BOOK BEAT 14 – Millie Clarkson

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   October 11-17, 2006

by Philip K. Jason

In February of 2005, Millie Clarkson attended the Naples Press Club’s Authors & Books Festival. Not only did she enjoy meeting agents, authors, and publishers and participating in Writers’ Conference workshops – but she also made the connection that led to the publication of her new book, Edna Hibel: An Artist’s Story of Love and Compassion. Jan Fehrman was on a panel representing Pelican Publishing, and when Clarkson asked if Pelican might be interested in her book proposal, Fehrman encouraged her to provide more information, which she did. “Meeting in person like that is what I think resulted in my big break.” Clarkson also made many good friends there: “The very best thing . . . was meeting other aspiring authors.”

Dubuque-born Millie Clarkson had a great Midwestern childhood filled with love, good family, sports, and religion. Marrying quite young, by twenty-one she had three children and a husband who suffered from mental problems. His condition deteriorated when the family moved to Elgin, Illinois, and as Clarkson approached thirty, she realized that she’d have to be the breadwinner while staying at home to watch over her children. Not having a college education, she drew upon her high school hobby and opened a ceramic studio in her basement. She sold her own work and gave lessons.

Following her divorce, Clarkson took the opportunity to sell her ceramics at a Santa’s Village in nearby Dundee, where she developed a prosperous business that employed fourteen young girls. She worked off-season as a painter, decorator, and publicity assistant. Then Clarkson learned to teach ice skating at the Polar Ice Rink that was part of Santa’s Village. Moving her family to Rowayton, Connecticut, in the early seventies, Clarkson taught at the Darien Ice Rink, eventually directing the skating school and became assistant manager of the facility.

Proximity to the writer-rich town of Westport inspired Clarkson to try yet another career – that of author. This ambition, and the desire to keep growing, led her to enroll in Norwalk Community College, attending classes before and after work.

Still in self-improvement mode, Clarkson started jogging, and she soon entered nearby races. On her fortieth birthday, she completed the New York Marathon. She became friends with sports legend Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, who taught her the importance of being the first to publish within an area of expertise. At that time triathlons were in their infancy. Disregarding her fear of the swimming and biking components, she entered a triathlon. Clarkson was determined to become a published author, and her triathlon training was a step toward entering an Ironman competition and then writing about it.  

Clarkson received quite a bit of publicity after her first Ironman in 1982. Norelco Consumer Products Division, located in Stamford, gave her a four-month trial sponsorship the week before she went to Hawaii for a second Ironman, sending her off with sportswear embossed with the Norelco logo to promote Norleco’s healthcare products.

ABC Sports covered the event and highlighted participants with problems like cancer and diabetes. Clarkson was chosen to represent the older divorced woman. She finished the race, which was plagued by extreme wind and by a woman who had scattered nails over the course the night before the race. One minute before the midnight deadline, with the camera crews filming the last few hours, Clarkson finished the race.

She received a lot of human-interest publicity for Norelco, who had hired her for a national tour giving speeches, interviews and appearing on radio and television talk shows along with participating in marathons, triathlons and races in the cities she visited.

This experience and exposure led to her first book.  Low- Stress Fitness was published in 1985, and Norelco financed a national book tour. Clarkson’s job was to get in a plug for Norelco healthcare products and keep wearing clothes with Norelco’s logo. 

After ten years of grandmothering, decorating, cooking, and gardening, Clarkson got antsy again and enrolled at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas,  receiving an “Older Adults Specialty Certificate” and a Physical Fitness Specialist (Personal Trainer) Certification. She worked at Fiddlers Creek for four years, as well as several other fitness clubs in Naples, teaching Pilates, Tai Chi and Yoga.

Did I say Naples? While visiting her parents in Naples in 1986, Clarkson met a gentleman named Jim, whom she would marry soon after. It was love on the Naples tennis courts. They built homes in Naples as well as on Lake Muskoka in Ontario and now split the year between these two homes, spending October to May in Naples.

2001 found Clarkson working on her second book, Low-Stress Family Fitness. She spent the whole summer trying to obtain an agent. A few show some interest, but when 9/11 came, Clarkson rethought her priorities.  She decided to spend more time with her children and grandchildren, and she put writing aside.

Millie Clarkson first met Edna Hibel at the Gift Tree, an upscale, classy shop in Naples that was one of the premier outlets for Hibel’s art. After learning more about Hibel, she decided to invest in Hibel’s art, which she had first encountered some forty years earlier when all she could afford was a box of Hibel-designed note cards. As Clarkson began walking the beach the next day, she thought about writing a magazine article on Edna Hibel. By the end of the four-mile walk, the idea had become a book.

Clarkson then negotiated an agreement with Edna Hibel and her husband and family.  Clarkson was charged with doing the writing and find a good publisher and the others with providing the artwork. At some point, Edna and her husband desired to become co-authors. This was an added thrill for Clarkson, who collected Hibel quotes from the masses of research material they provided her in order to craft the Hibel sections. Theodore Plotkin, Hibel’s husband, made his own contribution, as did their son Andy.

On many occasions, Clarkson scolded herself for choosing a ninety-year-old rather than some twenty-year-old to write about. Hibel is an incredibly prolific artist who still wakes at 5am and works most of the day. Establishing Hibel’s career chronology was a monumental task. Eventually, the research and the manuscript were completed, but not without problems.

Mother Nature did not cooperate. Hurricane Frances destroyed Hibel’s studio in September, 2004. In 2005, Katrina devastated Pelican Publishing, located in Gretna, Louisiana. Clarkson returned to Naples a few days before Wilma, which played havoc with her computer and her nerves. The manuscript was supposed to be finished by the end of September 2005, but the contracts had not been signed by everyone involved until the middle of January, so the publisher gave Clarkson another month.

“We did it,” Clarkson wrote to me in early September, “and I can’t wait to see the printed copy!”

In Edna Hibel: An Artist’s Story of Love and Compassion, Clarkson relates Hibel’s upbringing by her European immigrant parents. Readers learn about the young girl’s general schooling and formal art training in and around Boston. Over and over, Clarkson stresses Hibel’s determination to improve. We learn of the artists and teachers who influenced Hibel, but we also discover a strong-minded individual determined to make her own mark. Hibel postponed developing her career until her children had entered their teens. Then her career flourished, with many notable exhibits and eventually her own galleries and a great number of devoted collectors.

Clarkson describes how Hibel’s world-wide travels brought her inspiration and audiences. Then came the Hibel Museum. Always adventurous, Hibel branched out beyond painting to lithography, seriography, ceramic plate and figure design. She lived to be the center of a family business as well as a living legend in the art world. All of this Clarkson relates meticulously and lovingly, and she explores Hibel’s themes and techniques as well. Most of all, Clarkson accounts for Edna Hibel’s broad appeal – the spiritual dimension of her art. Given her determination and her adventurous nature, Edna Hibel sounds a lot like Millie Clarkson.

This abundantly illustrated book is at once scholarly and personal; it is also accessible and attractively produced.

Readers can find out more about the subject of Millie Clarkson’s book at Hibel.com.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at pjason@aol.com.

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Filed under Authors and Books, Book Beat, Florida Authors

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