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Clagett hangs up brushes at detention center

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Lifelong artist taught classes in jail's substance abuse program for a number of years

By Marty Finley

Dr. Robert Clagett describes his life as a series of projects — constantly moving and sharing his hobbies with others.

For the retired dentist and lifelong artist, one of those projects came to a close last week as he ended his weekly art classes for the women’s substance abuse program at Hardin County Detention Center. On Wednesdays, he shared his passion for painting with women who were trying to dig themselves up from the bottom.

Clagett, who turns 90 in April, said his deteriorating vision is the main reason he elected to end the classes now because he struggles to drive after dark and finds some of the intersections along Dixie Avenue intimidating.

Clagett said it is hard to nail down a specific moment or sequence of events during his time teaching the classes as his favorite, but he always felt a strong sense of purpose when he arrived at the jail and a feeling of accomplishment when he left.

“I always felt like I was going to do something important,” he said.

Clagett said he taught the basic principles of art to the women who passed through the class, equipping his students with tools they could use even if they didn’t learn to paint.

“Most people say they can’t draw a straight line,” he said. “The last thing we want in a painting is a straight line.”

All of his teachings, he said, were centered around the usefulness of the color wheel.

“To an artist, the color wheel is like the Bible,” he said.

He also got to know the women he taught and said the majority want to clean up their lives and find jobs, aware of the poor decisions that turned them into alcoholics or drug addicts.

“Most are at the bottom of their life right now and there’s nowhere to go but up,” he said.

Some end up back in trouble, he said, but if enough survive the program and improve their station then he views his work as worthwhile. In most cases, he said, he would not hesitate hiring the women he has taught if he had a business of his own.

Jailer Danny Allen said Clagett brought a masterful knowledge of art to the classes, an open ear and a willingness to talk to the women and try to help them work through their problems.

Allen said the age of students in the classes  ranged from 18 to 60 and many never had the type of one-on-one attention and tutoring Clagett provided.

Allen recalled one woman who drew a rocket ship in reference to her desire to reach for the stars, but also painted a lizard on the piece as a representation of her destitute past and lack of food after she became addicted. 

Clagett’s classes, he said, served as a catharsis for many women who were encouraged to express themselves creatively.

“He will be sorely missed,” Allen said.

He hopes to continue the classes with a new teacher but said Clagett’s level of expertise and heart to volunteer is a hard-to-replace combination.

Clagett has taught art classes in the community for decades and said he has never charged for his tutelage, which assured him students. And while he’s hanging up the brushes at the detention center, he is staying active, penning his memoirs and working on a series of historical paintings of Leitchfield, his childhood home. And he foresees new avenues in his life where art classes could be needed.

“I will never be done teaching until someone tells me they don’t want me to teach them anymore,” he said.

Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com.