Work in progress for Rick Parsons' exhibition "Writing from Mars" in his studio, 2017
“My ultimate goal as an artist and educator is to create art and environments that generate questioning and discovery."

Rick Parsons’ “Writing from Mars”

Fine Arts professor Rick Parson’s exhibition “Writing from Mars” is on view at the CCAI Courthouse Gallery in Carson City through May 23, 2018. CCAI (Capital City Arts Initiative) works to encourage and support artists and the arts in Carson City and its surroundings.

Exhibition Dates: February 2 – May 23, 2018
Hours: M – F, 8-5pm
Location: CCAI Courthouse Gallery, 885 E. Musser Street, Carson City, NV

“My ultimate goal as an artist and educator is to create art and environments that generate questioning and discovery. Within this framework of learning and expression, a shift in perception can take place and a new understanding of life can be revealed.”

Rick Parsons

Migratory Art

Chris Lanier, Rick’s colleague at SNC, interviewed him in his studio a few weeks before “Writing from Mars” opened for the following profile.

Rick Parsons describes himself as an “artist who makes interdisciplinary sculpture,” who is interested in material as metaphor. The substances he uses to make his sculptures are as crucial as what the pieces represent. Material, for him, isn’t just an armature to hang images on – materials have qualities and behaviors. Even something as rigid as metal does things, and reacts to things, in ways where we can draw analogies to our own living bodies and minds.

Rick grew up in Galveston, Texas, on the Gulf Coast, and the refineries in the area left their mark on him. Perhaps the industry’s devotion to transforming one thing (crude oil) into another (gasoline, diesel fuel, propane, asphalt, naphtha) has left its traces on his process. If that seems a bit of a stretch, his work has been consistently haunted by Galveston. Rick has always been concerned with a sense of place, the environment, its atmospheres, its toxins.

Galveston still throws its shadow here, in Nevada, in this body of work called “Writing from Mars.” Along with his familiar concerns, there’s an intimate sense of personal history embedded in this work. There’s an almost memoiristic quality to some of the pieces, an address not just to a place, but to a family. He unpacked this a bit during a visit I paid to his studio a few weeks before the show’s opening. All the quotes below come from our conversation.

The Buddha Mound

Rick Parson's sculpture "The Buddha Mound", paint, wood and ceramics, 2018The centerpiece of the show is a mound. From a distance it looks like a refuse pile, or maybe a teetering pile of laundry. Closer up, you can see it’s like a paralyzed scrum of contorted Buddhas. It hovers somewhere between a cheerleader pyramid and an x-ray of a mass grave. This pivot from something playful to something repellent springs from a painting he did in undergraduate school. “When I first started painting I was figuring out what to paint. I was doing landscape paintings of petrochemical plants. One had this beautiful sunset behind it… petrochemical plants can cast some carbon into the air and create a pretty rich sunset. After I painted it, I realized it could be a sunset, or it could be the plant was on fire. Refineries always have the chance of exploding and we always lived under that fear.”

Rick sculpted one Buddha and then made a press mold to produce clay copies. He assembled them in a mountain-like formation roughly shaped like a large Buddha. I asked him about his connection to Buddhism.

“I went to graduate school at the University of Dallas, which is a Christian-based college, and at that time I found myself living in a Buddhist commune. Someone else there said ‘Hey, I’m living in this commune, I think you’d be interested in it.’ And next thing you know I’m living in a Buddhist commune in Dallas. Which sounds weird, but it’s still there.” He doesn’t practice Buddhism, but says he has “Buddhist tendencies.” The emptiness at the center of the mound is essential to its meaning – the whole lattice of bodies is stretched over a void, clear as the interior of a clapperless bell. It speaks to “that internal thing in most religions… that hollow form is us. You can kind of place yourself in there.”

The table it rests on is an antique table, outfitted with three wheels. It’s not a resting place, but a vehicle. This implied mobility is a response to the recent death of his father. It has to do with carrying a sense of faith with you as you move through life. “I lost my father this past year, I lost my mother 15 years ago.” Rick talked about the strange feeling of being “orphaned at [age] 48.” The wheels aren’t just metaphorically decorative – he plans to build a harness for the sculpture. He’ll drag it through town and “make a commitment to the piece” at an upcoming ceramics conference in Davis, California.
Photo: Buddha Mound, paint, wood, ceramics, 72”x40”x40”, 2018

The Experiment Tables

Rick Parson's sculpture "Photometry" [lab table], paint, wood, steel, ceramics, 2018The two tables that flank the center are constructed from drawings his paternal grandmother made while she was a student. After his father died, Rick went through the things that were left behind. His dad wasn’t a hoarder, but he never let anything go that was given to him. Among the things Rick found was his grandmother’s physics lab book, filled out in 1922. This included drawings of her lab tables, which Rick has used as a sort of blueprint. The delicate drawings show the tables with the experiments laid out on them. One experiment shows a bar, from which objects are suspended into beakers positioned below. These forays into science were not something a woman was likely to professionally follow up on at the time. After graduating, Rick’s grandmother went on to work for the Santa Fe Railroad for a short while.

There’s something wonderfully unstuck in time about the sculpture – Rick’s grandmother started the experiments nearly a century ago. Now Rick is picking up the thread and continuing them. Of course, the “experiments” taking place on the tables right now aren’t the same experiments. What stays the same after a hundred years anyhow?

Rick has created clay porcelain “beakers,” containing a salt solution, and used clay to mimic the suspended forms shown in the lab book. During this exhibition, doubling as a “salt experiment,” salt crystals will adhere and grow on the  suspended forms. “Salt is always about transformation. Salt is not a stagnant material. It likes to migrate, so it grows crystals. [The experiments] are based on salt, and its ability to move from one place to another. For me that’s a metaphor for life – to move from one place to another.”

The result is a piece that actually changes from day to day. “It’s not great for selling work, when there’s a sense of flux to it. People don’t want their art to change, but I want my art to change.” Salt, while speaking to change and transformation (over time, it can break down something as apparently tough as metal), also paradoxically carries rich associations of preservation. Perhaps here, rather than preserving organic materials, it could be preserving an idea, an image, a memory.

“Growing up on the briny shores of the Gulf of Mexico, everything is encrusted in salt… Things on the shore just have salt growing out of them all of the time. The onshore winds that blow during the winter – your houses are covered in salt; your cars are covered in salt.” The telescope, on the other table, is yet another Galveston reference. “They used to place telescopes on the piers. Really you couldn’t find anything out there except for oil wells. Maybe occasionally a ship.” Here, the sculpted telescope speaks to an attempt to position oneself, to try and find a perspective.
Photo: Photometry [Lab Table], paint, wood, steel, ceramics, 72”x60”x30”, 2018

The Paintings

Rick Parson's Station #1, paint on wood panel, 2018The paintings grew out of a recent residency at Anderson Ranch Arts Center, in Colorado. Rick’s goal for the residency was to show up without any of the tools he’d usually take as a sculptor. He brought a writing table, a record player, some Miles Davis albums, and an empty writing book.

During the residency, he’d listen to jazz and free write in the morning. This is where Rick’s title for the show comes from. He didn’t edit himself as he wrote. He transcribed whatever came to his mind, as if he was taking down transmissions from another planet. Images and phrases in his writing book later became jumping-off points for his artwork. His “Writing from Mars” set the stage for much of the work in the exhibit.

In the afternoon, he made “drip paintings,” pouring paint onto plywood boards laid flat on the floor and letting the paint settle a bit. Then he tilted the boards to let the colors run into each other and drip and spread on the surface. He usually made three or four passes on the surface before the paintings felt resolved. This method represents “jazz thinking” to him – “doing an action and responding, doing an action and responding.” The more recent paintings for this show use the same approach on a larger scale.

The paint is house paint. I asked Rick if, when he went into Home Depot to go through the swatches and choose his colors they gave him any feedback at the counter. He said no, but – “Well, they gave me a look.” When I suggested they could be called “spill paintings” as much as “drip paintings,” Rick laughed. For me, beyond the method of the paintings they visually suggest aerial views of an oil spill. They look like some of the images taken of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Or on a smaller scale, they echo the way gasoline floats on top of water on wet asphalt. Rick admitted that they do have “that flat shimmer that oil puts on the Gulf Coast” – but if the image arrived from there, it came through his subconscious.

Like the sculptures, the paintings are way of investigating materials – the viscosity of the paint, the way the edge of one color reacts with its neighbor. “When you start putting the paint on the surface, you’re thinking about the materials, solely. You’re not thinking about anything else.” I left the studio thinking of the paintings as sculptures  that are only a couple millimeters thick.
Photo: Station #1 [Pink and Green], paint on wood panel, 48”x48”x2”, 2017

“Over There”

Towards the end of my visit to his studio, I asked Rick what he supposed his father would have thought of the show. Many artists – unless their parents are artists themselves – end up befuddling their families with their work. Rick said that wouldn’t have been the case with his dad. “I think he’d be really interested in it, and interested in the way I’ve integrated the history in it. He always respected the work that I made, and understood where it was coming from.

My parents have always pushed me to be an artist. Which is an odd thing for the Gulf Coast. My mom pushed me to take painting classes. If I wanted to play sports, I had to [also] take a painting class. So, I was in this class with 60-year-old women doing landscape paintings on the beach, and I was probably 9 or 10.” He continued, “My dad worked in the petrochemical industry for 35 years. He said he didn’t care what I did as long as I didn’t work over there – and he’d point to the refineries.” Rick made the same grave gesture as he told the story. He didn’t end up working “over there.” But he has brought “over there” with him, to some degree, wherever he’s gone.

Rick Parsons

Rick Parsons installing his exhibition for the Carson City Arts Initiative“Rick Parsons’ approach to teaching and art making is a transformative presence in the SNC Fine Arts Department.”

Sheri Leigh O’Connor, Fine Arts Dept. Chair

Parsons has been teaching in the Fine Arts department at Sierra Nevada College for eight years. He was chosen 2012/2013 Faculty Member of the Year by the SNC student body, and was awarded the Nazir and Mary Ansari 2014/2015 Excellence in Teaching Gold Metal Award. He has also served as Sculpture Program Coordinator at Anderson Ranch Arts Center and has taught at both the University of Dallas and Colorado Mountain College. His sculpture has been exhibited throughout the country, and was featured in a solo show at Santa Clara University. That work was the focus of an article in Sculpture magazine, included in the book Confrontational Ceramics: The Artist as Social Critic by Judith S. Schwartz, and featured in the documentary film Questions of Art by Zach Jankovic.

The Capital City Arts Initiative

Carson City Arts Initiative logoThis exhibition is supported by a Challenge America grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Capital City Arts Initiative is an artist-centered organization committed to the encouragement and support of artists and the arts and culture of Carson City and the surrounding region. The Initiative is committed to community building for the area’s diverse adult and youth populations through art projects and exhibitions, live events, arts education programs, artist residencies, and online projects.

CCAI is funded in part by the John Ben Snow Memorial Trust, National Endowment for the Arts, Nevada Arts Council, Carson City Cultural Commission, NV Energy Foundation, U.S. Bank Foundation, Nevada Humanities and National Endowment for the Humanities, and John and Grace Nauman Foundation.

Header photo: Rick Parsons’ studio, 2017