“It was totally bizarre, in El Paso in the desert, the traditional architecture is flat roofs because the Native Americans who lived in the region lived in mountains and built these settlements out of adobe and mud, and when you’re coming down the mountain, the bricks you build are rectilinear bricks. So there’s no need for a pitched roof, because a pitched roof has a function,” so begins artist Erik Parra in talking about his experience growing up in suburban Texas.
“After the 50s and the suburban model was fully entrenched, then that was what a house looked like. So I think it’s funny that children, even in the Bay Area, draw houses that are a square with a triangle on the top. That is the code for house. You don’t need to have that shape out here, but still in the suburbs, they build that shape. They don’t need it because it doesn’t snow.”
“But a rectangle makes the most sense.” I say, playing devil’s advocate. “You can easily measure it.”
“Well, that’s what it’s all about.” He pauses. “Construction.” And then with bleakness: “Efficiency.”
How We Get Here
There was this weekend in April when a group of 24 artists were selected by three San Francisco arts organizations to participate in a weekend-long workshop with Creative Capital. The workshop focused on professional development in the arts, learning to market yourself and fund your work. Somehow I found myself in this group, baffled but honored to be among working, thriving artists. As it was geared more toward visual and performing artists than to literary artists, I wasn’t quite sure where I’d fit in. Terrified and fascinated, I went through the weekend in this haze: dizzied by how much there was to take in and energized by pure potential.
Texan-bred and San Francisco-based Erik Parra was there because Southern Exposure, one of the host organizations, a neighboring art space to the organization that brought me in, Intersection for the Arts, had picked Erik to be there. A painter and mixed-media artist, he presented a body of work that really resonated with me, but we didn’t actually speak at the workshop. We didn’t speak because I’m pretty shy. I didn’t talk to anyone and regretted it. The workshop was totally mind-opening for its own practicum, but the experience of being in the presence of so many talented people was both inspiring and totally humbling, perhaps to the point of intimidating. On the last day, I left feeling alive and possible but disappointed I hadn’t made that deeper connection to the art world I had been looking for, hadn’t gotten that sense of community. My own insecurities about my work and my trajectory and where I’m at (or not at) in my career, got to me. Had I really thrown myself into my own work to call myself an artist, had I done enough to earn a seat in this workshop as all these other artists had?
At some point, the group started connecting through an email chain. I was included but remained quiet, just watching the thread, until Erik im'ed me and asked if I’d sit for him. Eager to get into a studio and finally be around another artist, I immediately agreed.
Since then, I’ve been back to the studio twice, a space Erik shares with his wife, Jessica, who is also an artist. The studio is a live/work loft downtown in a beautiful building. Jessica crafts and crochets; her knits look freeform, in their tactile textures and hypercolor yarns. They look like otherworldly plant life.
On my third visit to the studio, I talked to Erik about his upcoming show in Oakland at Johansson Projects. It will be his first solo exhibit. But to get there, we have another one of our lengthy conversations that dawdle and meander to help us both work out some of our thoughts.
“It’s bizarre. It’s standards and practices,” Erik says about the houses with the pitched roofs. “What I’d like to see is a restructuring of business.”
“It’s a universal symbol though,” I say. And this leads us to potty talk and notions of our animalness. Erik references Cornell West and says, “We are born of the funk. We’re gross. In some respects.” He looks at the recorder and asks, “Is this recording?”
We continue to talk about standards of practice, about how classrooms should teach options and nurture individuality. A teaching artist, these values work their ways into Erik’s day job. He teaches variety, teaches choice. “Not everybody is the same. I teach them to not value the group mentality. To be an individual. It’s really a kind of anarchy. I just like to see what happens.”
We change gears and talk about the show. I ask him what Between Currencies is about, without saying too much.
"It starts with hunting for images that do two things: allow room for me to work with them to create movement but also appear to operate in that center of space, where everyone [the viewers] can have that sort of nostalgia about. One of the reasons I love using Time Life images is they’re so classic. Even if you haven’t seen a lot of them; they speak to you. They’re visual Americana. So it’s about these constructed American narratives, and how they relate to our experience as Americans.”
“That’s kind of like what you were talking about with the homes.”
“Advertising and Life and the people who were making magazines and the people who were funding these magazines made images from what they knew, not taking into consideration the lives of Mexican people or Black people or women. They regurgitate this image, and that’s one of the reasons why I love using that and why I don’t feel badly that all the images are all men. If I can sort of rectify that with a little bit of color or a little bit of cutting. I’m not trying to press an agenda, but they are really political. I am literally reconfiguring history. I’m changing the image of a very important time period in America.”
Erik will be showing at Johansson Projects in Oakland July 30 through September 11, with an Opening Reception on Friday, August 6.
~Jolene Torr, a writer living in San Francisco.
(Images: Erik Parra; Artist's Studio; Wife's space (hairdryer, knitted objects), Artist's books; Courtesy Jolene Torr)