Etcher in the wry

By Sherry Jones,
Published July 25, 1999

Punchlines are just part of the palette that makes Parks Reece’s art so popular.

Livingston artist Parks Reece doesn’t mind if people focus on the humor in his work. But don’t miss the finer points – the composition and color that he hopes will earn him the right to “stand up with the artists of the ages.”

Livingston – Sometimes, just for fun, Parks Reece will slip one of his old painter’s palettes into a show of his art. Just to see if folks fall for it. Just to give himself a little tickle.

“I do think the art world is too damn serious,” Reece says in the North Carolina drawl that’s stuck to him like white on grits despite two decades of Montana living.

“I call it the ’emperor’s new clothes world of art,'”he says. “Art people take themselves too serious, especially as they start doing well. I’ll poke a little fun here and there, and kind of mess with that some.”

Reece, a 45-year-old with the face of a boy and joie de vivre of a teen, is doing well, all right. His surrealistic wildlife art graces collections in “about all 50 states,” plus Canada, Japan and most of Europe, he says. Whoopi Goldberg reportedly bought a painting of his right off the wall at nearby chico Hot Springs. Robert Redford, Waylon Jennings and Alston Chase own his works. So do William Hjortsberg and Tim Cahill. He’s doing well, yes – but he’s giggling as gleefully as ever.

“It’s not that I think animals are funny,” he says, “although sometimes I think ducks look funny. I’m just intrigued as hell with animals.”

“A modern-day cave painter,” one artist has called him, and Reece relishes the description. Parallels do exist, he says: the animals he paints tend to be the creatures he either hunts or lives around. Instead of describing his encounters with , though, Reece uses his art to teach us about ourselves. If he goes for the emotional jugular- laughter, tears – it’s only to drive his messages home more pointedly, and more memorably.

“It’s fun,” he says. “Like you can put sugar on carrots. Carrots are good for you; sugar tastes good.”

A lot of people focus on the humor in Reece’s work, and that’s fine with the artist. But they risk missing the finer points – the metaphors, the textures, the composition and color that he hopes will earn him the right to “stand up with the artists of the ages.”

“A lot of threads are woven into my work,” he says. “I’m not looking to be a cartoonist.”

For, while Reece may consider himself – and human nature in general – with an indulgent chuckle, he does take his art very, very seriously. His mother, after all, may be watching. Herself a painter, she promised before she died 26 years ago that she’d be paying attention to what he was doing: “That helps to make sure that I do it to the best fo my ability”.

Betty Gwyn Reece played an important role in her son’s artistic development starting when he was 6, when he studied under her and Ruth Shaw, whom Reece says first made serious art of finger-painting. He exhibited and sold pieces with the two women, as well, he says.

In high school, Reece says, he cut classes to make posters for school projects. But not until he was 19, and a student at East Carolina University, did he decide to make art his life’s work. An intaglio etching of a startled, skeptical old man won the admiration of a notoriously-hard-to-impress art teacher, who gave Reece an unheard-of A-plus for the work. It was, he says, the validation he needed.

And he was off: to the Universidad National in Costa Rica, to study Colombian and pre-Colombian art. To the San Francisco Art Institute, where he earned his bachelor of fine arts degree in printmaking – and produced abstract expressionist works. To the University of South Carolina, where he studied intaglio etching. To Montana State University, where he earned a teaching certivicate. To schools all over the state, where he presented “art classes, mural painting and joke cracking,” he says.

Eventually, though, he gave up teaching: “There was too much police action in it.” In 1980, while living in Gardiner, Reece took a job as director and curator of the Danforth Gallery, one of the few galleries – a traditional, Western wildlife gallery – in a town thatwould become known for it’s contemporary art.

It was a cold, cold winter – so cold that Reece layered insulation under the hood of his car but still couldn’t get it to run. For several months he hitchhiked the 53 miles to and from Livingston. Then, one day, things got ugly.

“A guy picked me up,” Reece says, “and rolled his car off the road. We rolled three times and landed in a ditch. (The accident) beat the hell out of me. Killed his dog.” Reece went out and bought himself a red Rambler Rebel for $70.

Later, Reece moved to Livingston, lived in a converted garage for 470 a month. Too broke to buy paper or canvas, he took to painting on the backs of small, stiff posters stacked in the old shop – and he still uses them today.

“I enjoy the intimacy of the small painting,” he says. “It seems to work better with the humor”.

In his early Livingston days, though, Reece was still making abstract art, plus some whimsical figurative works. After four years at the Danforth he took a year off to paint – and found his niche, in part by accident, in part by design.

What happened was this: He had been making prints by etching designs into a marble slab, rolling ink over the surface, and pressing paper down onto the ink. When he’s finished for the night, he sprinkled some turpentine on the ink, intending to wipe it up and go home.

On a whim, though, Reece laid paper instead of rags on the diluted ink. When he picked up the paper, he admired the patterns the ink/turpentine mix had made. “Wow!” Reece says now, telling the story. “Free art!”

Nest he tried a similar technique with oil paints, and liked the results even better. Today, that’s how Reece makes all his paintings – dripping colors in thick blobs on glass, adding turpentine (to oil) or water (to acrylic) and smearing the colors around, then pressing first one sheet of paper, then another, onto the paint. He then lets the papers dry, then puts them away. Nest time, he’ll pull those or other paintings from the stack he keeps on a shelf in his studio and give them another layer of paint.

This activity can go on for years – as many as 20 years, with some works – creating layer upon layer of paint until Reece deems it worthy.

“You get all these beautiful, serendipitous effects,” he says. “It’s free art. It’s serendipity. It tells you what to do. You’re kind of getting spoken to by the Great Spirit.”

On those vivid, impressionistic paintings Reece adds more paint, deliberately now, making hills or rivers or skies or whatever he sees. To that landscape he adds figures – animals, usually; people, sometimes – to connote a pun, or a quirk of human nature, or a message, often environmental.

In “Call of the Wild,” – one of five lithographs Reece completed in recent years – a bull elk appears to speak into a telephone receiver dangling from a tree amid fog-shrouded mountains. The fog, the sky, the mist, the land: These are the focal points, big as all Montana, and the elk and his phone are rendered so subtly as to be almost incidental.

Almost. Then you see them, and they look so out-of-place, so bizarre, and the justaposition of elk-with-phone-with-rugged-mountains makes you grin. You can’t NOT grin. You also can’t NOT get it – but you’re laughing too hard to take umbrage.

“Everybody’s coming out here,” Reece says, waving his hand in the basement of his country home, a two-story log affair with a deck and a sauna and, in the works, terraced gardens in the backyard.

“People are moving into their big mansions,” he says. “They’re in the way where the elk are running. We’re populating places we’re not contributing much to.”

Then Parks Reece laughs, struck by his own juxtaposition. This time, the artist is laughing not at the rest of us, but at himself. And at the rest of us, too. “Sort of like me,” he says. “I’m a conservationist – I got mine yesterday.”