A Son’s Diary: Tracing Parks Reece’s Artistic Roots

A Son’s Diary: Tracing Parks Reece’s Artistic Roots

A Son’s Diary:  Tracing Parks Reece’s Artistic Roots

By Myers Reece
Finger paintings, lithographs and prints by Parks Reece

Montana Quarterly Spring 2010
For my father, artist Parks Reece, the transition into finger  painting was inevitable. He loves to use his hands, particularly when eating at nice restaurants.  It is a curious phenomenon, sadly overlooked by “Planet Earth” producers, to observe a wild Appalachian hillbilly in feeding.  I knew it was only a matter of time before he poked those greasy fingers in paint.  That time has come.

Tree of Life

But the origins of my dad’s finger painting extend beyond basic prehensile urges.  Finger painting is in his blood and in his training.  As a boy, he trained under Ruth Faison Shaw, who appears in art history books as the “First Lady of Finger Painting.”  Shaw is credited with introducing finger painting as a fine art medium – and a psychiatric therapy method – to the United States.

Through her therapy, Shaw met Gwyn Finley Reece, my grandmother, and in turn opened the world of art up to a boy.  That boy grew up to be my father.

The Shadow Caster

There are so many moments that influence an artist’s evolution, so many points in his timeline that help give us context.  With artists, we seek context.  With Parks Reece, it’s hard to find.  By nature, his art seems to exist in a world that is out of context.  Fish smoking cigarettes.  Ranchers shaking hands with wolves.  Flying buffalo.

Occasionally a painting can be traced to a specific instant or period.  “Jurassic Pork,” in which a massive pig hovers over fleeing humans, was born out of a suggestion from my fifth-grade classmate.  Generally, however, the inspiration is far more nebulous.  But if identifying the inspirations that shape his evolution is difficult, identifying the moments that mark it is a bit easier.

After the Spawn

In my lifetime, I can pinpoint several such moments:  the opening of his own gallery, the start of his Web site, his transition into lithography, his book’s publication and, now, finger painting.  His art has come full circle;  he has summoned his roots.
“Finger painting helped make me who I am,” he told me recently.  “It kind of gave me my view on life.”
Before you can understand Parks Reece the artist, you must try to understand Parks Reece the man.  I have spent my life observing this phenomenon, taking mental notes like a diligent behavioral anthropologist, as he often compares the miracle of my birth to the arrival of a pet monkey into the house.
His art, like the man, defies classification, but many critics give it a whirl anyway.  The Los Angeles Times said he is an “alchemical artist” with “an untamed imagination.”  The Chicago Tribune called him a “natural surrealist.”  He has also been described as “Van Gogh meets the Far Side.”
But his favorite has always been from a friend, writer Tim Cahill, who described his art as “an altogether peculiar perception of our natural world.”  He considers “peculiar” a distinguished compliment.
Critics glom on to both the artist and the mystique that is Parks Reece – raised in the mountains of North Carolina, a world adventurer, and anti-establishment folk hero living in a Montana log cabin, and a lovable hillbilly who care deeply about good art but could care less about the stuffy “art world.”  My dad my appear to run in circles at times, but art circles aren’t typically among them.
The only way, of course to truly understand Parks Reece is to spend time with him.  It doesn’t have to be anything special, but it always includes random encounters with art.  For instance, let us describe what might happen on a typical stroll down the street with him.

He is walking and something shiny catches his attention.  He crosses the street to observe the shiny object, but is distracted by another shiny object.  A car.  This shiny thing carries people in it, so he stops for a chat.  They talk, in the middle of the street, until people in another shiny car grow impatient.

My father then approaches the other people to tell about the original shiny object he spotted.  He explains that he doesn’t yet know what it is because he got distracted and, anyway, how are you?  Their impatience dissipates and they too grow eager to chat, in the street.

They talk about art, though they don’t realize it.  They just think they’re talking about shiny things.  My dad, meanwhile, has already identified 17 more shiny objects in their car and wants to talk about them.  Later he tells me about a new painting idea he thought of, just strolling down the street.  He is shiny and happy.

If you stop to tie your shoes, by the time you stand up, my dad has found art.  He finds art everywhere:  tree stumps, garbage, constellations, dead animals, pranks gone wrong and the world’s shortcomings.  Everywhere.  When I was a kid, he particularly liked finding art on the way to school when I was already late.  Pulled over on the side of the road, he would dangle out the driver’s seat window to snap photos of the sunrise.

“Do you see how much it’s changed in just a few minutes?”  he would ask.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Do you see what time it is?”

He didn’t.  He was already out of the car and on the hood, seeking that ever-elusive “better angle.”  But when Parks Reece is your father and chauffeur, you don’t need a note if you’re tardy.  It’s already understood.

More than ever, much of his life now revolves around his house, where his

The Catfish and I

studio is located.  It is a beautiful log cabin outside of Livingston surrounded by mountains and, more recently, big rocks.  These massive boulders, unearthed from his property two miles down the gravel road, are arranged in various ways in both the front and back yards.  He has placed them amid his many planted trees, which include cherry, pear, apple and conifer.

One stone arrangement is in the shape of a giant serpent, slithering down the hill.  Each stone in the serpent’s body weighs about a ton.  Also, there are surprisingly comfortable stone seats, a fire pit and a performance stage, with underground wiring.

He loves creating new worlds.  He built this rock world, with the help of backhoes and months of manual labor, as a tribute to his father, who passed away in April.  He calls it “The Flintstones’ Living Room.”

And if it feels like you’re being watched, you are.  Lodged in the stones’ cracks are eyeballs, purchased from a taxidermist.  They’re artificial eyes, but they’re always introduced to strangers as the real thing.

“That one’s from a marlin,” he told my girlfriend upon her first visit.  “It’s keeping an eye on you.”

When I stopped by for Christmas, I noticed, with some astonishment a new addition to the landscaping.  In the ditch below the house was a 1993 Toyota Camry.

“I left it in neutral a few days ago and it rolled down the driveway into the ditch,” he explained.   I was left to assume he would retrieve it when he got around to it.

Mysteries of Life

In one section of the house is yet another tribute, to his mother:  a wall covered with her photographs and paintings.  She died from diabetes-related complications in 1973.  In the years before her death, she had submitted herself to hospitals for a variety of treatments.  At one of these hospitals, she met Ruth Faison Shaw, who was exploring the possibilities of healing through finger painting.
Shaw taught finger painting in Rome in the 1920s and then incorporated it into psychiatric therapy in the U.S.  The free-flowing expressionism of finger painting, where the artist actually feels the paint, comforted and inspired shell-shocked veterans, the mentally ill and the blind, among others.  And moreover, with its nontoxic formula, kids loved it.  My dad was one of them.

“Finger painting,” Shaw said,  “gives color to thought for which children often know no words.”

Gwyn Finley Reece, the grandmother I  never met, was already a talented artist when she met Shaw.  Her diabetes was particularly debilitating, attacking her body and mind.  But in finger painting, she found solace.  I have a piece of hers hanging on my wall and, surrounded by my father’s paintings, it is the most discussed artwork in my house.  It’s gorgeous, and people notice.

When my dad was 6 years old, he spent a summer finger painting with his

Waiting for a Rainbow

mother and Shaw, who had become close friends.  He sold his art at shows, sometimes raking in $200 or more as a first-grader.  An artist was born.

He carried Shaw’s teachings with him through grade school and on to art school at East Carolina University and the San Francisco Art Institute, through his Pan-American art studies in Costa Rica and on his many world travels.

Even today, in all of my father’s art, Shaw’s free-flowing finger painting fundamentals are evident.  While the individual figures of his acrylic paintings are detailed and often realistic, the backgrounds are colorful worlds unburdened by premeditated shapes and
lines.  He applies the background’s paint without prejudice – he lets the art become itself.  Characters, shapes and new worlds then emerge.

This is how he views life:  freedom of expression, art in the most unexpected places and funny shapes.

In 2008, he was asked to teach a finger painting class at Livingston’s Center for Art and Culture.  Having not finger painted for over 40 years, he naturally agreed.  He began practicing and rediscovered the sensation that first prompted him into art as a boy.

When finger painting,  he recalls Shaw’s lessons:  “You never sit down, you stand poised and you’re balanced.  Then you kind of dance.  You move fluidly.  To loosen up the paint, you add water and play.  You have fun.”

Atom Dance

“That’s part of the therapy,” he says.

And since you don’t use brushes, precise details aren’t – and shouldn’t be – expected:  “You abandon the idea that you’re going to make it photo real.”  He uses his palm, his forearm, his fingers, his fingernails and the sides of his hand, including what he describes as the “karate-chop part.”

“You get some results that you’re like, ‘Wow.’ You don’t even know how you did it,” he says.  “It’s free art.  It’s expressionistic art at its most basic.”

To date, he has completed about 30 original finger paintings and taught several classes.  Among the finished works are “Sneaking Up on the Candy Tree,” “Reaching for Heaven While Clinging to Earth,” “The Catfish and I,” “Atom Dance,” and “Uh Oh.”

Some are quite surreal, offering very little specific detail.  Others have been carefully marked with fingernail precision.  They were a hit at the 2009 National Folk Festival in Butte, where he was one of the only visual artists invited.  He will return in 2010.  He is also illustrating a three-part series in the Big Sky Journal with finger paintings.

The paintings, less expensive than his original acrylics and lithographs, are currently his gallery’s top sellers.  For both longtime followers of his art and newcomers, the paintings represent something childish we can relate to, something accessible.  And while they’re fresh and fun for us, more importantly they’re fresh and fun for him.

My dad would say that when art loses its fun, it loses some of its magic.  And, for the artist, it simply becomes a job.  Parks Reece is keen; he isn’t about to be tricked into a job. In the past, he has been an art teacher on the Crow Indian Reservation and in Wales, a ranch hand, a muralist, a construction worker and a gallery curator.  But it’s been many years since he held a regular job, a testament to both his artistic accomplishments and his stubbornness.

Last fall, he discovered a fan of his finger painting:  Ronald Wallace, a well-known lighting design specialist who worked on Broadway for 25 years.  In Wallace’s retirement, more like a second career, he has gotten into photography.  Using his lighting expertise, he has a vision to combine nude models, dancing, finger painting and photography into a distinctive art form.

When Wallace first told my dad about the project, he thought it was a joke.  It’s an uncommon proposition, for sure:  “I would like to pay you to paint the bodies of beautiful nude models.”  It has made me question my career choice.

Months later, my dad found himself in a lighting studio, experimenting with different paints on models.  Shunning the artificial intrusions of canvas, paper and brushstrokes, this kind of art relies on human-to-human contact, with natural anatomical contours influencing the painting’s final form.

After a couple of practice sessions, just as they were figuring out appropriate paint types and lighting, Wallace suffered a stroke.  But he is recovering and the project is continuing.

Novelist William Hjortsberg once said:  “In the hands of Parks Reece, fine art becomes fun once again, and God bless him for that.”  As Hjortsberg noted, fine art is in a good place when in my father’s hands.  Now it’s all over his hands and God bless him for that.