by Robert Michael Zigmund
Several recent visitors to Morris Arboretum have been mesmerized by “Said the Spider to the Fly,” a whimsical masterpiece in bright blue by John Parker, a local steel plate sculptor whose eye-catching art has been on display across the country. Morris Arboretum has been displaying “Spider” since May 5, and it can be seen until the end of October.
“While working on ‘Spider,’” Parker explained, “I was thinking of two dueling forms … The title is a phrase that was often spoken by my mother. She used it sometimes as a response when she didn’t have an answer.”
Although Parker, 70, hails from Grand Rapids, Michigan, he currently resides in Glenside. He has earned degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.
Parker, who has been sculpting since 1975, said that he knew metal sculpting was his passion long before he received his master’s degree from the Rinehart School of Sculpture. “Early on,” he said, “the immediacy of working in clay and the whole mold-making and casting process always played a big part for me in art school. But primarily discovering the skill of cutting and welding steel was like coming across some new type of magic.”
While he enjoyed basic sculpting, it was the staying power of metal and the ability to make something so strong, yet so light, that drew him in. After learning the enriching process of metal art, Parker went on to teach welding for four summers at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Interlochen, Michigan.
Parker moved to the Philadelphia area in 1980, where he was the iron foreman for Old City Construction Co. Three years later he was a creator and vice-president of Voltri Ironworks, where he fabricated and installed structural and miscellaneous steel. In 1989 he created and became president of The Painted Garden, Inc. where he designs, fabricates and installs iron garden structures, including trellises, pergolas and gates.
“Working construction for the first time, I seemed to be taking on tasks and risks that I had never done before, while learning on the job. That’s like art-making, working towards creating new forms and making things that I haven’t seen before.”
This latest piece is not Parker’s only insect-inspired creation. In fact, much of his work is centered on nature. His sculptures and art collections can be found in Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park, Illinois; Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park, Hamilton, Ohio, and Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, Maryland. His compulsion is to re-invent plant and animal forms. The power and scale of dinosaurs, Parker’s insect collection from high school and hours spent working in the garden are all found in his artwork.
“If it had six legs, I was after it,” he explained. “Only one of each species, though. A block from my house was an acre of field next to an acre of woods. Behind the wooded area was a stretch of wild flowers. So there were three environments to collect from.” His current garden has 18 varieties of canna (a genus of 10 species of flowering plants), and he grows several different flowering vines on “iron trellises” that he made himself.
When asked how he knows a piece of his artwork is finished, Parker explained, “There are two working models before I begin scaling up in steel. Adding and subtracting pieces until it feels right. There are always pieces in maquette form (a small preliminary model or sketch) that are never realized on a larger scale. Quite often the pieces head in another direction from my original thoughts.”
While reviewing Parker’s previous creations, one notices his choice of bold color schemes. “The more playful pieces are yellow, orange and red,” he said, “while the more aggressive ones are darker colors. The mood of the piece decides the color.”
Parker’s biggest influences and inspirations were from fellow artists Henry Moore, David Smith and Alexander Calder. My favorite quote from Parker is the one that sits at the bottom of his biography on Sculpture.org. “Art is not an instant snapshot. It is meant to be lived with and experienced. The importance of outdoor sculpture is that one does not have to go to a museum to experience it.”
“Said The Spider To The Fly” is in the exhibit, “Time in the Garden.” For more information, visit www.thepaintedgardeninc.com.