I visited AZ Gallery in St. Paul one afternoon to view DeAnne Parks’s exhibit Fledglings and Seeds: Transformations and New Beginnings. I knew what the themes of the work in the exhibit entailed because I had been following her work in recent months and saw how she had been visually responding to the changes in her community of Lowertown, St. Paul. As the neighborhood began to quickly gentrify, the studio building where Parks had worked for 16 years was seized by a redeveloper, and the artists and businesses were forced to vacate last year. Parks uses her own experience of losing her beloved art studio — and the community of artists who worked near her — to voice the emotions that become entrenched in transition and change, whether personal or on a larger social, political, and cultural scale.
Cicada, oil on canvas, 72 x 48"
DeAnne Parks's bold and spirited oil paintings communicate themes of social justice and hope. Her new body of work expands upon her paintings to include a series of small, whimsical ceramic sculptures of hearts, birds, and mammals. They are tiny beings with mighty character that very well may have tiptoed out from the paintings and landed onto the gallery pedestals.
Vessel of Peace, ceramic
The courage and openness that it takes for us to undergo change and begin anew is chronicled in some of the titles of the sculptures, such as the two-piece sculpture of a young woman greeting a small mammal, titled Nice to Meet You! Do you approach new beings with curiosity or suspicion? And another two-piece sculpture of two inquisitive little bears, facing each other, called They were Very Good Listeners and so Found Much in Common. Other pieces warn us of the close-mindedness that prevents us from moving forward, like the sculpture of a large brown rabbit and a small blue rabbit, stubbornly sitting with backs turned on one another: All They Could See Were Their Differences.
When I met up with DeAnne Parks after viewing her new work, I asked her if the theme of the work was directly influenced by her displacement from her studio in the JAX Building. “What sparked it was watching the gentrification of Lowertown. What blew it up was the move,” she said.
The JAX Building in St. Paul, formerly artist studios, now upscale lofts. Photo by the author.
Parks moved into her studio at the JAX Building in Lowertown in 2000. She was a full time paraprofessional at Thomas Lake Elementary at the time and felt a need to return to her art, so she resigned from her teaching position, rented a studio in the JAX, and began working at her art full time. She attended an artist meeting in the neighborhood shortly after moving in. Upon introducing herself and explaining that she had plans to pursue her art again, she was greeted warmly by Lowertown artist Marla Gamble, who said to Parks: “What can we do to help you get started?” DeAnne Parks had found a supportive community.
The neighborhood was a very different place not even a decade ago. Parks viewed the different stages of change from her third floor window that overlooked the loading dock in the alley behind her building. When she first moved in, she would peer out the window during studio breaks and would sometimes see a homeless person sifting through the dumpster next to the loading dock in search of discarded food. She watched them, present in that moment with them, with awareness and compassion for the different ways that people live. At other times, she would peer down and see one of the cooks from a nearby restaurant sneak up to the loading dock, carefully look around, and pour liquor from a flask into his coffee cup. As the developments in the neighborhood added another layer of makeovers and upgrades with each passing year, the view from Parks's studio window began to change, too. The neighborhood became trendy, and the loading dock behind the JAX soon became a desirable spot for wedding party photos and high school portraits, wealthy clean-cut crews in search of an ironic photo backdrop of a gritty, crumbling alley. Sometimes they were so loud that Parks had trouble concentrating on her work. It was a foreshadowing of the route that the neighborhood was heading, from a place of solace for quiet dwellers and thoughtful creators to one of entertainment for an affluent demographic.
Planting a Seed of Compassion, ceramic, 6 x 6 x 6"
She says she is surprised by how difficult it still is to talk about the loss of her studio space, how much it still hurts. She doesn't even walk by the building when she comes to the neighborhood to visit old friends who still live here. Yet she remains awake and sees the bigger picture. She explains that she didn't lose her home, she lost her work space. There are people who have lost their homes, people fleeing dire situations in places like Syria, and she had a duty to carry on with her work and speak about bigger issues that are happening. “That's where the art [for this series] came from. Looking at the bigger things in the world, the things that are wrong with the world and balancing that with the things that are right with the world.”
Parks always said she would be an artist. She originally planned to go to art school after high school. “[In high school] I took every art class available, one of them twice!” But then she said she “chickened out” after making a comparison between her art and that of two fellow students who she says were the very best in her class. She had a high level of interest in psychology, so she earned a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from Georgia Southern University and decided she could later become an art therapist. But when her husband got a job at 3M that required him to travel, they spent many years traveling from state to state for his work, and she couldn't find a school that offered a Masters in Art Therapy in any of the places they lived. Parks felt like she had no control over her life and fell into a depression. That is when she started painting again. “I painted my way out of the depression.” About eight years after college, she took a figure drawing class in which one of the other artists in the class told Parks that he felt like his drawings were good until he saw how good hers were. The class was “a key moment for reminding me how much I loved art. Also an eye opener for how harshly I had judged myself in high school.”
The artist in her studio with Cicada in progress
Now, Parks passes on her passion and knowledge for art as a healing form of expression when undergoing difficulty or change. When she left her full time teaching position at Thomas Lake, she was offered an Artist in Residence position there where she worked with children with special needs, but was still allowed the time that she needed to focus on her art. The position eventually lead to more opportunities to teach art to children, youth groups, and adults with disabilities. Parks recalls working with an adolescent girls group, teaching them art, and says, “No matter what they were going through, or how depressed they were, when they were sitting there making art, they were laughing. They were creating!” Recognizing that she once helped deal with her own depression by making art, she knew that she could help others do the same.
Parks's art teaches us something in the same way that she teaches her students — by letting us discover. Her work talks about themes in our society, but it doesn't scream it; she invites us in, calmly tells us what is going on, and leaves enough room for us to explore and find answers within ourselves. She says that there will always be a social justice aspect to her work. Each painting tells a different story. She says if there is an overarching theme in her art, it is, “Don't be afraid to go out and do what you feel you are meant to do with your life.”
DeAnne Parks with Art Crawl Poster Winner 2016, Flight of Imagination
To view more of her work, visit artdeanne.com. Banner image: Sowing Seeds of Change [detail], oil on canvas, 30 x 40”. All images courtesy the artist.