Tom Parish, my father who died last fall, had for over thirty years a single pointed focus on painting Venice, a subject matter that many artists dare not touch. Like fellow Americans James McNeil Whistler and John Singer Sargent, he avoided the sentimentality inherent in many depictions of the city.
This focus on one subject calls to mind the paintings of Paul Cezanne. Venice is to Parish what Mont Sainte-Victoire was to this great Post-Impressionist. I have an early painting of my father’s from college, a still life of apples, a glass of wine, and a book on a tabletop. It clearly shows the influence of Cezanne on a young painter at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art. No doubt he was exposed there also to the important paintings of Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase, and Winslow Homer, among other American greats. He credited much of their lifelong influence on him to his professors from the Academy Walter Stuempfig, Franklin Watkins and Morris Blackburn.
Venice drew him in with her contradiction of being “untouched by time” and the awareness of the seeming impossibility of her continued existence. One is cognizant of the toll that the ever-increasing floods, rising water, and submersion relentlessly takes on the buildings. We witness her precarious beauty touched everywhere by nature, and feel fortunate to still be able to experience this “City in the Lagoon.”
When people see his paintings in person for the first time they are impressed with how large they are. He never gave in to the implorement that he make the paintings sized for the regular domicile. He always followed his vision of the large expanse, the attention to detail, and the rhythm of the water. He was focused on excellence, not saleability.
Tom Parish was born in 1933 to the harsh climate of Northern Minnesota, of Finnish descent. In Finland there is the concept of sisu, an attitude which demands endurance of hardship, never giving up. “Sisu is a uniquely Finnish concept...Sisu is a special strength and persistent determination and resolve to continue and overcome in the moment of adversity…an almost magical quality, a combination of stamina, perseverance, courage, and determination held in reserve for hard times,” (quote from sisugroup.com) This is a concept to which he felt close.
As a young child, my dad grew up with his mother and his Aunt Georgie. Shortly after his birth, his natural father left the family. After some years, his mother married a company man who worked his way up the ranks of the corporate automobile ladder. His new father urged him to join the family business. My dad did not, in his bones, subscribe to this lifestyle. Rather he was of uncompromising and unconforming artistic temperament, insisting upon following one’s own vision.
In 1967, he garnered a professorship in the art department of Wayne State University in Detroit. He imparted his vision to his students, ever urging them to go to New York City and to put to work the wings he taught them to use and to soar. Generations of students came through the university, many beginning a lifelong affiliation with him.
He lived the majority of his adult life in Detroit, a city built by and destroyed by the auto industry. One cannot help but see parallels in his work to the decaying cityscape in which he lived.
His mature work can be broken down into four phases: the pebble paintings, the industrial landscapes, the paintings of Zarna and ultimately those of Venice. Often I would visit his side in his studio. He would ask me about the paintings, relying on the purity of a child, how to make them “better,” every artist’s goal.
Water has been his subject for most of his work. For many years he painted pebble paintings, with their own silent rhythms and facets. They were a microcosm of our planet, the unmanned nature at the bottom of a riverbed. I remember paintings of pebbles seen through shallow water with a light wind. We don’t know what lies just beyond the edge of the close-up. There is an excessive amount of information, yet the context remains obscure, a secret of sorts.
In the 1970s, Parish developed out of the microcosmic pebble paintings the industrial landscapes. These paintings, which seemed to be a larger view of the pebble paintings, stepped back, showing more of the landscape, an aerial view. They verge on the romanticism of the industrial, of beauty in an empty building, of structures built by man and soon to be reclaimed by nature. These aerial views were of lonely, harsh places, seemingly abandoned, post-apocalyptic. These seem to take place mid to late 20th century.
After the industrial landscapes, my dad stepped into a happier world of his own creation which he named Zarna. These paintings depict a land of water, of magicians and air balloons. They show us a world that was a timeless place, one where magic can be true. This was a place devoid of modern industry and the facelessness of the assembly line, where everything was hand made. These paintings appear now as a natural bridge from the pebble paintings to the Industrial landscapes to the Venice paintings. In the Zarna paintings, he used the exactitude developed in the early paintings and mixed it with the narrative which took on the tone of magical realism. He moved in the direction of the surrealism-lite that De Chirico’s empty streets exude. He touches on magical realism in The Magician and his canoe painting, which seems to take place amongst native Indian ruins in South America, not far from the source of Magical realism. There is no explanation or explication as to why these people are serenely canoeing above these structures. Perhaps it is Shangri-La or the lost city of the fountain of youth in South America which has captured the minds, hearts, and lives of many artists, writers, and explorers.
In his first trip to Venice, after visiting me in less than serene (West) Berlin in 1987, he discovered the true version of Zarna. This was the only trip he made to Venice unaccompanied by his devoted wife, Shirley, also a painter. This visit brought an epiphany, in what he found in this city rife with history, pageantry, and a love and belief in beauty. He returned to Detroit and the imaginary Zarna became the actual Venice. Parish presented an unpopulated version of Venice. There is a sense in his paintings of the city holding its breath for the moment shown, holding its breath to be the city of Venetians, not of tourists.
For over thirty years he took an apartment for a couple of months a year in Venice, first on the Giudecca, later in Cannaregio. He lived as close to being Venetian as possible and was deemed an honorary veneziano by those locals who came to know him. It should not go unnoticed that he traveled from Detroit, the birthplace of the American assembly line, to Venice, a place in which cars simply cease to exist. The former is an aged broken capital of modernization, through the efforts of the dream of industrial magnate Henry Ford. The history of Detroit is a cautionary tale in which the need for throngs of workers willing to spend their waking hours at numbingly mindless jobs.
After months photographing scenes in Venice, he retreated, film rolls in hand, to Detroit to paint. He never painted in Venice. Nor did he do color sketches or take to the streets with a sketchbook. He took pictures and used them as tools to remember the details of a particular bridge or building.
In his studio he worked in solitude, painting the rhythms of the water and the buildings that seem to have sprung and grown therefrom. He poured out a vision of the depth and breadth of the beauty of the grand dame Venezia, classical music ever on the radio.
He captured the ephemeral, transitory nature of a city which is always nearing the tipping point of disappearance. The city is a complex being and Parish painted many of her facets. We see it at it’s finest—and in decay. As we glance up the facades of the majestic palaces, we recognize there is a humanness to their size. We are not dwarfed by the massive structures of other cities, with ever-increasing numbers of skyscrapers, competing, rising higher and higher.
As we glance down her buildings’ facades we see the layers of plaster and then brick, it’s substrates show. He depicted and was committed to the awareness of the structures which are every moment of every day being eroded by the charming waters. To paint a moment in time in Venice is to also paint hundreds of years. This is a rare city that has gone unchanged as is proven by the paintings of artists like Titian (1488 - 1576), Tintoretto (1518 - 1594), and Canaletto (1697-1768). Parish brings his own vision to these canvases, informed by the industrial revolution and the intimacy of this city. People cannot move through life separated from each other, encapsulated in a car; rather, they encounter each other through narrow streets and quays that demand a civility and the humanity of personal interaction from another age.
Parish especially like to paint the juxtaposition of light and shadow, the real and the reflected, ever like Narcissus staring at his visage in the water. The mirror distorts as it reflects, the water becoming the buildings’ dancing doppelgänger. The brickwork where the water meets the air is exposed, and as one glances up the facade of a building one often sees the deterioration of the fabric—and the need for the tireless restoration the city has always underway. With repairs, the faces of the buildings become smooth again, and the decorative lines cleanly ornate. Venetians are perpetual caretakers of this extraordinary being that requires so much attention.
In each of his paintings throughout the decades, there seemed to hold a secret or an answer to an important question. We yearn to step into the paintings to know what is around that corner, behind those dark windows. He rarely depicted people and there is an element of De Chirico or Edward Hopper in the loneliness that underlays each work. With the empty bridges and unpeopled boats, Parish let us see her, exposed, without the hubbub.
His camera was but a tool. Only in Dal Ponte do we see a shadow of the photographer, the hint of human life. His was not a city of throngs of tourists in packs with their group leader, taking selfies. These paintings are broad in the interpretation of when they take place. Only in Ombrella are we given a clue as to the time period with the man and his goods in shadow. One can imagine the variety of Venice t-shirts and sweatshirts in endless supply only for the tourists. It is in this instance do we recognize that we are looking at a current image.
The sun is doubled in power in its reflection, but the beauty of indirect light bouncing off the water onto the buildings reveals their age gently, graciously. Often at the golden hour the light caresses the facades before it fades then dips below the horizon, plunging the city into darkness.
Longer than any other subject Parish chose to paint, Venice kept his enamored until the end. HIs last painting titled Con la T.V. is different than the others. The painting is halved, It shows a sky at sunrise/sunset in the upper portion. In the lower is the pope on a t.v which today we see as old fashioned with it’s rounded corners. The photo was taken during one of his and his wife’s trips as they watched t.v. in their rented Venetian apartment. People who were close to him remarked "it is as if he knew" this was to be the last. Soon after finishing them he took his final trip to the hospital. He had been ill with cancer. He passed in late October, 2018.
Throughout these phases, his working method was to sit for hours in front of a large canvas with a tiny paintbrush tirelessly working at building the painting one small mark at a time. His average was about twelve paintings a year. Parish painted an ephemeral city that insists on its continuance, indomitable, much like his own sparkling-eyed spirit. He lived life on his own terms. The results of that independence are evident, and evocative, in all the creations he left us.
Miami Beach, FL USA 2019