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Art Sync: Rebellious Care

Conversation with Bethann Parker

by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain

Art Sync: Rebellious Care - Conversation with Bethann Parker - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Wolves, 16" x 20", Oil And Crayon On Panel

Elizabeth Johnson: In John Thornton’s video interview Almanac: The Visionary Art of Bethann Parker, you describe your lifestyle as "something of a conjuring that needs to happen every day, almost a rebellion . . . I do everyday practices and imbed them in the painting as well." Living in tune with nature and the seasons calls for practicality and endurance. What are the roots of your rebellious, experimental side?

Bethann Parker: One of the first times I recall distilling that voice was in my youth. We had a large stretch of forest that I spent most of my time in. I grew up in a community with a lot of children my age, and we developed our own world out there, with our own natural buildings and social constructs. We were deeply invested in what we could create without parental parameters. As a teen, I listened to a lot of Riot grrrl punk bands, whose lyrics concerned patriarchy, anarchy, anti-consumerism, and women’s empowerment, that unconsciously influenced my psyche to question social systems I didn’t fully understand but felt constricted by. These lyrics gave form to feelings that I acted out through creative self-expression. I began seeking an alternative to a standard career path, and I spent the next decade of my life traveling across the U.S. I chased the snow, followed the wind, crossed a lot of borders, and developed a free-form intuition.

EJ: In Almanac, you mention approaching work as "incantation, devotion, and prayer," and that you are investigating tension through duality, metaphor, and parable. You mention painting looking backwards and forwards in time and encompassing "birth, death, resurrection, and redemption." In a studio visit, I observed that you had many pieces developing at once. Are you a natural multitasker? Do your pieces evolve together? Do contradictory feelings in paintings cancel each other out? Working in a meditative state, do you still struggle with being behind or ahead of what the painting is becoming?

BP: I find if I get ahead of myself, I fall behind. Working in that state required full attention of the present moment. My process can’t be disrupted with expectations of what the work will become nor what it was. Working on many pieces allows me to move freely in an intuitive state, both in emotion and thought. I am mapping and interweaving complex feelings and memories, harnessing relationships, and investigating the weblike thread that connects them all... 

"A peripheral component emerges from multitasking. I seek to explore fringe elements that I may have overlooked, and to confront surrounding emotions that may act as borders that need to be broken or, on the other hand, need me to pay more attention to them. My feelings change daily, and I allow this to guide the evolution of my work."

Art Sync: Rebellious Care - Conversation with Bethann Parker - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Clearing, 20" x 16", Oil, Marble, Shellac On Panel

EJ: You told me, that you grew up in a house filled with Folk, Quaker, and Shaker art, and that your mother made wool embroidery pieces. It's clear looking at your work that you push paint to be thick, more sculptural, and thus more palpably real and present, but you also work in the thinnest stains and washes. You make your own art materials: rabbit and venison skin glue, walnut ink, and charcoal. You mix your own pigments, sometimes you use marble dust. Is rabbit skin glue a sufficient archival protection for linen? Is being self-sufficient and experimental through making materials part of your rebellion?

BP: It’s an expression. Rebellious acts are expressions of care. Naturally, it pushes against consumerism, but it also binds one closer to land and self-preservation. Making these mediums is an intimate act, a personal alchemy, making me sensitive to them in their raw states and interactions.

Working with diverse mediums expands my visual language. Materials have feelings and behave in certain ways. The fluidity of distemper says something very different than a beefed-up marble oil stroke; natural gesso has a sinking absorbency of weight compared to the delicate “topholding” of linen. I ask the painting what it is trying to say and match the material and process to its emotion, and then the imagery begins to appear.

Painting is like breathing life into clay, art that is alive should age, crack and oxidize. I’m not very interested in archival procedures, which feels like embalming or making things immortal, though rabbit skin glue is stable when it's applied correctly.

EJ: Knowing that you made your materials parallels mining your unconscious for subject and metaphor: you seem to be always returning to origins and finding new outcomes. Do you also reach outside yourself to learn about, for instance, other artists? Christian art history? Do you follow the current art world? How do world events affect your artmaking? Do you also rebel against aspects of Christianity?


Art Sync: Rebellious Care - Conversation with Bethann Parker - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling the Angel), 1888

BP: I immediately got a flash image of Gaugin’s Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling the Angel). This wrestling, questioning, sometimes active rebelling is deeply rooted within me. I have reconciled this resistance as a part of my faith, not one of judgment but instead an integral part of my relationship with God. It’s essential for spiritual growth.

When I was studying at the Barnes Foundation, the artists in their collection felt like ancestors that cut across time, and these lineages became alive within me and my work. I began to study them alongside writers, poets, choreographers, musicians, cooks, environmentalists–– it’s endless. You have to find your people. And in this search, you begin to understand what ideas ignite your soul. I see all artists inhabiting the outer limits of a circle in which they speak to a center. I am interested in that center. Conjuring their accompaniment imbues my paintings with form, symbols, and metaphors. I couldn't do this alone. I'm excited by breaking time, structures, and borders within art and myself. 

EJ: Annunciation seems to be an unabashed sun/vagina meeting a barely recognizable troll-like angel. ––Wow. What a fun idea! The title made me look for figures. To me, it’s a huge improvement on early feminist work, such as, for instance, Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. Is Annunciation an example of challenging Christian dogma, specifically the tenet that women should be submissive?

BP: While I resist this Christian dogma, I do believe there is great strength in submission, the question is: What or who are you being submissive to? The biblical Annunciation is a call that comes from beyond one's self, unattached from man and society, it comes from God. To accept a vision takes great faith. Joan of Arc submitted to her vision, as did Hilma af Klint, which in turn created voices of dominance. Chicago’s homage to the historical women who have claimed this through, what Chicago calls, the “capacity to be prime symbol-makers, to remake the world in our own image and likeness” reminds us that the power of our annunciation can birth great incarnations into this world. 

Art Sync: Rebellious Care - Conversation with Bethann Parker - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Mountain, 40" x 40", Earth Pigment, Oil And Rabbit Skin Glue On Canvas

EJ: I love Mountain, especially the swath of many purple pieces centered in the mountain range surrounded by a lake, planets or suns, landlike patterns, signs, and striation. Is the purple “pavement” paint chips? It seems that as you work, visions are created and interpreted in various ways. How would you compare your work to Hilma af Klint's, who painted a series of religious visions with prescribed meaning?

BP: I have grand admiration for Hilma’s work, particularly for the absolute devotion and trust she had in it. She understood that the images she was producing would not be accepted, and she had foresight to hold them back until the right time. I know the space she works in, the one that takes over your hand, produces unexplained imagery, projections and prophecies. I am always awed at how universal imagery––from scientific to esoteric––emerges naturally, as if we are born with and can access untouchable places. 

Yes, those are purple paint chips. They’re the layers that peel up when I scrape my wooden paint palette. I don’t clean it often. When I do, a thick residue of paint has collected, and you can see all the striations of colors embedded with time, like geological samples. Perhaps that is how they made their way into rebuilding the mountain. 

Art Sync: Rebellious Care - Conversation with Bethann Parker - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Bethann Parker's Studio, Easton, PA

Art Sync: Rebellious Care - Conversation with Bethann Parker - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Crowning, 16" x 20", Earth Pigment, Oil And Rabbit Skin On Panel

EJ: Is there a story behind Sign or Crowning? I love the fresh blend of color, geometry and texture. How did these two paintings happen?

BP: Crowning holds about 4 or 5 different paintings under the final layer. My painting process is like midwifing, allowing for natural delivery of an image without preconceived notions. Crowning hovers above the waters, allowing the work to come forward on its own accord after immersion in the trimesters of time. It is the breaching of thresholds: of work, of artist, of the in-between, the not quite here, and the not yet visible but deeply known.Birth, yes. Labor, of course. The familiarity of the womb, the two bodies as one, the heart beats, the pulsating, the amniotic fluid, the swaddling of safety, the transfer of nutrients: I believe they all exist in our memory. And yet there is also an immense darkness that one can’t fathom, the exhausting pain of the pelvic floor, bearing down with each contraction.

"Such relentless pressure and force we undergo in our lives. When times feel like death, we must remember the womb and move through the tightness and into a new self."

Art Sync: Rebellious Care - Conversation with Bethann Parker - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Sign, 8" x 10", Oil On Linen

Sign omits layers and clears out the landscape to be read as an omen seen and experienced. It came from a moment of conjunction out in a field, when a poem, a song, a landscape, and a smoke stream all intersected, each mirroring the other, into a harmonious perception. It asked to be recorded as a reminder to trust the unrolling tapestry lying ahead.

EJ: Over-the-top impasto of Embers presents a contest between candlelight and fall foliage, outside and inside. It exemplifies how your painting is at its best when you overdo, and push past a polite stopping point, risking unreadability. Is it natural to you or a discipline that you avoid scraping off or overworking paint areas? Do you sometimes abandon a painting if it’s too paint-laden or hasn't gelled?

BP: Abandon? What can we really ever abandon? Many times, I have had to move away from a painting: I’d exhausted it and exhausted myself. We both need time to rest and recover but I don’t scrape it away or try to judge “trouble” areas. Those are an essential part of the work, clogged and distressed as they may appear: they are the truth of a relationship. If I were to try to erase these parts or attempt to correct them, it would rebel more, the work would feel not understood after sharing such vulnerability. So, we sit with each other, have tea, do our own things, let days pass while time smooths out the miscommunication. We accept our discomforts, about each other and ourselves, and then we are ready to start again.

Art Sync: Rebellious Care - Conversation with Bethann Parker - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Embers, 12" x 12", Oil On Panel

Art Sync: Rebellious Care - Conversation with Bethann Parker - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Bethann Parker in her studio, Easton, PA

Exhibition Dates:

May 2 - 23, 2024

Bethann Parker has exhibited her work in solo and group exhibitions including Art at King Oaks in Newtown, Pennsylvania; Anna Zorina Gallery in a virtual exhibition; and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She has received prestigious awards such as the Kittredge Fund, the Freeman’s Exhibition award, Louis S. Fine Purchase Prize and the Richard C. Von Hess Memorial Travel Scholarship for European travel. Her work is in the collection of the Fellowship of PAFA, the Lee Foundation and the Louise S. Fine Collection in addition to private collections across the mid-Atlantic region. Her works have been featured in the New York Times and Voice of America. Parker is represented by Gross McCleaf Gallery and lives on a homestead in the mountains of northeast Appalachia. Her studio is in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Art Sync: Rebellious Care - Conversation with Bethann Parker - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Valley Of Wax, 18" x 22", Earth Pigment, Oil And Shellac On Panel