Northern Lights

Chuck Parson is the subject of a trio of solos in Fort Collins and Loveland.

Colorado's own Chuck Parson is surely one of the most prolific artists anywhere, as his activities of the last year illustrate. When he wasn't putting in long hours as head of the sculpture department at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, he was feverishly working away in his Lakewood studio or on location across the country.

In the last twelve months, Parson created a pair of monumental and elaborate outdoor sculptures, one for the lakefront in Chicago, the other for the base of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Both were site-specific, and both were constructed in place. And, as if that wasn't enough, he also completed the more than seventy pieces that are featured in no less than three shows being presented simultaneously this winter in Fort Collins and Loveland.

"My mother used to wake up every morning and practice the piano -- and then she made breakfast," he says. "I learned discipline and diligence from her. That's where I got my work ethic."

"Vertical Moment," by Chuck Parson, installation.
"Vertical Moment," by Chuck Parson, installation.


Through March 10, 1-970-490-6100

Installation, Sculptures, Wall Constructions
Through February 9
Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, 201 South College Avenue, Fort Collins, 1-970-482-2787

Dimensional Drawings
Through March 11
Loveland Museum and Gallery, 503 North Lincoln Avenue, Loveland, 1-970-962-2410

Only Contemporary Art Gallery, 151 West Mountain Avenue, Fort Collins

The three Parson exhibits, which all concern a single body of work called "The Vertical Garden," are distinguished by their subtitles. At the Only Contemporary Art Gallery in Fort Collins is Wall Constructions, Sculptures, Drawings; a few blocks away, at the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, there's Installation, Sculptures, Wall Constructions; and opening this weekend at the Loveland Museum and Gallery is Dimensional Drawings.

Parson says "The Vertical Garden" is about "the individual in the Western landscape," and he labels his classic style "a new Western regionalism." But it's important to point out that there are hardly any literal references to the landscape, or to the figure, in his work, as there were in the old regionalism. Instead, Parson translates the figure into a series of related non-objective forms through the use of a rigid linear language. Or, as seen in a couple of the largest works, he accounts for the figure by making the viewer an essential element in each piece. People may literally enter Parson's world with these installations.

Parson's current work is a direct descendant of the famous industrial aesthetic that he developed more than 25 years ago, before moving to Colorado. Although he doesn't remember exactly when he came here -- it was sometime in late '73 or early '74 -- he was attracted to this region by the dramatic landscape. On a whim, he gave up a teaching job in Flint, Michigan, and came west. "I got a ten-speed bicycle, and I checked out the whole state. I rode all over," he says. He eventually settled in Elbert County, south of Denver.

At the time, Parson was already a mature artist, having worked as a painter since the age of thirteen. "As a kid, when my folks lived in Fort Pierce, Florida, I started taking art lessons from Albert E. Backus," he says.

A prominent traditional painter in the area, Backus conducted an informal art school in his studio, a converted nineteenth-century church. An unusual person considering the conservative atmosphere of Fort Pierce, Backus ran his school and studio like a salon, with poetry readings, plays, jam sessions and intellectual discussions. "He welcomed blacks and Seminole Indians, which was really outrageous in the racist South. And he was a homosexual, but for some reason, my parents didn't seem to mind. They respected the work I was doing under his instruction."

Soon Backus recognized that Parson's talents for drawing and painting were beyond those of the other students. "He came to me and looked at the landscape I was painting, and he said, 'Chuckie, here's the key to the back door, over there's the paint, in there are the canvas and stretchers' -- and he decided I didn't have to pay for lessons anymore. He taught me to stretch his canvases and frame his paintings as trade-out for the supplies I was using."

Backus was fairly successful commercially, producing decorative paintings for the art-shop trade up and down the East Coast, and he plugged Parson into this market. "At fifteen, I was selling a lot of landscapes and flower studies," says Parson. "Backus helped me a great deal when I was an emerging artist, and he made me promise him -- saying that it was my duty -- that when I grew up, I had to do the same thing. I promised I would." (He carries out this pledge as a teacher at RMCAD, where his assistant and most notable protegé, Bryan Andrews, is among the most interesting and original young talents on the scene today.)

In 1970, Parson earned a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute, and in 1972, he received an MFA from Michigan's prestigious Cranbrook Academy. Although his preference now is for sculpture, he studied painting at both institutions. But he sees his taste for architectonic form as having originated at Cranbrook.

His first Denver show, which consisted of drawings and sculptures, was in 1974 at the Changing Scene Gallery, essentially the lobby of the Changing Scene Theater. Parson continued his relationship with the Changing Scene into the 1990s, and the place is referred to in "Vertical Garden": One piece is dedicated to the late Maxine Munt, who co-founded the now-closed institution with her husband, Al Brooks.

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