Today’s Feature – March 10-11: R. Nelson Parrish

March 10, 2008 at 11:25 pm (Today's Feature)


I suppose one of the best compliments you can receive as an artist, is to be told that “you don’t fit in.” You can’t be grouped, categorized. If this is the case, R. Nelson Parrish of Fairbanks, Alaska must hear favorable remarks every day – this master of “calmingly fast, colorful and big” art has been creating a genre all his own with his work in sculpture, woodworking, fiberglass, photography, painting, video… the list goes on and on… and on! His work may be best summed up as “a synergetic reflection of the contemporary landscape,” which is fine with Parrish as long as he doesn’t have to stay loyal to any one of his materials. He is more interested in “creating a visual voice,” than anything else.

A graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara (MFA) and University of Nevada, Reno (BFA), Parrish has an intriguing way of thinking when it comes to creating his pieces. He has to think outside the box – the average viewing life of a piece of art is 3-4 seconds. If you’re like Parrish (and are shooting for 10 seconds), you need to be locked into your work. He looks at it as if he’s “surfing the inside of a wave. When you are in the barrel, every thing is calm yet senses are heightened. The surroundings are tumultuous and heavy, but you are focused towards the end of the wave.”

His home state of Alaska also has a heavy of influence on his pieces, specifically the land itself. Just listen to how he describes this bit of Earth: “Metallic peach sunsets that last for hours, butted up against jagged glacier encrusted mountain blues with charred re-budding forest remains as foothills… Winter never becomes black; as the starlight bounces off of the slate gray snow. Full moons cast shadows as if daylight. When the Northern Lights come out to dance slow tango above, every time is sublime.”

Keep an eye for an R. Nelson Parrish solo show in the future, as well as the novel idea of a “mobile studio.” Moving from one area of the nation to another, focusing on crumbs of the American landscape weeks at a time to create art that is truly reflective of the terrain it came from. Nelson will also be hearing from me in the near future – he claims he can teach anybody how to do a standing backflip in 10 minutes (and what girl wouldn’t love a guy who can do that??). Learn more right now in the XXQ’s.

XXQs: R. Nelson Parrish (PEV): Tell us about how you first got involved with art and was it always a natural fit for you?

R. Nelson Parrish (NP): It is hard to distinguish any particular moment when I decided to get involved with Art. It was just something I did. Art just seemed a better avenue to put a voice to my ideas. I am pretty tone def, and fumble with a piano. But when you put a camera or a paintbrush in my hand, it just made sense.

I would actually say it was not necessarily an easy fit. Dad took heaps of images, but more of a traditional documentary sense. Mom sewed heaps as well, but was pretty busy being a school teacher and raising kids. My family is pretty athletic and active in the outdoors. Taking the time to read or draw as opposed to going batting practice or fishing was slightly foreign. Becoming invested in art took quiet a few years.

PEV: Born in Fairbanks, Alaska, what kind of artistic styles were surrounding you that may have influenced your style?

NP: The obvious influence would be Alaskan Native Art, as its prevalence was abound. There is also a famous local painter by the name of David Moffet. He was the first person that I saw that put a “style” or interpretation to landscape representation. Outside of that, I would say that I was more influenced by the land than anything.

The view in Alaska is sea of vibrant color. The land is gripping with blues, greens, reds, browns; anything you can imagine. Metallic peach sunsets that last for hours, butted up against jagged glacier encrusted mountain blues with charred re-budding forest remains as foothills. Cool clear water rolls downstream to collect at glimmering silted river deltas. A chrome vein of oil on stilts bisects it all. In the fall, the tundra turns into the colors of a smithy’s forge. Winter never becomes black; as the starlight bounces off of the slate gray snow. Full moons cast shadows as if daylight. When the Northern Lights come out to dance slow tango above, every time is sublime.

PEV: Not many people tend to think of Alaska for its art. What are some misconceptions about your native state that you wish people would understand?

NP: That we do not live in Igloos. That has always been a pet peeve of mine.

Honestly, I think the biggest misconception about Alaska is that we are completely wild and there is a void of culture. That is simply not true. There is a rich history of Native Alaskan Art and Folklore. Coupled with the overlap of the Russian influence and the early days of the miners; there is exciting mixture.

Alaska gets the Fine Art as well. My Grandmother played violin in the Fairbanks Symphony. There is one of the finest glass blowing facilities in the country in Fairbanks. I think I was ten when my folks took my brothers and me to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera in Anchorage. The 400 mile drive was worth it. The audience was scattered with people in tuxedo’s and evening gowns sitting right next to others in Carharts and hoodies. Don’t forget Jewel grew up in Homer, AK, without running water.

For me, that is the beauty of growing up in Alaska. There is not much in the way of boundaries between high and low culture. I have a friend that is got his Masters at Goliard, and yet has no problem skinning a moose. My sister in law was an amazing ballerina before becoming a Denver Bronco’s Cheerleader. Now she is a lawyer and an amazing fisher woman back in Anchorage.

Alaska full of smart, motivated people, who do not mind getting their hands dirty. The state also requires a personal level of toughness. A similar level of tenacity needed to live in NYC or LA, just different. As opposed to dealing with taxi cabs and slugging out the 405, it’s plugging your car in at -20 F. The harshness of the elements is greater than most places. For most Alaskans, challenging those obstacles is the fun part.

I would venture to say that is the biggest misconception about Alaska. Most people cannot comprehend how living without cell phone coverage can be enjoyable. I say do not knock it until you try it.

PEV: What was your education brought you to (MFA) University of California, Santa Barbara and (BFA) University of Nevada, Reno. What were your earlier days like for you in college when you were just starting out?

NP: Again, somewhat difficult. Stereotypes exist; as there are certain re-occurring elements within certain community groups. I started college as a business student, on an athletic and academic scholarship. I began with a photography class and was not exactly immediately accepted. Something about liking to go running as opposed to smoking cigarettes did not mesh. Through the convincing of some of the Art faculty at UNR, I eventually tacked on my BFA, with a focus on black and white photography, with my BS.

PEV: What drove you sculpture over other genres?

NP: Currently, sculpture seems to be the best vocabulary. The woodworking craft aspect is enjoyable, along with forming and polishing the fiberglass. But, I would not consider myself a sculptor. I am constantly moving between photography, painting, video, and sculpture. Using the mediums keeps things sharp, as I am more interested in creating a visual voice as opposed to being wedded to the materials. Categories leave little room for maneuvering. PEV: Tell us about your workspace. What would we find if we walked into your studio right now?

NP: Right now, things are in transition. I have a spare room in the house where I do most of the painting and sketching. The odor is that of fresh cut wood, as there are several large canvases and planks waiting in the queue. Typically the walls are covered with line sketches, photographs, magazine clippings and color swatches. There may be the occasional hub cap and a surf board as well.

Because of the toxicity, all of the fiber glassing and polishing is done outside in a borrowed horse trailer. The trailer is black and sits behind the house in trees. It is a great thing that my neighbors are extremely nice. Sometimes I will be using the giant sanding wheel with the floodlights on at 1 a.m.

PEV: When you sit down work, what kind of “mind set” do you surround yourself in?

NP: Really depends. Unless I am editing photographs on the computer, I rarely am sitting. Music is a good thing. Probably the best way to describe the mindset would be surfing the inside of a wave. When you are in the barrel, every thing is calm yet senses are heightened. The surroundings are tumultuous and heavy, but you are focused towards the end of the wave. Some say it is the closest to time traveling one could experience: you are move forward in sync with your immediate surroundings. In essence, it feels as if you have stayed in the same place but time has passed. That is a curious way of thinking.

Most of the time I am thinking about that “wow” factor. How can I push, surprise and unexpectedly excite the audience? The average viewing life of a piece of art work is 3, maybe 4 seconds. I am shooting for ten. I want to keep the viewer in the same place, but move them, as time ticks along.

PEV: What is your take on today’s modern art scene? The good and the bad?

NP: I think the best part of the modern art scene is there is a multitude of variety. Most contemporary artists work within a multiplicity of mediums. Where as prior, most artists stuck to a particular craft. That makes for exciting times as possibilities are almost endless.

The bad part of contemporary Art is that artists as a whole are disenfranchised. By nature, artists are typically individualistic, though in the past there were schools of thought in which artists would subscribe. Currently, there is no one group or movement that is dominating and kicking ass.

PEV: If you could sit down with any artist, living or deceased, who would it be and why?

NP: That is a tough one. I would probably want to talk to Donald Judd as he has passed on. He is the founder of Minimalism. Judd is the only Artist that managed to purchase almost an entire town for art making: Marfa, Texas.

Other than that, a sit down with Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami. Those guys are great.

PEV: What kind of music are you into now?

NP: As usual, I am all over the place. Amy Winehouse’s latest album has a great throwback feel and is soulfully blunt. Brad Pasely has some pretty good sounds as well. Kanye West’s newest is okay, but unfortunately, nothing in the rap or Hip Hop has been really sensational. I just revisited old Snoop, Pac, and WuTang albums. The Grey Album is a re-occurring favorite. Bret Dennen has a poignant way stringing lyrics together. My taste in music has always been eclectic.

PEV: Is there an up and coming artist that you think we should all be looking out for?

NP: I would have said Mike Goodwin, but he recently told me “He is breaking up with Art.” Eric Beltz is doing some amazing draftsmanship right now. Jessica Halonen, Chandra Bocci, and Ryan Chamberlain are some Artists to look out for as well.

PEV: How have your friends and family reacted to your career?

NP: The reaction has definitely been a mixed bag. Some are excited to seem me try an alternate career path, others are still wondering when I am going to get a “real job”.

I think the funniest thing about all of it is when you have an exhibit, people often balk at the asking price. They think it is a little steep. It may be, but for how may hours one puts in, I would be making better wages at the In’N’Out Burger as a shift manager.

PEV: Tell us about the first time you saw one of your works hanging on the walls of a show?

NP: It was scarier than hell. Every time you put your work up, you are opening up your soul up for public criticism. But, if it was not nerve racking, you are not invested in the work.

Of course, over time, you get used to it; even though the feeling never truly goes away. I am sure any athlete, actor, musician, doctor, lawyer; any one who’s profession is a “practice”, can relate. In this game, there is not the luxury of mistakes.

PEV: What’s something we’d be surprised to hear about R. Nelson Parrish?

NP: I can teach anybody to do a standing back flip in about ten minutes.

PEV: When you aren’t working, what can we find you doing in your spare time?

NP: I do not have spare time. I am either working, thinking about working, or working on thinking about working.

PEV: Your work has been called, “a synergetic reflection of the contemporary landscape.” How would you describe your style?

NP: Well, that description pretty much nailed it on the head. There is a lot to take in with my work: wood, racing stripes, fiberglass, resins, totem pole-esque surfboardish monoliths, with horizons of car culture and Minimalism. That is just the aesthetic; wait until you touch one trying to pick it up. Maybe sum it up as “calmingly fast, colorful and big.”

PEV: What advice can you offer to an artist who is debating whether or not to pursue a career in art?

NP: In order to motivate, I remind myself I have a better chance of playing in the NBA than making it in as an Artist while still alive. That makes me work twice as hard, as I love disproving non-believers. I suggest newcomers do the same.

PEV: What one word, best describes you?

NP: Challenging: both as a verb and an adjective.

PEV: Where do you think you’ll be in twenty years?

NP: The Guggenheim. Switzerland. Alaska. Outside of those three places: no clue.

PEV: So, what is next for R. Nelson Parrish?

NP: Short term: making more work. I am trying to get together a collection for a potential solo show in the fall and that takes a heap of time. Unfortunately, the work does not paint itself. But if it did, that would take all the love out of it.

As a side note, I would like to travel the country with a mobile studio. The idea would be to stay in one location for two to three weeks and make a piece, investigating how the American landscape effects and influences the work. I have a feeling making work in NYC is a bit different than Marfa, Texas and I want to find out. Tentatively, I am dubbing it ‘The Highway Project”, as I would be moving by car. Think Robert Frank, Jack Kerouac, Mark Rothko, John McCracken and Jay-Z stuffed into an Airstream and asked to make work while looking out the windows. The grant proposals are currently in the writing stages.

For more information on R. Nelson Parrish, check out


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