A Visit with Eunice Parsons
In June, Andrea Carlisle visited the home studio of influential former faculty member, nonagenarian artist Eunice Parsons
When my friend Esther Podemski and I approached the house of the 97-year-old artist we were going to visit, we didn’t dream the large woodpile in the front yard had been stacked by the artist herself.
Eunice Parsons opened the door, took a long look at Esther, and embraced her former student. “You’re still you!”
Forty years ago, around the same time Esther and I became friends, these two had known each other at the Museum Art School in Portland, which is now called the Pacific Northwest College of Art, or PNCA. Eunice had been Esther’s teacher for a woodcut class and they’d become friends.
Not long after we got settled in the small living room of her comfortable house in the west hills, Eunice told us that the reason she hasn’t gotten much collage work done in the past few days was because she’s been “busy with that wood.” She nodded in the direction of the pile we’d passed on our way in. Yes, she had stacked it.
We sat on the sofa; she knelt on the floor in front of us, arms resting on the coffee table. She talked about her life since she and Esther had last seen one another, as well as inquiring into Esther’s story. They caught up on husbands, difficult and otherwise, and children, but the conversation quickly shifted to art. We were sitting in a room filled with paintings and with collages, the form Eunice Parsons is known for. After a while, she offered to take us upstairs to her studio, a privilege I’d hoped for ever since I saw this video about her on public television a couple of months ago.
The two connecting rooms upstairs were rich with light and gleefully colorful, every inch packed with something interesting. At the head of the stairs, for example, a large piece of wood, buzzing with energy, lay on the floor. Eunice walked right over it. It took me a moment to realize it was the cutting board she uses when she makes one of her collages.
Esther hesitated on the stairs to look at photographs and posters of those long ago Museum Art School days tacked up on the wall, including a poster from one of her own early shows of paintings at the Blackfish Gallery.
Esther lives in New York now, but she’s a native of Portland, and Blackfish was her first gallery. Only recently, some of her paintings have been acquired by the Portland Art Museum for their permanent collection of Northwest Artists.
Several of the people involved as students and faculty at the Museum Art School continued on to become significant figures in Portland’s art community: Manuel Izquierdo, Jackie Johnson, Bonnie Laing-Malcomsen, Christy Wyckoff, Louis Bunce, Judy Cooke, Robert Hanson, Mike Russo, and, of course Eunice,who taught woodcut and painting. The position of painting teacher was a coveted one at the school. All the men wanted it and grumbled that it went to her. A woman filling the post was considered radical at the time, so radical that, years later when she ran into him on a bus, one of Portland’s premier artists implied that she must have compromised herself (you can guess how) to get the job, a presumption that made Eunice laugh when she told Esther and me about it. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “Oh no.”
There appears to be no bitterness when she tells this story. There’s nothing either grudging or arrogant (grudging’s best pal) about Eunice. Her drive is there, as much as with any artist, but it’s combined with humility. She’s single-minded, and it’s art that’s on her mind.
We spent a long time in the studio looking at walls and corners and supplies and work in progress. It’s an incredibly busy and lively space. Eunice’s habit is to get down on the floor with paper of all kinds. The things that inspire her are all around. Paper, paper everywhere.
Eunice picked up two pieces from the work in progress, two torn pieces of paper, and held them next to each other in different ways. She tears the paper, she said, and she looks at the edges, explaining it was really all about how the edges come together. I wondered how to think about this but didn’t have time to consider long because she then asked me what I wrote. I first mentioned fiction, where my heart and mind are most at home, but I also mentioned my mother, Alice, and the blog I write about her.
“When?” she wanted to know.
“In August,” I said.
“That’s when I’ll be 98,” she said. “August 4th.” She went into the other room and came back with a book she’d written about her mother and family life back in Indiana and Chicago. (“When I moved to Portland I thought it was so dull,” she said. “Here, everything closed up at 9 p.m. In Chicago that’s just the time things started. Even the sidewalks boogied in Chicago.”)
“I had a few copies of this book made for my family,” she told me. “I’ve got two left. I’m going to give you one of them.”
She waved away my protests and walked over to the table to sign the book. When she came back she pointed to a photograph of her mother as a child. “She was tough,” she said. “I admire tough. Not sweet. Tough.” Like Alice’s mother, Martha, I thought, and plenty of other women of that era.
Downstairs again we looked at recent collages, one of which Eunice signed and gave to Esther, and we studied walls crowded with paintings by artists from the Northwest and beyond. She talked about being tired. “But I can still work,” she said. “And that’s what I want to do.”
Esther questioned her about the weariness, and Eunice tried to explain. “You just get…tired,” she said with a shrug. “Even my children are senior citizens now.”
But it didn’t look to me like the edge of Eunice’s life was going to come together with the edge of the Great Unknown any time soon. She’d just stacked a cord of wood. She can see, hear, move through her world with what appears to be relative ease, and even get down on the floor to make her art. And she can get back up again.
Shortly before we left, she said, “All that matters to me is art. Art is everything.”
She’s been making art a good long while now. May she continue for as long as she likes.
*This piece was originally published on the blog, Alice, Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94, at andreacarlisle.com.