Parks Reece, Wildlife Artist (with apologies to the duck people)
by Tim Cahill
(first published in Outside Magazine, January 1986)
About two years ago, Parks Reece, the artist, was drinking beer and showing friends some slides
of his trip to Guatemala. He had bought Mayan art for display in the Danforth, an art gallery in Livingston, Montana, and he had taken a lot of photos of smiling, handsome people high in the mountains, shots taken from under his arm. Mayan folk believe a soul may be stolen when a photo is taken. No harm is done, of course, if the subject is unaware that a picture is being snapped, so Reece would position the camera under his arm, cough, and click off a shot.
Other underarm photos showed men in uniform carrying automatic weapons, guys who didn’t care to have their pictures taken either, and might steal a cameraman’s soul for the cost of a bullet. There were photos of market places, colorful Mayan textiles, temples in the jungle, and people’s feet. Lots of feet.
“Hah hee-uls” Reece said. The two words, translated from his native North Carolinian, mean “high heels.” Reece had taken several pictures of a French woman, who he shot from the knees down because she had worn high heels out to the spongy jungle and rubble of an ancient Mayan temple.
There were more feet. Reece had dangled one of his own over the top of a Mayan pyramid so all you could see was a tennis shoe, enormous in the foreground, with the temple steps dropping away like the face of a cliff. Reece takes photos of his own feet “for perspective.”
What is remarkable about the slides and Mayan art is that they made it back to Montana at all, since the whole shooting match had been stolen in Mexico. As I piece together this story, Reece had drifted up the Mexican Caribbean to the island of Isla Mujeres, where he managed to acquire a second-degree sunburn. Naturally, he didn’t have near enough cash to rent an air-conditioned suite, so Reece was lying in his room, atop the starched sheets, dreaming of agony by fire. The door was open slightly to provide the semblance of a breeze, and at about 5:30 that morning, just as the tropical sun thundered up over the Caribbean, Reece became aware of a rustling nearby. There was a man there, and he was in full exit, camera and film in hand. The film! The foot photos! Reece realized that he was losing his perspective, and he took off in pursuit.
As it turned out, the man had made several trips to the room and had been stashing Reece’s goods in a car parked below, a car he’d stolen. Reece didn’t know that. He only knew that this guy was running away with his feet.
Reece was barefoot, wearing only shorts. The thief, as he ran, must have wondered what sort of creature was chasing him: a semi-naked man, red as a boiled lobster, howling after him in a Spanish more atrocious and grating than any he’d ever heard. Twenty minutes of full-tilt running. Twenty-five. The gringo, like some burning angel of vengeance, wouldn’t give up. And now there were sirens and a sense of police not far behind.
The thief ran for another ten minutes and found himself in a graveyard, trying to duck behind the headstones, but the Gringo of Fire was close behind and there was mortal danger, here in the place of the dead. A wall before him now, and the thief leapt, failed to catch the top, and crumpled in surrender.
Police arrived, the man was arrested, and Reece, after signing the proper forms, regained the Danforth’s art and his own Desenex perspective. The Mexican police stood in line to shake his hand. The man he’d captured was a very bad hombre -muy malo- wanted for many crimes. No one understood why it was that, once cornered, this bad man chose not to fight Parks Reece.
I think I know why. The thief had stolen art from Parks Reece, sneaking off into the night with a man’s soul. Cornered there in the graveyard, he must have looked into the nearly naked gringo’s crimson face and seen the eye of the tornado.
OK, NOW LOOK AT THIS PIECE OF ART wrought by the hand of Parks Reece: There’s a deer staring out at the viewer, and beside it, standing huge in a forest glade, is this… well, it appears to be a 700-pound muskmelon. Both deer and melon are well-rendered, acrylic on oil, in the style of representational Western art. The piece is titled A Chance Encounter. Stare at the thing for a while. It’s amusing and actually sort of pretty. Makes you smile. You wouldn’t mind it hanging on your wall, this puzzled ungulate, this large…
Wait a minute. What we’re looking at here is an antelope and a cantaloupe. The work, frame and all, costs $175.
There were two dozen more such paintings hanging in the Danforth Gallery the late summer day
when Parks Reece’s show opened. One depicted a grizzly sliding down a rope off the face of a cliff and was titled Bear Rappellent. Another is concerned with the quality of light in the northern Rockies, a moody rendering of that last flash of subdued brilliance after the sun sets and before darkness settles over the land. Positioned in the midst of this wondrous, fading glory is the silhouette of a man. The painting is titled, “Where Angels Leer at Fred”.
The question asks itself: Is this “Ott” widda capital “A”? What sort of man approaches the most important aspect of his life with a giggle?
Parks Reece grew up in North Carolina working with finger paints. His mother exhibited her finger paintings in New York when such work was considered experimental. From second grade to eighth grade Reece got to “skip a lot of classes” by drawing posters for various school projects. He then got caught up in “a militaristic football dynasty.”
He studied art for two years at East Carolina University, then went to the Universidad National in Costa Rica to learn about Pan American art. It was a course of independent study that might have been designed by Indiana Jones: laboring a beat-up four-wheel-drive vehicle through the Central American jungles to remote archeological sites, living with Indians who produce colorful textiles in the traditional manner. In six months of travel Reece was robbed six times – “half the time the robbers were soldiers” – until he took to sleeping under the vehicle with a machete at the ready.
Back in the states, he earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute and was about to enter the Merchant Marines when a fellow student invited him to work on a ranch in Big Horn, Wyoming.
In his off time the novice cowboy painted some murals for professional buildings in Sheridan, Wyoming, which led to a job in Lodge Grass, Montana, where Reece was hired to supervise the painting of murals at the local high school. “All these kids were Crow Indians,” he recalled. “We painted windows next to actual windows, with wolves standing there, looking into the school. The kids painted their visions.”
Reece was offered a job teaching art at Lodge Grass, so he went to Montana State University to get his teaching credentials. He did his student teaching stint in North Wales, then cycled around France and Italy, visiting museums, sleeping in farmers’ barns, and meeting people.
When he returned to Montana, the man who had offered him the teaching job had quit, and no one at Lodge Grass wanted to hire Reece. He settled instead in Bozeman and did day labor, specializing in “sorting metal in junkyards and pouring concrete.” The art he created back in 1979 took two forms: abstract prints- “I like working with form and color”-and small, fanciful, “semi-realistic” paintings. One of the latter is of a gorilla, impeccably rendered, staring at its upthrust index finger upon which a small bird is perched. The bird is, quite clearly, in Reece’s words, “cussing the gorilla out.” The ape appears downcast.
Late that year Reece moved to Gardiner, Montana, at the entrance to Yellowstone Park, where he spent his time hunting and fishing, hiking in the mountains, and starving to death. When a job opened up at the Danforth Gallery in nearby Livingston, Reece “reluctantly” jumped at it. A few months later he became the director of the nonprofit gallery.
For four years Parks Reece booked shows at the Danforth. “I tried to bring in the best of each genre,” Reece said. “We had super-realistic Western art and wildly abstract art in the same show. There were some sophisticated collectors, but most of the local people hated the abstract stuff. They had a good sense of who was good in Western art, and I admire some of those artists myself. But it was pretty one-sided as to what we sold: always horses and mountain men and ducks. Ducks did well.”
In 1984 Reece asked the Danforth board for a year off to pursue his own art, and in 1985 the board elected to turn the Danforth building into an educational facility. There would be pottery classes, dance and drawing and painting classes. Reece and five other artists would be exhibiting their work in the Danforth’s last show.
As the show approached Reece wondered whether he ought to display his prints, the abstract works concerned with form and color: Would people like them or would they prefer his fanciful realistic paintings? One night he had just finished running off some prints and was cleaning the ink off the marble slate used for printmaking. He poured turpentine on the slab as usual, but instead of using a rag to mop up, he laid down a sheet of paper. The accidental design on the cleanup print caught his eye. He found that if he thinned the turpentine he could create unusual effects. It was like working with finger paints as a kid “You just messed stuff around until it looked like a cliff,” said Reece. “It had that perspective, and there were areas that looked like trees and flowers. The more I looked at it, the more I wanted to see something hanging over that cliff. Using “a tiny brush,” he painted in the figure of a grizzly bear rappelling off the side of the abstract cliff.
The acrylic images on the accidental oil-based backgrounds are, for the most part, a parody of the wildlife art that sold so well at the Danforth. Reece meant no disrespect, but he supposed the duck people would be offended and the collectors would find him frivolous.
What happened is this: Ott was not allowed into the gallery. Ott is a German shepherd that belongs to Parks Reece.
The publishers of a highly funded new travel magazine – who just happened to be passing through town the night the show opened – bought three paintings and offered Reece a tentative job traveling and painting for the publication.
The novelist and screenwriter, William Hjortsberg, reviewing the show, said Reece’s “detailed miniatures have all the technical facility and design savvy of a trained and serious artist. Not since the work of the great English illustrators – Hogarth, Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandsan – can I remember seeing such a happy combination of artistic ability and humor”
Gallery patrons-collectors and duck people alike-bought enough paintings to break the Danforth’s one-night selling record. Folks seemed to think that Parks Reece was a funny guy who just happened to be entirely serious about his art.
There’s a thief in a Mexican jail who knew that two years ago.