A Life in Style
For fashion and textile designer Jean Marie Clarke, home—and the world—is a thing of beauty.
By Michelle Jacoby | Photography by Ellen Barnes
For Jean Marie Clarke, founder of the Pax Philomena clothing line, life is a journey chock-full of chance encounters with people and places who can change the course of your life. From her colorful childhood in India to the hallowed halls of Princeton University to the storied textile mills of Italy, Clarke has created a life rich with art and design, passion and purpose. She shares, in her own words, the key moments that have been instrumental in reaching her success.
A career is born
“Betsy Bohn—who, coincidentally, is the daughter of the former owners of my current home—kind of launched my career, really. She was my teacher at Madison Park School in Phoenix. One day, I brought in one of my batiks. It was a Southwestern-themed piece of a mother and papoose, and she asked if she could buy it from me. It encouraged me to keep doing batiks, which I sold to art galleries during my middle and high school years. I have always been fascinated with Native American culture, as was my mother, and together we would often travel to places such as the reservations in Taos, New Mexico, and the Hopi Mesas in northeast Arizona. We saw the Hopi Snake Dance, one of the only times the community opened it to observers, and at Second Mesa, we would visit Old Oraibi and the residents would let us into their pueblos. It was really enchanting.”
“One of the main motivations behind my clothing collection is to be able to give back. Growing up in Calcutta, India, my parents would often see Mother Teresa on the streets helping the sick, starving and dying. When I went back there earlier this year—the first time I had returned since I was a child—I visited her convent. I got to see the small room where she slept, and I prayed at her tomb. I also saw the children in the orphanage. It had such a profound impact that it inspired me to donate a portion of proceeds from my collection to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.”
“I feel a responsibility to the Bohn family to cherish this house and keep its history alive.”
—Jean Marie Clarke, homeowner
“Over the years, you meet certain people who, whether they intend to or not, change the course of your path in life. For me, it was a chance meeting with Pope John Paul II. I was studying art history at Princeton, and during my junior year I went to Rome. Within hours of landing, the group I was with was offered tickets to attend the papal mass for the Feast of Saint Paul. No one was interested, so I and two other women took them. We made our way to the mass and were separated—they disappeared in the crowd and, somehow, I was guided by a Swiss guard to the front of the church, where I was seated among monks, bishops, priests and nuns. After mass, we were ushered to the sacristy, where the Pope personally spoke to each of us. When he came to me, my knees felt like rubber, and I thought I was going to collapse. He had such a presence; I had never felt anything like that before.”
“After graduating from college, I wanted to return to Italy to design textiles. I applied for a fellowship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, seeing it as a step in the door to meeting people in the industry. Little did I know I would soon meet silk fabrics entrepreneur Antonio Ratti, one of the most influential textile printers in the world. I introduced myself to him during an event at the museum. He didn’t speak English, and I spoke very little Italian. But when he heard my name, he perked up, thinking I was related to Formula One champion Jim Clark. Who knew a race car driver would help launch my career in the Italian textile industry?”
“Throughout my life, my mom, Philomena, has been behind me all the way.”
—Jean Marie Clarke, homeowner
Education is key
“Throughout my life, my mom, Philomena, has been behind me all the way. Because she was the daughter of immigrants, she drilled into me that I had to have a good education in order to make it in this world. ‘Nobody can take that away from you,’ she said. When I got accepted to Princeton, my parents didn’t have the money to send me, but she said, ‘You’re going, no matter what we have to do to make it happen.’ She put me on a plane, and I had never been to the East Coast before. It was difficult, but it made me stronger. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
“After I had my two sons, I wanted to go back to India. At that same time, I started collaborating with an Indian mill in Bangalore, and I acquired a taste for Indian textiles and garments. Then my 25-year college reunion came around, and I was named the costume chair. Princeton reunions are a big deal—everyone comes dressed in costume, and I wanted to make it a memorable event. I had fabric printed in Italy, from which I created silk scarves, camp shirts for the men, and tunics with beautiful embroidery for the women. That was the first time I truly designed clothes, and from then on I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
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OLD HOUSE, NEW LIFE
On a bustling corner in north central Phoenix, tucked away and hidden beneath a canopy of verdant eucalyptus trees, is a house of high fashion. One of the original homes built in the area in the 1920s, the two-story adobe is now the residence and atelier of designer Jean Marie Clarke.
“The house was built in 1927 by Louis J. Bohn, then owner of the Arizona Electric Co., and his wife Gertrude,” says Clarke. “They lived here with their children: two daughters, Betsy and Doris; and a son, Louis Jr.”
The dwelling, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Homes, originally sat on 40 acres of citrus grove the Bohns called El Domingo Ranch. “It was lush with oranges, lemons and peaches. Mr. Bohn planted the eucalyptus trees that are still standing there today,” Clarke says.
Having lived nearby as a child, Clarke says she’s always admired the home and, in fact, has a personal connection with it.
“Betsy—or, as I called her, Ms. Bohn—was my grade school art teacher. I didn’t know her family owned the residence until one day, when I was riding my bike along the canal, I saw her selling grapefruit on the street corner in front of the house,” says Clarke. “She told me she lived there with her sister; they were so mysterious. The home mesmerized me, and I always wondered what it was like inside.”
Clarke would get that chance in the mid-2000s when she discovered that the property was for sale. By that time, the surrounding orchards had already been developed, but the house remained. Today, it stands at the corner of an apartment complex.
“The only thing the Bohn sisters stipulated when they sold the house was that it had to stand,” she says. “It couldn’t be destroyed; that was part of the deal.”
Clarke made it her mission to keep the home as true to its original state as possible. The mahogany doors—crafted by the same company that made the doors for the Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix—are etched with beautiful sandblasted designs. The sconces, which Louis Bohn designed, are original and unique in their Southwestern deco style. And the living room ceiling still retains its original pattered Victorian-stamped tin.
Clarke also purchased much of the original furniture and artifacts from the Bohn estate, including the dining table and chairs and an oak office desk; Gertrude’s sewing machine, which sits in a corner of
the dining room, was given to her by Doris as a gift. “She also gave me the original molds for the adobe bricks from which home was made,” says Clarke. “These molds built this house.”
While a ’20s-era art deco style is prevalent in the home’s details and finishes, Clarke adds her passion for Southwestern art and Native American culture with a few personal touches. Original batik art made by her and her mother, Philomena, are displayed lovingly on walls throughout the house, while a Navajo rug from the Hubbell Trading Post that Clarke purchased as a child is featured in one of the bedrooms.
“The house has a truly beautiful atmosphere, and everyone who visits comments on the feeling of peace they get from it,” Clarke says. “I feel a responsibility to Doris and the Bohn family to cherish it and keep its history alive.”