation this year, McDonald captured their faces on canvas and gifted each of them the ultimate selfie: a painted portrait of acrylic on canvas.
“These guys started at Visible Men Academy the same year I started teaching, so I’ve watched them grow into young men, and they’re special to me,” McDonald, 34, says. “Teaching is rewarding because of the impact we can have on our future leaders, and these portraits are a gift to show them they’ve impacted me, too.”
Overjoyed by the unexpected gift, the students found something was missing. They demanded McDonald sign the back of their portraits to make them complete.
Most of McDonald’s work focuses on portraiture and capturing the innate beauty of people, he says.
A Sarasota native, the teacher-student relationship is a full circle experience for the artist. He remembers when Nancy Skwire, his art teacher at Booker High School's Visual Performing Arts Center, asked if he knew who LeRoy Nieman was because McDonald's work reminded her of it. McDonald hadn’t—“but when I saw it I was obsessed and I really picked up some of his technique,” he says. “That’s when I really grew into my own style.”
Outside of portraiture, McDonald’s goal in art is to pivot toward topics that address equity, education and diversity. For the past four years, his work has been on display at the Embracing Our Differences outdoor art exhibit at Bayfront Park in Sarasota. He’s also this year's winner of the Suncoast Black Arts Collaborative Visions in Black award.
Those topics are the backbone of his nonprofit, Art 4 Change, which focuses on creating positive social change through art, education and advocacy. As part of his outreach, McDonald visits schools and teaches students how to use art to promote positivity. The aim is to provide a platform for artists who don't normally get recognition to showcase their work.
“In Sarasota, there's a rich appreciation for the arts, but Black artists aren't represented as much as they should be," McDonald explains. "I want to bridge the gap."