Arts & Culture

Exhibit reveals the personal side of Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks is best known for his iconic photographic essays that appeared in Life magazine. In them, he provided a pictorial history of the times, documenting, racial segregation, poverty and the struggles of migrant workers. Though celebrated for his work depicting others, the personal side of Parks’ art has often remained elusive.

Longtime friend and fellow artist Marcia McCoy aims to change that. She’s on a mission to show the public the beauty, depth, and soul of his paintings and poetry. This Friday, she’s offering a rare glimpse of his artwork that spans the last 35 years of his life. The Final Friday display is the first time that her private collection of 50 of his works is being shown. The occasion is a jumping off point of sorts for larger ambitions.

“I’m literally showing the work and starting a conversation about the goal of the project, which is to have a museum traveling show that is framed and tours around the world,” McCoy said. “Gordon and I designed a book for it. We finished designing it just weeks before he died in 2006, at the age of 93.”

That book, which showcases the entire collection of 35 abstracts and 15 nudes, will be on display during the show at McCoy’s gallery. It features poems by Parks that correspond with each piece and offers insight into the message he wanted to send with the works.

“He’s mostly known for his commission work, but Gordon made art for another 35 years after Life magazine,” McCoy said. ” I asked him if there was anything he wanted to do at 90. He said that he wanted a show of his own art. He called this ‘Images from the Soul’ because it was work he was creating in his studio from his inside world, instead of on assignment.”

Parks, a native of Fort Scott, Kan., met McCoy over 42 years ago while she was working at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University. Their friendship continued throughout the rest of his life and centered on a shared affinity for a soulful approach to art.

It’s the depiction of a higher level of energy and Parks’ ability to bring ethereal qualities to life on a canvas that really stands out in this show. The abstracts come from photographs Parks took of mixed media assemblages. In them he mixes found objects with paint, giving new purpose to the matter. One piece features a dark, dried leaf suspended in air amidst a sky-like background. The leaf looks more like an apparition. Another features a series of stacked stones set against a heavenly orange backdrop. The nudes also have an abstract quality about them, transforming the angles of the female figure to allow the viewer to see the body as a work of art, rather than a sexual object.

“It’s a mixing of a lot of different things,” McCoy said of the works. “It’s light, found objects, little paintings. He’s manipulating his environment. He had his camera set up and snapped the photograph, but the end result was from all of these variables that created the pieces.”

McCoy, who owns all of works, will be taking orders for master prints at the show. There will also be a limited number of smaller prints for each piece that can be ordered. She hopes to make enough from this to fund the publication of the book, frame the pieces and launch museum exhibitions.

“People are still realizing the other dimensions to him,” she said. “He said that he always wanted to be a painter, but he needed to make a living so he was a photojournalist. A lot of this work was made when he finally had the time and the resources to make art. Doing the assignments like documenting gang violence in Harlem was hard for him….he was a very sensitive soul. In his last years, he was saying that while he was made famous for his other work, this is the soul.”