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Clifford a jack of all trades thanks to trying new things

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Even before he was a Monmouth College student, Jack Clifford was open to new experiences.

The 2010 graduate still has that philosophy today, and it’s led him to several simultaneous opportunities, including children’s book illustrator, high school teacher, swimming and diving coach, and theatre set designer.

“It’s just about never saying ‘No’ to an opportunity – always saying ‘Yeah, I’ll do that,’” said Clifford, whose principal job is art teacher at Washington (Ill.) Community High School. “Doing that has allowed me to develop a lot of different skills.”

Two of those skills particularly shaped his college decision. Clifford said he chose Monmouth because of the opportunity to major in art education and to dive for the Fighting Scots.

“I was the first diver for Monmouth since something like the 1970s,” said Clifford, who competed all four years for the Scots. “We had a really strong-knit team, and we had some great successes. I especially remember my senior year. It was really rewarding to train with my teammates who had been there all four years with me. We knew that was our last year ever to compete like that.”

Three of Clifford’s teams placed runner-up in the Midwest Conference, and he still holds Monmouth’s record high score for an 11-dive event.

The road to teaching

Clifford stuck with art as a major but drifted away from his teaching goal as he became more curious about the business side of art. He even pursued business as a second major before settling on communication studies.

“Becoming a teacher was always in the back in the mind,” said Clifford, who worked as a graphic designer his first two years out of college. “I started substitute teaching around that time, and that made me think, ‘Yeah, I should’ve been a teacher.’”

Taking what he called “the unconventional route,” Clifford enrolled in a master’s degree program for teaching certification at the University of Illinois two years after graduating from Monmouth, completing his studies in 2014. During that time, he also taught at a private high school.

Clifford began teaching at Washington last fall, and he also works with the school’s swimming and diving teams. He’s been praised for his “contagious” school spirit.

One of his Monmouth art professors, Stacy Lotz, can attest. She saw Clifford at a high school meet last fall.

“We talked a bit during the break and before I could get back to my seat, Jack was on the diving board coaching ALL of the divers – his own school, as well as the other high schools present. He got off of the board and worked individually with each swimmer/diver.”

That led to a special moment for Lotz.

“At the end of the meet, several parents were talking about ‘that fabulous coach from Washington,’ and one of the parents that had seen me talking to him at the break asked if I knew him. I couldn’t have been more proud to say that ‘Yes, I know that fabulous coach – he was a student of mine at Monmouth College.’”

Simply put, said Lotz, Clifford is “a born teacher – he’s compassionate, talented and inspiring.”

Using art to teach English

Two years ago, Clifford’s willingness to try something new led to his illustrating work.

“I saw on Facebook that a company was looking for artists,” he said of Read with You Center for Language Research and Development. “They have books that teach English to children from the Asian culture. Authors throughout the United States write stories for these learning books, and I do the illustrations for some of them.”

So far, Clifford has worked on a dozen books, which each feature 30 illustrations, “give or take.” The books are available on Amazon.

“The author sends me the text, and then I ask questions, like ‘Do you want to use animals in the illustrations or humans?’ Sometimes the authors let me have the full vision for the illustrations. ... I love that I get to be very creative with it,” he said.

Clifford creates his artwork for the books with a mouse and the program Illustrator.

“I layer different shapes, and it’s very similar to the art style I developed at Monmouth with lots of colors,” he said. “For example, If I’m illustrating a turtle, I might use four or five or more different shades of green.”

Now that he’s gained experience with the process, Clifford will offer a class in digital illustration at Washington next year.

Clifford recalled growing as an artist during his time at Monmouth, peaking his senior year when his large, colorful painting “Corn” was named Best of Show in a juried exhibit.

“I really enjoyed putting together our senior art show,” he said. “I had a great concept, and that wouldn’t have happened without all the professors really pushing me.”

As for his wide-ranging set of occupations – which also includes teaching at the Art at the Bodega studio in Washington and helping with its day-to-day operations – the layering of experiences has been the key.

“All the different things I’ve done have led me up to this,” he said.