December 5th, 2020
Nelson Parrish’s wood and resin work aims to convey, through vivid color and expressive form, the intensified focus upon the present brought on by adrenaline sports like skiing and surfing. “In these moments,” he writes in his artist statement, “a heightened sensation of calm is induced, despite the tumultuous and chaotic surroundings.” Given the tumultuous nature of this past year, a calming emphasis on the present feels all the more relevant.
Wanting to learn more about his latest work for this exhibition, we sat down for a Zoom conversation with the artist. At one point in our conversation, the artist gives us a sneak preview of a few of his latest works from his studio in Santa Barbara – two pieces of aqua-colored resin and reclaimed wood from his new “foils” series.
“Can you see this back here?,” Parrish says from the back wall of the studio. He points to a metal strip running along the back of the wall, before placing one of the resin “foils” against it. He moves his hands away and the work hangs, seemingly in mid air.
“They’re magnetic?!” I exclaim, “now how did you achieve THAT?”
“As I do everything,” he says, grinning mischievously, “Hard work and magic.”
We hope you have a chance to stop by the gallery to see for yourself the energizing work and luminous magic of R. Nelson Parrish. In the meantime, we hope you’ll enjoy this conversation with the artist himself. See the full video recorded interview or keep scrolling for the full transcript.
Gallery MAR: When and how did you first know you wanted to become an artist?
Nelson Parrish: I don’t think you ever have any sort of epiphany. I always say that anybody who wants to be an artist really doesn’t have a choice, whether they fight it or not, it’s just a part of who they are and I think a lot of people realize going with that level of gravity, you either do it or fight it, but eventually it wins. Whether you’re ten years old or whether you’re in your 80s, at some point, that’s what you’re going to do.
I say that with absolute honesty. I look at my father who was a lawyer for virtually his whole life and now that he’s retired he’s gotten into — a different type of art — but he’s turning molds. He’s got in the last probably a thousand bowls and he just wants to work with his hands. Growing up if you take that back, that’s what the guy wanted to do with his life.
Gallery MAR: Did he always show an interest in that?
Parrish: He always showed an interest. He always just wanted to work with his hands and make something tangible. Except that he didn’t really have that opportunity growing up.
Gallery MAR: I imagine he must’ve influenced his son.
Parrish: Well we had a workshop growing up. But I think more of the inspiration for working with your hands was growing up in Alaska. You just always made things. You didn’t go to the store to get things, you made them because that’s what you had to do.
Gallery MAR: It seems perhaps that’s where your resourcefulness comes in — the way you’re very environmental with your work.
Gallery MAR: You talk in your artist video (with Claire Wiley of Eclectic Brews Productions) about how your first artistic love was black and white photography. After discovering the works of Gerhard Richter and John McCracken, you were inspired to begin incorporating color into your work. What was that transition like, from black and white to an abundance of color?
Parrish: You know, seamless. It’s funny you say that because I think that the reason that I got into black and white photography is because that’s what was handed to me first. I was given a camera by my father and it’s just something that made perfect sense to me. We had a darkroom in our house growing up, so it was like this natural, seamless thing.
Gallery MAR: You had quite the studio as a child. That sounds incredible.
Parrish: Well, to make a darkroom, you only need like 100 square feet. You can do it in a closet, so it sounds exotic, but it wasn’t like this master studio.
Gallery MAR: Well, that and the workshop I imagine inspired a lot of creativity.
Parrish: Well that and our house was actually never finished, so in terms of a raw space for a studio, we had this solarium, which for the first 15 years of my life, was never finished. So it was just this raw space with windows and you could do whatever you wanted in that space. If you pulled back the carpet in that house, you would see drawings on the subfloor.
Gallery MAR: What a place to be a kid!
Parrish: Yeah, and it’s probably — whether consciously or subconsciously — why I’m so drawn to light in my work in addition to color, because it was a South-facing part of the house where you got all the morning and the afternoon light and you were just playing with and in light. And light’s a big deal in Alaska. It’s either 24 hours in the summertime or it’s four hours in the wintertime.
Gallery MAR: That sunlight’s all the more precious then — when you do have it.
Parrish: Yeah, and so going back to your original question, making that jump, it didn’t seem that big of a deal. Because what I’m actually finding through the language of the last 15 years of my career is I’m really interested in the expansion and the contraction of time. Finding those moments where you lose yourself, you find yourself. A second can seem like a second. Infinity seems like a second. I don’t know how else to describe it. All of the mediums I’ve used throughout the years have been simply tools and devices in order to express that interest. A lot of that probably comes from being in Alaska where you studied the landscape, time, and light.
Ski racing and surfing, where time does these odd things — some theorists call it flow state, other people call it “in the zone,” the art world calls it “the art moment.” It is that je ne sais quoi. You can’t quite describe it. That has always been a frustration with me in being able to express that, and from that frustration, that’s how you get all my work. And actually, I still think of myself as a photographer. I don’t think of myself as a painter or sculptor, I think of myself as more of a technician.
Gallery MAR: Because you’re preserving time in that way?
Parrish: You’re preserving time, you’re capturing time, you’re taking fractions of time, you’re moments of time and giving people an opportunity to fall into that window that then allows them to open up a grander narrative. And so, I’m not a painter or sculptor, I’m someone who uses tools and hands, and I use those mechanisms in order to speak and talk. That’s what a camera is. Now I use grinders, and resins, and paint cans. In a lot of ways, the linkage between this stuff, is a feel and a tactility to all of it, which is very important to all my work as well. You feel a photograph, you process it, the paintings you can touch, even the flags that are scored through, making the choice of paper, it’s this thing that you touch.
I mean, even the new word paintings that I have coming up…*references work off camera*
Gallery MAR: Oh, are you able to show us any of those?
Parrish: I can *gets up and grabs “Hot n Spicy” resin on panel work.* Maren loves this one so much. So you can really see the surface and how it’s reflective and you might not be able to hear it, but the lettering is actually me literally taking an X-acto knife and etching into the surface. So, not only do you have the visual, but I encourage people again to touch the work.
Gallery MAR: People in the gallery will love that!
Parrish: You have this movement where *scratches nails across work* — can you hear that?
Gallery MAR: Yeah!
Parrish: So you have three senses that are involved. The visual, the physical, and then also the audio because when you actually touch the word, it makes a sound. The negative space — or the silence — is just as important.
Gallery MAR: And it says, “Hot N Spicy” which makes me think about your sense of taste as well.
Parrish: Yes! So all of these works, we’re going to feature in the opening. It’s about two or three years of me playing around with this work and now bringing it to fruition.
Gallery MAR: I love that! So this is a resin work as well?
Parrish: It has resin in it. It’s on a panel. My work not only in concept, but also in craft, is done in several layers. So again, like a photographic color negative, it has layers. So you have the wood panel, which is painted on, and then layered resin on, clear coated nine times with automotive clear coat, polished, and then scored. So you have all these really thin micro layers that operate in there. I’m just going to use this one as an example, and you’ll have to wait for the show to see more.
Gallery MAR: Well, I love that one. And you seem to have a little bit of Gallery MAR gold at the top there.
Parrish: Well, speaking of Gallery MAR gold…*pulls out another small resin on panel work done entirely in Gallery MAR gold.* This one’s in process. Don’t tell her…
What we’re going to see in the show — because it’s “Letters to the Universe” is *setting the works back down* this concept of stings (S.O.S.) to the world, like messages in a bottle. At one point in time, you get all of them back, so what you’re going to be seeing in this particular show is a lot of little things coming from me, with the idea that while they are their own works themselves, they are actually letters, concepts, for greater works. Like even the word paintings, I think should be much bigger. Like “Hot N Spicy” should be a 6’ x 8’.
Like, speaking of Gerhard Richter, his works, while they’re beautiful, you really fall into them at grand scale. There’s one work “Pow, Pow, Pow” that’s in various shades of white, that needs to be an 8’ square — minimum, so you can absolutely fall into the color, fall into the moment, lose yourself into the horizon, very much like the Alaskan landscape, or like color field paintings.
Gallery MAR: Like Rothko, for instance. Now you’re sounding like a real color theorist!
Parrish: Yes, and all of these works are a nod to all of those, so you talk about Rothko, you talk about Edward Shay, Faulkner, Christopher Wool… these are guys who had created these opportunities not only through word paintings, but through color painting like color field painting. So part of this work is finding that space in between the words. The negative space is just as important as the active space. The same with a landscape. You get to these moments where it’s there, but you can fall in between it. Does that make any sense?
Gallery MAR: Definitely! Speaking with our videographer Claire Wiley, who filmed our artist video on your previous exhibition, “Time,” she mentioned how fascinating it was to see how different artists’ personalities come through their interviews. Her observation was that “Some artists are almost like engineers in the technical way they approach their art and some are all about pure passion and expression, like in the way that color speaks to them or the way that texture speaks to them.” I was going to ask you whether you felt you were more the former or the latter, but as I’m hearing you speak, it almost feels like you’re a combination of those two. Kind of an engineer’s mind with a more passionate approach. Would you describe yourself in that way?
Parrish: Yes, so here at Boatyard Studios, I have the tagline of “Concept & Craft.” That’s something that I came up with, and it’s the idea of finding a really good idea and executing that idea very, very well, so all of my work is always driven by some sort of concept and something that is thought-provoking, something that is emotional, something that allows you to touch into a deeper meaning, but then it’s made with that love and thought.
It’s also very important to me that I don’t make ephemeral work. I want my work to last, so when you’re looking at my work – like I explained with the word painting — all the layers that went into it. 99% of the world does not care about that. They’re like “it’s bright, it’s shiny, we like it.” Most people wouldn’t be able to discern that you have environmentally sustainable automotive clear coat, you have bio-resin, you have sustainable wood underneath it. Even with the panels that are coming, all of the wood is sustainably harvested. All of it is reclaimed wood.
Those types of things are extremely important to me not only conceptually, but also from an engineering standpoint. How do you make something last? How do you make it safe for everybody? How do you make it so that when you look at it, it’s this thing that you want to cherish? I learned that in a lot of ways through my internship at a gallery for a number of years. For some collectors and even curators, what’s on the front of the painting is just as important as what’s on the back. It can be a great painting, but then you turn it around and it can feel like the artist didn’t care about how it was made. That actually devalues the perception of the work. Not that I’m a snob, but I just like the way that things are made.
Gallery MAR: I don’t think it makes you snobby to be environmentally conscious.
Parrish: Even still, like Ferraris, up until very recently, they were made like pieces of furniture. They were created as a wooden sculpture because Ferrari comes from a carriage heritage. So before they even bend a piece of metal, they make the whole thing out of wood. I’ve seen these things, they are gorgeous. They are gorgeous, and no one ever sees them.
Gallery MAR: How did you see them?
Parrish: I went to the Ferrari Museum in Italy. Wooden models are how they start every single Ferrari. To have that level of thought and craft into something this undeniably beautiful, to me that’s important. So whenever I make something — like you ask, am I more of an engineer, am I more of a conceptual person with passion — to me it’s both. It’s the right hand and the left hand and it’s those two things that get the job done.
Gallery MAR: It’s definitely the sweet spot. Well I’m glad that you talked a little about the media you use. You were the first person to ever put bioresin on my radar. For people who may not know, could you speak to the difference between traditional resin and bio resin?
Parrish: I’ve been working with Entropy for almost a decade now. The main thing is that bioresin has the most bio-sustainable content in the actual resin itself. Not all resins are equal in the way that not all bread is equal or not all cars are equal. Somethings have better materials put into them than others, and because of that, you get better taste and flavors, longevity. Entropy is, in a nutshell, a derivative of pine sap and biodiesel remnants. The main thing is that it is sustainable, it doesn’t off-gas, it is more archival, more color-fast, harder and stronger, and better for the planet than any other resin out there.
Gallery MAR: So what’s the downside?
Parrish: Well, the downside is it’s a total pain to work with and it’s ridiculously expensive in terms of a material. That’s why most people don’t use it. It’s about 40x more expensive than traditional resin.
Gallery MAR: Wow! Okay, that’s quite a downside. What makes it more difficult to work with?
Parrish: The main thing is it’s completely fussy.
Gallery MAR: I love media being described as fussy.
Parrish: It is fussy. It has character, it has an attitude. It’s extremely sensitive to ambient temperatures. You have to de-gas it. Most casting resins you can work with within three hours, mine you have to wait three days. So you have to pour and sit. There have been times when you have it in the mold, and everything’s fine day 1, everything’s fine day 2. Then you go to sleep and on day 3, you wake up and somehow a pinhole happens in the mold and then you have five gallons of sticky, gooey resin uncured on your studio floor. So you have to start over or sand it off and then you have to cure it for another, 3-4 days in order to get it hard, and THEN you can start undoing it.
Gallery MAR: Sounds like quite a bit of patience involved. But it seems worth the pain?
Parrish: Well, it’s worth it to me because at the end of the day, I’m making a superior product for my collectors. This is something that will probably outlive their grandchildren, whereas, traditional resins, they can honey and go amber within five years. Traditional resin is also super light sensitive, it can shift color, they can become brittle, some of them off-gas for years if they’re not mixed properly. So you have this beautiful art piece that is pushing fumes into your house for years.
Gallery MAR: So you’re giving our collectors peace of mind that that won’t happen to them, that it is of the highest integrity and quality. I think they’re going to be very grateful for that. How did you discover resin in general as a media?
Parrish: A total mistake.
Gallery MAR: A happy mistake!
Parrish: Total mistake. Going back to Gerhard Richter, that might have been the moment where I realized I wanted to be an artist. I was in SFMOMA in college. I was taking some time off to go work for the US Senate and I saw a Gerhard Richter. It was a smaller piece called “Blood Red Mirror.” It was a 2’ square of absolute blood red Venetian glass. It wasn’t about the material, it was more about being able to fall into that color and have the world then reflected back to you in color. It just completely enveloped you. That sensation was what I was actually really interested in, but I didn’t want to be a glassblower. I didn’t want to work with glass, and so what I did was I started looking into the things I loved that gave me those types of sensations. I looked at sports equipment, surfboards, cars, etc.
Gallery MAR: Things that you have a lot of experience with as a surfer and skier.
Parrish: Yeah, so I started looking at those materials and thought, “how can I have that same effect without having to use glass? How can I get the world to be reflected back to me in that color?” Somebody just suggested, “why don’t you just try resin?” That’s how I did it.
My first painting was a total fluke. An absolute, total fluke. I applied resin on something, I used fiberglass, I didn’t mix fully, I didn’t read the materials, I was a total cowboy with the material, and it ruined the painting. I got so frustrated. It was just a few months before I was supposed to graduate from Grad school and I was so frustrated, I literally just grabbed the work and completely tore the fiberglass and resin off of this painting. I thought, I’m just gonna practice on this thing that I completely ruined. When I poured it on and did it right, that’s when it all clicked. That’s what I was looking for. That painting hangs in my bedroom. It’s the only painting that I actually own. It’s a reminder of patience, diligence, doing things the right way, but allowing for happy accidents. It’s a reminder that what you want is going to be a lot less than what you actually get.
For instance, in these word paintings, they exist in these stacks of sketchbooks. I had a vision of what I wanted in them. I was working on one and it was a similar scenario, it completely got ruined, it didn’t do what I wanted it to do, but I showed Bridgette (Meinhold) and she suggested that I just scratch them out. I did it on “Hot N Spicy” and realized that’s exactly what I wanted. I don’t think that this is the end all be all, but in terms of an introduction of this type of work to audiences, it’s absolutely the best way to go. In a lot of ways, it was an accident, but it couldn’t have been done without Bridgette.
Gallery MAR: I know that your upcoming show is with Bridgette Meinhold, “Letters to the Universe” opening November 27th. I know that you and Bridgette are, obviously, friends. What has it been like working on this exhibition with a friend of yours, who also happens to be a fellow artist?
Parrish: Probably my biggest disappointment is I won’t be able to be at the opening to see the pairing in person, but the older you get, the more you realize that you just want to be around the people you enjoy being around. You also want to surround yourself with people who challenge you in the best ways possible. People who create balance and create synergy.
It’s really funny because Bridgette and I have only known each other a very short time believe it or not, but at the same time, we talk a couple of times a week on the phone as we’re in our studios, so it’s as if she’s right next door. The way that we interact, we are helping each other out in our studios. I think it’s very rare to find someone like that the older you get in life. You get busy with life and you tend to lean on the people that you already know. So to also find somebody in the art world that you enjoy talking to.
Artists are a cagey bunch, not going to lie. Some people really like other artists and some people really don’t like other artists. We’re a unique breed, so to find somebody that you can have a reciprocal and enriching relationship with on an artistic level and a friend level, it’s rare.
Gallery MAR: And you do have similar approaches to your work with the layers and the tactile nature of your work.
Parrish: Yeah, we’re both very process-driven. Talking about passion and engineering, the irony is, Bridgette is in a lot of ways the same. She has her Master’s in Engineering from Stanford.
Gallery MAR: And writes on environmentally sustainable architecture and at the same time loves to rock climb and be outdoors.
Parrish: Yeah, and actually that’s how Bridgette and I met. She was writing about my solo show at the Kimball for a sustainable architecture magazine, and that’s actually how we met. We’ve always just kind of kept in touch. Actually before this interview, just a few hours ago, I was talking to her and Matt. They were in Salt Lake City getting snow tires.
Gallery MAR: I know they just got snowed in for the first time this season. In fact, I think she had to snowmobile her work to the show again. That’s always fun. Well, I know that you talk a lot about how you want your work to have longevity, using these sustainable materials so that you can have them around for generations to come. You talk a lot about being almost a time capsule for this time. What do you hope your work will communicate to people in the future about our present time?
Parrish: That’s a loaded question. I don’t think that you can anticipate the interpretations of history while history is being made. I think the only thing we can do is just document history. In a lot of ways, the work is a document or an artifact of who we are and through that, I think people will be able to see what we’re doing in the same way that we look at fossils and bones and trinkets of past civilizations. We get to understand more about them through what is left behind, but I guarantee that nobody was actually thinking about that in the moment. Even if you think about, say the pharaohs of the old and Roman and Chinese architecture, I think that they were simply putting things in place so that we knew about them for future generations, but I don’t think it was about saying anything directly.
I actually disagree with that as an artist, because I try not to be extremely didactic with my work. I believe in viewer empowerment in the sense that the work is intended for a multiplicity of interpretations. Those interpretations can be dynamic over time. What we know now may change and have more or less relevance tomorrow or ten-fifty years from now. Not to be self-serving, but sometimes I get to see it in my own world. Sometimes, I get to go to a collectors’ house and see something of mine that is ten years old, and think “oh my god, I knew so little, but at the same time, oh my god, I knew so much.”
I still have a portfolio of all my old photography, and it’s like looking back, the images have very different meanings and context today than they did back then. That’s going to be constantly evolving, and I think that’s the beauty of art. At least that’s what I’m trying to make. These works are there for now and for future generations to be able to get a better glimpse of who and what we are today.
Gallery MAR: I think that’s a great answer to a loaded question. My last question for you, knowing how your work focuses on the present (and I know you just showed us a little glimpse), but what else are you most excited about right now? What excites you currently?
Parrish: Well you are getting me on a bit of a high because the word paintings are very fresh, like within 7 days. The other thing is, if you give me one moment…*heads off screen and sets down two resin and wood pieces*
This is a maquette. I would like these to be bigger. These are what I call “foils.”
Gallery MAR: Ooh foils, they’re beautiful! They seem similar to your “Cairn” series.
Parrish: They are similar to the “Cairn” series, I’m sort of threading the needle between them. These pieces are actually a direct derivative of COVID and of being under quarantine. “Foil” can be two things: 1) it’s a device found in nature that allows you to balance with unseen forces. You think of foils on the flippers of fish, wingtips of birds, etc. We as people have used that shape in order to achieve great things (hydrofoils, flight, steering on surfboards, race car foils, etc). It’s this particular shape that works in tandem with things we can’t see in order to create harmony and balance. In the same token it’s 2) a literary device: a foil is like the villain to the hero. You need both to understand the other.
I wanted to explore this idea of balance and the device that we need in order to create a point and counterpoint, finding out what’s important. They inform each other. So these are that idea.
Gallery MAR: So are they to be displayed together?
Parrish: They can be. They are a pair that clearly go together, but if you look at them, they’re different. The really fun thing is…*moves towards the metal strip on the back of the wall and places the piece against it. The work hangs independently on the metal surface.*
Gallery MAR: Wait…is it magnetic?!
Gallery MAR: What?!
Parrish: Maren asked that they don’t tip over. They’re super fun.
Gallery MAR: Oh my goodness, how did you achieve THAT?
Parrish: As I do everything: Hard work and magic. So again, you have this unseen force in there that will help keep balance.
Gallery MAR: Wow, that’s great symbolism it captures. It really does capture our time and the need for balance.
Parrish: Elegant balance. These again, I see in the 6-10’ range. Specifically in open spaces, so like an installation in a foyer.
Gallery MAR: To be walked around and appreciated from all angles.
Parrish: Yeah. There to inform a space. A moment that gets you to understand where you are not only in space but also in time. Again, this is translucent, so light will come through this and it’s going to shift and react to any sort of elements. And they’re fun to touch.
Gallery MAR: I know the tactile nature of that just makes me want to touch it. I’m glad you have works that our collectors can actually touch, because I know everybody’s going to want to.
Parrish: Yeah, so I’ve got this one coming out. I have a bigger one that’s being processed that’s about to come out 30”. That’s coming along.
Gallery MAR: Will that be ready in time for the show?
Parrish: Trying. I had a small snafu with my vacuum pump
Gallery MAR: You were foiled.
Parrish: I was foiled, yes. They will be there before Christmas, but before the opening is a big “if.” That’s just because of unfortunate mechanical failure.
Gallery MAR: Regardless, I’m so excited to see all of these works in the space. The way that they’re going to be displayed is just going to be beautiful. I’m disappointed you can’t make it to the exhibition opening itself and see them in person, but I’m sure it’s just going to be stunning.
Parrish: Well, we might be able to do the old COVID Zoom, so let’s just set up a Mac in the gallery,
Gallery MAR: Yeah, let’s just set up a virtual tour.
Parrish: I might have to do my hair, but that’s fine.
Gallery MAR: Well, I love it, Thank you so much for talking to me today, and I know we’re just so excited to see this show and all the new work you’re producing. Thanks again for your time and I really appreciate it.
Parrish: Thanks so much.
Gallery MAR: Well you have a great evening, Nelson. Bye!
We would like to extend our gratitude to R. Nelson Parrish for taking the time for this video recorded interview. Stop by the gallery to see the work from his latest show, “Letters to the Universe,” now hanging at Gallery MAR.
Written by Veronica Vale