One Night Near the Nuclear Plant

A Natural Surrealist

By Donna Seaman
The Chicago Tribune

One Night Near the Nuclear Plant

As he transforms images from the outdoors, Parks Reece displays a sensibility that’s really out there. Parks Reece’s witty paintings and prints are as much about ideas and languages as they are about image, form and color. As viewers absorb each work of art and its teasing title, they experience a jolt of revelation as they process Reece’s multi-layered, subtly philosophical puns.

Take handsome lithograph that graces the book’s jacket and that gives this enormously enjoyable volume its title. “Call of the Wild” presents a dusky landscape in which a pearly full moon presides in a pinking sky over mist-wrapped blue mountains. In the foreground looms a rocky ledge on which stand silhouetted spruce trees and one magnificent male elk crowned with a great rack of antlers. This is a romantic, even majestic scene, but closer inspection reveals a coiled cord hanging from a tree limb and dangling a phone receiver into which the noble elk seems to be speaking with a lover’s ardor.

Advanced Nymphing

A journey through the lustrous color plates found within affirms the suspicion that here is a technically proficient and inventive artist with a gift for the sublime and the ridiculous. In one richly hued, lushly, even mysteriously textured painting after another, Reece seduces the eye and zaps the mind with such funny and piquant images as a tiny man running from a giant, spooky white rooster in “Poultrygeist,” or, in “Advanced Nymphing,” one of many underwater fishing scenes, an impressive trout about to take the bait: a tiny nude woman.

Who is this adept artist and jokester? Crisply composed and outright hilarious essays by Reece; celebrated travel writer Tim Cahill; Scott McMillion, author of the non-fiction book “Mark of the Grizzly”; and Reece’s 18 year old son, Myers, portray Reece as blithely eccentric and deeply inspired, prone to pranks, escapades, accidents and serendipitous discovery, and profoundly in love with nature.

Born in 1954, Reece grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina under the soulful influence of his mother, an artist keenly attuned to the spiritual realm who specialized in finger painting (her close friend Ruth Faison Shaw, invented the process). Reece began painting as a toddler, went on to study art and travel, and endured various odd jobs until he landed in Montana, the dramatic setting for most of his work, in 1978. There he developed his unique style and sensibility, and his whimsical yet shrewd perspective on the complex relationship between humankind and the rest of nature.

Reece’s humor is at once foxy and fantastical, but the longer one ponders his alluring paintings, the more one sees beyond their canny playfulness, their linguistic mischief and their wry riffing on those cheerfully ridiculous jackalope and giant fish postcards. As these magnetic works hold our attention with their resplendent beauty and gentle satire, we slowly recognize that the power inherent in these spellbinding depictions of animal dreams and the perpetual cycle of life and death is mystical.

And it becomes clear that Reece is subtly alluding to the harm humankind inflicts on wildlife. Take a long look at the deceptively lovely “One Night Near the Nuclear Plant,” a strangely radiant nighttime landscape of incandescent rocks veined with pulsing bones and ghostly images, and occupied by a howling wolf, alarmed rabbit and circling hawk, all brilliantly, and fatally, glowing.

Donna Seaman, an editor at Booklist, selected and introduced the anthology “In Our Nature: Stories of Wildness” and hosts the radio program “Open Books” on WLUW 88.7-FM