FANTAST IN FOCUS: MICHAEL PARKES
Weaving dreams is no easy task, but Michael Parkes is no ordinary artist. His painted worlds, like Cirque du Soleil performances rendered as trompe-l’œil frescoes, are bold, fantastic, and utterly astonishing; sucking the viewer into a twilight zone of symbols and secrets. Parkes, a winner of the Locus Book award and an acclaimed magical realist artist with over forty years of experience, is also a lifelong bookworm with deep interests in philosophy and mythology. His art—grounded in his understanding of the varieties of conscious thought—feels like a religious experience, and, like William Blake’s mythic poetry, contains layers of spiritual insights. I chatted with Parkes about his influences, travels, and forays into the mysteries of life.
The Custodian: You mentioned that you aren’t very big on giving your own interpretations of your art, so I’d like to focus more on your experiences of inspiration. Were there any particular moments that significantly shaped your outlook on not just art, but life in general?
M: I can honestly say that when I was very young, art was one thing, and my spiritual search was something separate. My other interest was reading. I loved philosophy, comparative religion, and things like that. In the process of learning, the spiritual search took over and I gave up painting completely. I was twenty-four and my wife was twenty-two, and we took off and went to India, with the whole idea of living there long term. It was years before I got back into painting. The things that happened in-between really changed my life in terms of what I am as a being. It’s an ongoing process. Fortunately for me (I consider it grace rather than hard work) I have experiences relatively often where I’m simply standing still and there’s a silence that takes over and everything around me is conscious. When you have that experience, it changes the way you perceive yourself and the world, and you’re basically never alone again. With this in mind, the idea of being alone is just silly.
C: Would you say that art for you is also a meditative experience?
M: I went through quite a lot of meditation. It’s the constant struggle of not just quieting the mind, but quieting the different levels of consciousness that we all participate in. When you start meditating, you realise there’s a part of you that’s feeling this and thinking that. You suddenly realise that you have a real battle on your hands. That was the point at which I realised that you can talk about Eastern and Western philosophies and religions, but ultimately there’s only one battlefield—and that’s consciousness itself. You have only that individual laboratory in which to explore how evolution has given you a physical form. Through that form, you can explore the consciousness. That’s where meditation is especially helpful but I have to be honest— meditation can also be extremely infuriating. I’ve found that the times when the biggest experiences happen are when I’m doing nothing and least expecting it, and yet all of a sudden, there it is—this absolute silence and awareness.
C: Are there any books or writings that were extremely helpful for you?
M: To me, reading is a lifeline. Once you strip the spiritual structures to the core, you find that we’re not really searching for an afterlife or for “God”. We’re constantly attempting to understand what consciousness is; how it works through us, in us, above us, and below us. There is one book that gave me the reference point from which to look at all the other things: The Life Divine by Sri Aurobindo. This book gives a map by which you can look at consciousness in all its forms. For example, if you have an emotional experience, it’s not really efficient to interpret it with a logical mind. You should use emotional intelligence to deal with it, and vice versa.
I do have to say one thing. I have my other self. It’s more sophisticated and subtle and arose sometime in my twenties. It knows things that I don’t know. At night, when I’m in the process of dreaming or in a dream state, this other self is constantly interrupting and explaining to me what different things mean, or how you I can utilise something or ignore something else. When you’re dealing with art, music, theatre, or whatever, there is a creative process through which certain types of consciousness “flow” into you. This other part of me is from that area, just smarter or more sophisticated, but certainly not enlightened.
C: Which traditions do you mostly draw your symbols from?
M: At the very beginning of my career I wanted to try and take an abstract philosophical discussion and make it pictorial. I think of humanity as existing between two gaps; one separating us from the animal kingdom, the other from the so-called “gods” or divine beings. In the early paintings that I painted, I filled in creatures between the animal world, the human world, and the world of angels, devas, and lesser deities.
I think that they are genuine archetypes which—on some level—are relatable to everyone. I’ve drawn from Tibetan Buddhism, Egyptian mythology, Greek mythology…Just pooling what I thought were the most solid archetypes. My experiences working with archetypes also make me think that a lot of what the Renaissance and Ancient philosophers were saying is true; that there is a mathematical, harmonious beauty that can be perceived by everyone. Even if people are thinking about different things, they still “get it” in their own way.
C: You grew up in the States, you spent some time in India, and now you’re living in Spain. I’m sure you’ve travelled all around the world. How does geography influence your art?
M: I’m living by the sea, and I can see that there’s a storm coming tonight. For me, that’s an example and constant reminder of the fact that everything is in motion. I’ve tried living in the mountains, I’ve tried living in the country, but I just can’t do it. There’s also a nice microclimate and on a clear day, I can see North Africa straight across. The light is also very unique. Basically, the light is a very warm, kind of a pinkish yellow. The result is that a lot of my paintings tend to have that light. In terms of places to visit, I love Japan and India.
C: Some of your paintings influenced a ballet production. All of your artwork has a presence of grace, fluidity, and motion. Have you had any personal experiences in dance?
M: A while ago (back in the 80s) I was trying to do a cosmic circus using clowns, acrobats, dancers, and so on. I’m also interested in the idea of the sky or the ledge as an edge of the normal human consciousness. If you accept the idea that the play of human consciousness is like a circus; you can surmise that being up high in the sky—on a tightrope or cliff—is the final position you can be in before you fall off or fly. So that’s the direction I was going with these ballerinas. My wife attended a ballet school, so I started painting ballerinas. That helped me with the positioning of the body in different dance gestures and movements. In the end, I got enough professional information to have real dancers write and compliment me on how correct they look.
To see more of Michael Parkes’ art, stop by his official site.
For 2015, he will exhibit his works at the following galleries from the 25th of September to the 12th of October:
Coast Gallery, Laguna Beach, CA
Borsini Burr Gallery, Montara, CA
Marcus Ashley Gallery, Lake Tahoe, Nevada
Longworth Gallery, Santa Fe, NM