‘The Itinerant Artist’ takes stock
Owls Head — For more than a decade, Amy Parrish made her living as a photographer in the traditional manner. She was based near Columbus, Ohio, the state she grew up in, living with a husband and their dog and making portraits. In the past few years, however, her life has seen a sea change — a voyage she will share, in six minutes and 40 seconds, at the next PechaKucha Night Midcoast Friday, April 14, at the Owls Head Transportation Museum (see story linked below).
Parrish’s 20 slides/20 seconds-each presentation is titled “The Itinerant Artist” and that is what she is these days. In her final weeks as the winter’s artist-in-residence at 26 Split Rock Cove in South Thomaston, she is attempting to distill the recent years for the PechaKucha Night even as she prepares to host a Coastal Retreat for photographers at 26 Split Rock Cove; teach a New Way Photography workshop in Florida; make a regrouping stop in Ohio; and head west to California and on to Thailand.
“The contents of my entire life fit in a 5-, maybe 10-by-15 storage unit, other than a few pieces friends are holding,” she said. “And even that seems like a burden sometimes.”
Parrish was, and still is, successful as a portrait photographer, but as the years went on, she found she wanted to go deeper into her medium. So she came to Midcoast Maine the way many do, to take some courses at the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, and fell in love with darkroom practice and historic processes such as cyanotype and Ziatype.
“It’s really a marriage of the old and new. You use a digital camera, you can use Photoshop if you want to. Then you print out the digital negative, just from a printer, and then you use these 19th-century processes,” she said.
She first came to Maine in 2012 to take an MMW course with Joyce Tenneson; she returned in 2014 for more.
“Brenton Hamilton is probably the major pull that got me to print media; he’s got a show right now in Bangor,” she said.
Indeed, the MMW instructor does have work at the UMaine Museum of Art through May 6; and Parrish is in “Keen Eye and Soft Focus: Pictorialism Revisited,” which just opened at PhoPa Gallery in Portland. PhoPa is in partnership with Maine Media Workshops + College and the show will come to the Maine Media Gallery in Rockport in late May.
By that time, though, Parrish will be far away from the quiet existence she has enjoyed since late fall at 26 Split Rock Cove. She was introduced to Sandy Weisman’s artist retreat and workshop space when she and local artist and friend Roberta Baumann attended one of the sporadic poetry soirees there during her second “semester” in Maine.
“There were little brochures, and I was looking at the pricing and could not believe it. I’m from Columbus, Ohio, and I cannot find housing there. And this has an ocean view and a studio,” she said. “For the winter, it was so perfect I couldn’t pass it up.”
Having a home base, if only for a season, is truly a boon. Four years ago, Parrish went to India to assist a program for survivors of human trafficking; the workshop was prefaced by a 10-day stay in Thailand. A couple of years later, she returned and while she was overseas, her marriage of more than a dozen years dissolved.
“We separated while I was in India, so I had no home to return to. So I stayed with a friend, in her basement, for a couple of months in Ohio and did a lot of portrait work, which is how I earn my money and fill my savings account; and retreated to Maine for the winter,” she said.
Synchronicity and fertility have woven themselves into Parrish’s life ever since that first trip overseas — which came about accidentaly, she said. At that point in her journey, Parrish was teaching around the country at a set of photography conferences and got to know a sister teacher, Brooke Shaden, “not super well,” but as a colleague. Shaden, a fine art photographer, was headed to Kolkata to teach the art of photography and self-expression through storytelling to survivors of human trafficking. She’s a few years younger than Parrish and, at the time, Parrish said she thought of Shaden like a younger sister.
“She posted that she was going and I thought, omigosh, she’s going to go all by herself? So I wrote her and said hey, if you need anybody to schlep bags, just let me know,” said Parrish.
It was a valid, if offhand offer, and Shaden took it.
“And I remember my husband at the time came home and I walked out on the porch and said, honey, I think I’m going to India,” said Parrish. “It wasn’t really planned so much as unfolding.”
Shaden’s own invite had come from Laura Price, who has been traveling to India since 2004. Initially intended to teach computer skills, Price’s nonprofit Blossomy has evolved into offering creative programs for survivors of human trafficking. Shaden went on to create The Light Space, professional photography training for trafficking survivors, as well as those vulnerable to trafficking and gender-based violence.
Now, the three women work together regularly. In Thailand this year, they will be focused not on Thai nationals, as originally planned, but on people who work with anti-trafficking organizations “so they can have someone on staff with these skills,” said Parrish. She added that the plan has changed a couple of times and might again before she lands in Chiang Rai.
Part of her PechaKucha talk will be about “not necessarily living life in that typical way that society sort of tells you, but carving your own path, having the courage to do your own thing and make up your own rules,” Parrish said.
Surrendering to the flow of synchronicity — which Parrish said she has experienced a lot of, especially in Maine — applies to her art as well as to her living arrangements and travel. She offered a couple of workshops at The Art Space in Rockland and had intended to spend the rest of the winter creating a photography book, using images taken during her visits to India and inspired by a work by Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
“He’s the most famous person in Kolkatta — there are statues of him, he’s everywhere! I really love his poem ‘Stray Birds.’ It’s 326 small poems, all under the umbrella of that title,” she said, adding, “Birds have been a common motif in my art.”
But Parrish ended up with a book of erasure poetry, something she had never done before. Weisman had loaned her “The Meadow,” a book by poet Margot Anne Kelley, also presenting in the PKN, and photographer Barbara Bosworth. Parrish thought it illustrated a wonderful way to marry images and words. And a pullout in the back about erasure poetry sent her down an unexpected path.
“I sort of obsessed over it,” she said. “It’s so weird, these poems came to the surface … It was so crazy how my own story – literally, not always in metaphor — could rise out of somebody else’s words.”
Parrish devotes two slides in her PKN talk to illustrating the erasure poetry process. She has had the book of poems printed and had hoped to spend the end of her residency, originally set to run through May, creating a more hands-on work of images and words. But then the Thailand trip materialized for May … and April is already stuffed with the PhoPa show and the seven-day Coastal Retreat, comprising three shorter modules, she will lead at 26 Split Rock Cove and, oh yes, PechaKucha Night.
Parrish had thought she might settle in Maine and had been scouting around for work when she contacted Kelly Finlay about teaching a workshop at the Farnsworth Art Museum, where Finlay is education director. The museum was booked out too far, but Finlay wondered if Parrish might want to present at the PKN.
“And I thought, oh … sure! It’s two weeks before I move, which is the sad part; I’ll get all this networking in and fly away,” she said.
She’s not the only one who will be flying away. Due to her staying put this winter, her former husband — “who has full custody, it would be irresponsible with my lifestyle” — suggested she bring Jenkins, their dog, to Maine with her.
“I thought it would hurt me being able to come here, but I wrote Sandy and asked about the dog and she said, absolutely. Sandy’s just been a blessing, completely,” said Parrish. “This was a perfect little landing pad.”
Jenkins was testing out his airplane crate in early April; he will be flown to Reno, where his owner lives now, when Parrish heads out of Maine. When she returns to the Pine Tree State is, well, TBD. She hopes to be back from Thailand in time for autumn in Ohio, which is when and where she does a short season of intense, on-site portrait work.
“That’s what I do, I go for a few weeks and work, work, work, work and try to save some money. And then I can go away for a few months. I might return to Thailand in January, possibly,” she said.
Meeting Price is how her second trip to India came about — a PKN slide of a piece of wrapping paper will help tell that tale. One of her favorite synchronicity stories involves bonding with Camden native Kristi Williamson in that first MMW class and later hearing that Williamson, who now lives on the West Coast, met Price randomly and ended up working in India as Parrish had.
“A lot of life decisions are being made just following synchronous events and kind of going with the flow of life, instead of trying to force things into place,” she said.
"Place" is a fluid concept at the moment. Banks and passport-issuers demand a home address, so Parrish has an arrangement with a friend outside Columbus who will check her mail and store her vehicle. The last time she was overseas, she almost lost the latter to repossession.
“I learned some bad lessons. You have to have very trustworthy people take care of things,” she said. “It’s challenging.”
Not that she has many physical things to be taken care of right now.
“I have a suitcase in India; a bench and bike in Maine; a storage unit in Ohio; a friend with some chairs and another friend with some more furniture,” she said.
Friends trying to catch up with Parrish for the next few months are advised to check out her Facebook cover and profile photos, as Parrish has decided the best way to keep folks in the loop is to post her schedule there.
“It’s really hard to unplug from mainstream society and then get back into it,” she said.
After Thailand, and the hoped-for Ohio mini- season, the schedule is open … and filled with possibilities. Parrish is in a relationship with a man from India and they are planning to get married.
“So, would we settle down here, would we settle down there? Will the work continue in Thailand in January? These are decisions you can’t make until you get a little more information,” she said.
For more information about Parrish and her work, visit amyparrish.com — and the double “R” is important. Parrish said there is a single-R artist and “even our print labs get us mixed up sometimes.”