Interview: A conversation with Lucinda Parker

The Portland painter talks about her career as a primarily abstract painter and her latest, Cubist-inspired work

Lucinda Parker has been a painter in Portland for almost 50 years. She studied painting in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism at the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art). After becoming known for paintings with big bold gestures, in recent years she has allowed figurative imagery into her work.

She has a selection of what she thinks of as cubistic paintings of Mt. Hood scenes at Russo Lee Gallery through December 2.

When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?

A long, long time ago.

In your childhood?

Childhood. I was always a painter. When I was a little tiny kid my mom used to let me paint on manila paper with the poster paint that you mix powder in with. She would put newspaper on the kitchen table and allowed me to paint when I was 2, 3, 4, 5. Lots of kids paint at that stage, but I just kept going. Then my grandma gave me a small sketchbook when I was 10, and I looked at that sketchbook and I said, ‘I know what—I’m going to actually use this to look at real things and draw them.’ Before that I lay on my stomach and copied the cartoons, for example Li’l Abner or Pogo and then later on I was totally addicted to Tintin. I didn’t copy Tintin, but I thought he was wonderful. That was just something I was doing.

The other thing is, in my family I was the oldest of four girls, then my brother was born when I was 15. Really the only kind words I ever got out of my father was when I was drawing, painting—other than that we had quite a number of quarrels because I was the oldest of four girls and he didn’t see why I wasn’t more submissive. He thought I would be like his wife, my mother, who told me early on the only way to get along with a guy is to make sure he knows he’s more intelligent than you are. Sometimes I’d make a nice drawing of my mother, and he would come over and say, ‘You put too many wrinkles in there.’

Lucinda Parker, “Sunshine Route,” 2012, acrylic on canvas, 5.75 feet x 8.25 feet

Did you take art classes in high school?

I took art classes in middle school, not from the people at school, because they didn’t have any real art classes in middle school in Wayland where I grew up, just outside of Boston. But my mother’s best friend was a woman who lived about three blocks away from the school. She was a terrific artist. She’d gone to the museum art school in Boston and she was pretty serious. I had a deal where I would walk over to her house once or twice a week, and we would draw and paint together. They were sort of one-on-one lessons. Because they were close friends, I have a funny feeling my mother gave her kids violin lessons, trading. From my point of view that was a great thing to do. I went away to private school in 10th grade, to Putney —a very unusual school in that if you decide you want to take a studio course, you have two 3-hour classes a week. In high school, that’s unheard of. I had a very good teacher there.

It always helps to have good teachers.

Well, isn’t that the truth.

Why did you decide to come out here to the Reed College/Museum Art School (now PNCA) program?

Because I had a catalog. I opened the catalog up, and it said [there was a] combined program with the Museum School. That was before Reed had any art teachers. They didn’t have anybody except Lloyd Reynolds. He was the only art teacher there and he was teaching calligraphy—which I was really quite good at. I made quite a bit of money at it, almost all my spending money I made from doing signs. I looked at that and I didn’t want to go to any schools in the East.

One of the ideas was get away from the East?

Yes. I had a couple friends from Putney who came out here to go to Reed. After two years at Reed where I took my humanities, my chemistry my French and all that, I got [to the Museum Art School] and I thought it was the best thing in the world to be in a school like that—six hours a day in the studio every day. At night you’re tired. You can’t stay up all night.

That was a great time to be in school.

It was a great time. I never had a class or a teacher at the Museum School that I didn’t learn something from, and from some I learned an enormous amount from, like Mike Russo [painter Michele Russo, 1909-2004] and Mel Katz [Portland artist] and Harry Widman [Portland painter, 1929-2014] and George Johanson [Portland painter and printmaker], even Dorothy Yezerski [Portland painter, 1921-2003], who is long gone, but she was quite a peppery woman. She taught color theory and I still have that banging around in my head.

What about Louis Bunce?

Louis [Portland painter, 1907-1983] was wonderful as a sort of leprechaun who got your attention. I had him for life drawing, but I never had him for painting. But I used to go and watch what he was doing with painters in the fourth-year painting class. I used to go sneak inside there and see what was going on because it was always so exciting. I never had him as a painting teacher, but I learned a lot from him.

Sometimes I think that you learn more from overhearing what is said to other students than from direct comments from the teacher.

That’s very important. The French call it atelier, which means a teaching studio. And atelier is the influence of all the students and the teacher with each other.

Lucinda Parker, “Ice & Heather,” 2017, acrylic on canvas, 54.75” x 36”

I think that Frank Stella said something to the effect that you learn more from your fellow students than from the instructor.

You learn a lot from what they do. There’s no question about it, that you learn a tremendous amount by watching people make stuff—and it’s the making of it, the stroke-by-stroke, the changing of it—that’s why you have to be in a studio. If you go by yourself to your own studio and think you’re going to learn art, the echoing chamber of your isolation make it hard for you.

What Mel Katz says is true: it takes 10 years to learn how to use a studio.

You have to learn how to get in a groove, to provide your own criticism of yourself, you have to learn how to appreciate what you’re doing, and you have to learn how to look over your shoulder and it out front at the same time.

For you the concept comes through the process of making it. You’ve got a mountain and you’re going to do a painting with this mountain, but what you actually do with the mountain comes from working with it and making it.

That’s really what I think about painting—first of all remember painting is something that is malleable, it’s wet, you move it around, and then it dries. Then either you chip it off with a chisel or you slab another thing on top of it, but it’s this whole wet movable thing that then becomes set. Oil paint takes forever to get dry. I used to make big fat oil paintings before acrylic was invented and it took months to have them dry. Having started with acrylic back when it was just new, it was so different. It was so flat and so graphic. I kept thinking, ‘Am I really going to use acrylic? I don’t like oil. I don’t like the smell of the turps, or the cleanup, but this acrylic is so flat and the oil is so messy.’ Then I thought, ‘Well, I‘m going make a real thing about making my acrylics look like oil.’ So that’s when I started using gel. Gel wasn’t on the market right away. It didn’t come on the market until quite a bit later.

And then you used Rhoplex [an industrial acrylic binder similar to artist’s clear acrylic medium] for a while.

I used Rhoplex because I was working on the ground, and I made big puddles of stuff. It was very liberating. We had a 50 gallon drum that Steve [McCarthy, Parker’s husband] and I don’t remember who else got up the four flights of stairs in the Bill Naito building, the White Stag building. I don’t know how we did it.

When you went to school you were thinking about being a painter?

I wanted to be a painter, and I wanted to be an abstract painter. It was sort of in the air, and I remember Jack McLarty [Portland artist, 1919-2011] saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to be an abstract painter.’ I said, ‘How do you know?’ He said, ‘Because of the way you see shapes.’ I said, ‘OK that’s good enough for me.’ And now I feel like these images are a return to some things that I did when I was very young, but I’ve got all that equipment, that abstract judgment, that I had built up when I made abstract paintings—the assessment of the shape, the overlap, the contrast, all that stuff you might not have if you never were an abstract painter.

Lucinda Parker, “Scripture Peak, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 50” x 60”

My sense in looking at these paintings is that you also have this sort of sense of the history of other people painting landscape in an abstract way.

Oh yeah. I like Marsden Hartley. I like early Kandinsky. I like Fernand Leger. I like Cézanne.

I was thinking that for you Mt. Hood is like Mont Sainte Victoire was for Cézanne.

And you have to pay attention when you’re painting something over and over to not become bored with it, because if you’re bored with it it’s going to make everybody else tired out.

People sometimes talk about artists doing the same thing over and over. I say nobody complains about Rembrandt self-portraits.

That’s right—or van Gogh’s starry skies. The fact is, if you invest each painting with as much energy and decisiveness and invention that you can muster, people are not going to get tired of it. But, there’s other things. Thinking about how paint is wet and then it is no longer wet. Think about other things that are like that, concrete for example. My father was a concrete specialist and he had concrete projects all around the house, which he—because he was a chemical engineer and he worked for a company that was working on concrete during the war—would make a little doorstep or something. He did all these little projects and he would mix it and pour it himself and then he would sprinkle it with cold water or hot water depending on what theory he had—about how was going to dry right, how was going to cure. It started out wet and then it got dry. Think about these beautiful columnar basalts. They start out as hot lava, molten, and then they turn into this incredible piece of cubism. It’s fascinating to me. I like this whole idea of natural forms organizing themselves. The organization of a basalt cliff is so stunning. The mountain itself is stunning in a different way. It’s ragged right now. It’s got snow on it right now, but the underlying skeleton of the mountain is much bumpier and craggier, because so much of the original snowpack is gone, the ice is gone. And the top of the mountain used to sort of glue itself together with constant ice and snow so none of those rocks came out. So, I’m making this solid structure, but it’s an invention, because really it looks like an old lady in a bathrobe, and I don’t want to paint that—I want to paint this other thing.

Lucinda Parker, “Slash Fire, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 36”

Let’s talk about the motif idea. You’ve been an abstract painter for a long time and recently you have this mountain motif to work with, but before you’d have more abstract motifs. You’d start out with shapes, triangles, and stars and almond shapes, spirals. In the ‘70s, in the poured paintings, I don’t remember there being shapes.

What I wanted to do with the poured paintings was to pour them in such a way that each slab of liquid puddled, dried out, and then another one came over it completely on top—so that the overlap of the puddles or the strokes became a structure for the painting. I’d been a process painter, but every process that I do involves a lot of aesthetic judgment. But I couldn’t really make aesthetic judgments on the floor very well because I had to climb up on a ladder and look down on it. You have a disadvantage of not having something on the wall. There’s a certain kind of gravity of something that hangs on the wall that’s quite different than what happens when you look down on it on the floor, and the gravity makes you value certain shapes and structures differently. I thought that if I started working on the wall with Rhoplex, it is just going to turn into a drizzle, and so I started using gel because gel gives you fluidity, but it doesn’t fall off.

Those shapes gave you something to work around. You build something with the shape in the work and respond to the shape.

There are shapes that I like for all kinds of reasons.

Whatever people might think of the de Kooning’s women paintings, I feel that the women were there just to hang paint on.

The women were there because they were scary. I remember Mike Russo telling me when I was a senior painting in his painting class—I said something about the de Kooning paintings being scary, and he said, ‘But they’re so beautiful.’ And I thought about it and I said, ‘Yeah you’re right they are beautiful because the way they’re painted is beautiful.’ But they’re scary.

When you’re working on painting do you work on one at a time or several?

I usually have a group. Usually I push myself on one painting until the gel begins to dry out, which might be two hours, at which point I shift gears, but usually in order to get a painting to be resolved you really have to pour yourself into that painting.

How do you decide when a painting is finished?

I want my paintings to be bold. I want to have high contrast. I want them to be visible from a long way away. I want them to have volume. I want them to have jazzy energy. That’s a lot right there. That’s all the things I want, but it doesn’t necessarily define with the actual subject is.

You just paint until all that comes together.

I paint until I’m really convinced by it, and by and large I paint on my paintings for a long time, layers and layers on there.

Weeks, days, months?

This last batch of paintings took me three months, but I needed more time, I really needed more time.

So basically you’re saying you know a painting is done when you’re feeling like you had those points that convince you in some way.

Yes, and it’s different depending upon what part of your life you’re thinking about, but I want it to be really convincing as a structure made out of paint. These paintings, they’re very cubist, I think.

You’ve been at this long enough that they look “cubist” and that’s OK.

I don’t care. It’s a funny thing because when I told Steve four or five years ago I was going to do a series of paintings of Mt. Hood that were cubist, I said, ‘This is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, for me to say this, because first of all the subject is a cliché and cubism is a cliché, so what do I think I’m doing?’ I’m doing what I want to do. I don’t care.

Because it’s fun.

It isn’t just it it’s fun, it’s totally impossibly difficult to do it.

You’re putting two clichés together and trying to make something new.

Yeah, and it’s just harder than you might think. Sometimes I think the mountain is like jewelry, big jewelry, and I admire it. To me you get more pleasure out of looking at a mountain with a bunch of snow on it than any amount of baubles that you can spend a lot of money on.

I’ll tell you one more thing about the mountain. For years my mother-in-law took photographs of it, and she and she went on and on about it. I was thoroughly tired of it. But then she died. Now I get to do it. It’s pretty funny. I had to wait till she was gone to do it.

Robert Ryman said, “It seems that the main focus of painting is to give pleasure. If someone can receive pleasure from looking at paintings then that’s the best thing that can happen.”

I think that’s absolutely right. I think there’s all kinds of tragedy, all kinds of drama, and all kinds of pain—basically when you look at a van Gogh you know he was a crazy man, but you get huge pleasure out of those paintings because of the sense of touch, because of the playfulness of the color.

Lucinda Parker, “Towards Gnarl Ridge,” 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36” x 48”

Are titles important?

Yeah, real important. If I put a title on the painting and a year or two goes by, and somebody tells me they saw a painting of mine called such and such, I know exactly which painting it is. So, for me the title has to be really descriptive of what I think that painting is about, but I don’t necessarily have to have other people get it—it’s not for you it’s for me. I need to know. If I just numbered my paintings or said ‘blue such and such,’ or if I said ‘mountain number two,’ I wouldn’t remember which is which. So, the one that’s called Orchard is clearly an orchard.

Do you think about yourself in the context of the long tradition of painting—from caves, through the Renaissance, Abstract Expressionism—in this time of digital art and video?

Absolutely yes. And I think there’s a reason why painting rules. It’s because of the sense of touch, it’s because of the malleability of it. People get a lot of malleability from their computers, but it never has a sense of touch. But, they get malleability because it’s so clever, everything is so clever and you can get all kinds of things to happen. I’ve seen people do images that are great, but they don’t have the sense of touch. In painting you can see the mind working, you can see the hand working, you can see the eye working—all together.

Note: Several videos of Parker talking about her work are available on YouTube.

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