I guess I should start where most biography’s start at the beginning. I was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on April 25th, 1963 to teenage parents. At the age of six months, my parents moved to Boston, Massachusetts where my Mother’s parents lived. Momma Mary and Marvin Clark, my grand-parents, took us in. Even though we were poor, I never knew the sting of poverty. They sheltered me and my younger brother (Keith was born one year after me) from all that. Like many families, my parents divorced, but we stayed with the stability of my grandparent’s home along with my mother. My father would later move to Atlanta, GA where he has resided until today.
In my formative years, I had little exposure to the arts. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I met my first artist. It was my Mother’s Brother, Walter B. Clark. Now Walter was considerably younger than my Mother. I guess one would call him an “oops” baby. One of the things I remember most about him was that he was always drawing or painting water colors. Although looking back the subject matters were quite different than you would conventionally find. His artistic subjects were often about being a street hustler of the 70’s. He became interested in sculpture, as you see; my grandfather was a welder by trade. Walter learned how to weld from him and he started taking his new found skill and applied it to his art. Making sculptures with a decidedly African flavor.
My first experiences in art were copying Walter’s work. Yes, the most terrible thing in modern art education is allowing the student to copy the works of Masters Right? Well, maybe not, because it allowed me to start to garner my interest in art. Everything starts with an initial interest, which grows and develops into a skill or talent.
I attended the Boston Public Schools. In Junior High, it was discovered that I suffered from dyslexia. I had trouble learning to read or write. That is where my interest really began to develop, out of need to express my self.
During my High School years, I went to Boston English High. At the time it was the Premier Art High School in Boston. It did not live up to the hype. Low expectations and bad teaching practices were just a few problems at the school. In my Jr. Year, I became interested in magic. I bought my first magic trick from Joe’s Joke Shop on Tremont Street in Downtown Boston. I began to study the art of magic and became a member of the Society of American Magicians, the International Brotherhood of Magicians. This important point in becoming an artist and an educator. It is jest on example of becoming a lifelong learner. The process of constant seeking and learning is what makes life worth living. Somehow, I managed to graduate high school in 1981.
After High School, it seemed like I took every entry level job known to man. I have been a door man, a towel boy, a cab driver a waiter and a bus boy. Each experience taught me the importance of higher education. My first college experience was my attending Prairie View A&M University in Texas, I choose Advertising Art as a major. Prairie View had a small art department. All of my professors were of color, a departure from my experiences in grade school, and high school where all of my teachers were white (usually from the suburbs) and mostly female. There may have been a few people of color at the school, but they were limited to a few custodians. It was the first time in my life that I had been surrounded by well educated black professionals.
One individual that had an enormous impact in my life was a professor Clarence Talley. Talley, as everyone called him, was one of the hardest working artists I’ve ever known. His office and studio was down the hall from the teaching studios. He was always working on multiple projects, writing books, painting, teaching, and he was a deeply religious man. What I remember most about Talley was the lectures he would give students when they came up short in his class. Every week he would give an assignment, which would be then open to critique by the class and himself. Everyone had to display their work and if it looked like you were not taking the class seriously, he would call you out. I can recall there was a football player that thought by declaring art as his major, it would be “easy”, he was sadly mistaken. What they didn’t know was the amount of work that goes into creating art.
Other students would try to pass off older works that had been sitting under their bed for a few months, dust them off and head to class, and he would call them out on it. He could always tell who wasn’t putting in the time and effort needed to complete the assignments with the detail necessary to communicate the full intention of the assignment. He would ask you why you would waste his and the class’s time bringing in work that was an embarrassment to yourself? Like others I tried to pass off less than stellar work, which inevitably brought on rants of “Parker, have you no shame?”. He said to me on numerous occasions that “looking like an artist isn’t about how you think, it is about the end result, and it’s about the art.”
If find myself in my own career starting to mimic the Talley’s teaching style. Because of his example of a practicing artist and educator, he was able to translate the important of your personal work to the student. I know that for myself, seeing him continuing to create was very important to me. He hadn’t arrived yet! He was still constantly growing and changing, and that spoke volumes to me. As and educator now, I try to expose the student to my own evolution as an artist. Taking on new mediums, not being afraid to try new things, continuing my education, it is important as an art educator to be transparent in to your student that you aren’t afraid to try and fail, and then try again.
My time at Prairie View ended after two years and was a stepping stone for what I was going to next. I was able to gain acceptance to the Museum School of Fine Arts in my home state. In my last conversation with Talley, he said well parker, congratulations. There are two things that could happen to you when you go back to Boston, someone from Prairie View could say “I heard about Parker in Boston, he’s doing great, he’s creating, I went and saw an exhibit he had or I ran into Parker in Boston, he was a bum, he had a bottle in his hand half passed out.” But Parker no matter what happens doesn’t give up and everything will be aright. It was like I had gone to Prairie View for two years just to hear that. These same words I’ve said to a number of students and know they were as important to them as they were to me.
The Museum School was a very different experience than my experience at Prairie View. I went from a predominantly African American academic setting to a mainly white – affluent experience. The students with money at Prairie View paled in comparison to the students with money at the MFA.
One of my most vivid memories at the MFA was hanging out with a Japanese friend. He was one of three siblings all in the US attending colleges. His parents lived in Japan and his brother and sister were both attending college in a different city. None of them were receiving any financial aid. Tarrv had a new car and he lived in a high rise in downtown Boston with the sign that says “If you lived here – you’d be home”. I remember asking him if he had ever had a job before, he replied, I’m not sure. I laughed. I knew I had a job I was currently working at as a doorman at the Layfette Hotel. His parents owned a home in Topsfield on a lake. No one lived there. The house was fully furnished, had a brand new Volvo and a motorcycle in the garage. We would go out there to hang out on occasion. We were good friends during our years at college. However, I haven’t seen any of his work since I graduated from the MFA.
The MFA had some great teachers, including Milton Derr. Milton was also a resident artist at AAMARP, the African American Master Artists in Residences program. Milton was a hard working artist just like Talley and had an old style of teaching. In Milton’s younger years he was an illustrator and during the course of the semester he would illustrate. In a sense what it did is gave him credibility. He would say in class everything I teach I can do. This is a very powerful statement for me to hear. The old adage “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” Even though I went to an Art Magnet School at English High I was exposed mainly to the Art Teacher, not the Artist.
I finished my Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts and got a job as a substitute teacher shortly thereafter at the Boston Public Schools. I didn’t know it at the time, but teaching would be my passion. I taught at the Timilty School in Dorchester and from there I was recruited by another educator to come to Cambridge. I have been at Cambridge Public Schools teaching at various grade levels and schools.
A number of years ago, I started an apprenticeship program for teens in my Teen Portfolio Class at the Cloud Foundation. The summer internship program exposed students who has an interest in perusing art as a career, to work for a summer under my guidance on a large scale projects, usually a mural or art installation.
© 2008 Jameel Parker