The Many Versions of Bea Parsons

Border Crossings: How long did you stay in Saskatoon before you moved?

Bea Parsons: I was in Saskatoon until about 2002–03 and then I moved to Montreal. I had a friend who was studying at Concordia and I came out to spend a summer here and then decided to enrol there. It’s been my base since Saskatoon. When I moved to Montreal it was easy to find a studio and easy to find friends. I was still figuring out what it was I wanted to do and didn’t realize I wanted to pursue art at that time, and then I decided it was affordable and playful and fun. I remember being quite young and naïve and I’d walk into a gallery space and ask people questions. It reflects where I was at that time. Right now, I’m learning French and Cree. Part of my pandemic lifestyle is learning languages. I’m having a kid with a francophone and I’m very connected with my mom and her family back in Saskatchewan. That part of my brain is very much engaged. Cree has a whole different system of organizing sounds and shaping words. So things are busy and crazy. I have a certain focus that I don’t normally have when I’m teaching and being out in the world. I have an artist’s way of working and it always feels informal no matter what I’m doing, because I’m always looking and observing and teaching myself things. I’ve been on my own a bit more this year and I’ve realized that I remain a studious person, which is reassuring because when everything’s wild and stores are closing, it can provide a little structure in your world.

Bea Parsons, Highland, 2020, monotype print on Arches paper, 22 x 28 inches.

What made you decide to go to Columbia to do your MFA, and what was your experience like in New York?

I was turning 29 by the time I finished my BFA at Concordia and I’d go to New York every few months to see paintings. I’d take the Greyhound bus on a Friday night, arrive at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, get a little breakfast, go to Chelsea and the Met, do as much as I could until the nine o’clock bus, and then come back to Montreal. It was amazing. I didn’t have friends there, so I was doing these day trips. When I applied to grad school, New York was definitely the city where I wanted to live. At the time I was painting and doing a little drawing on the side. I’d heard good things about Columbia’s being an environment for painters. It felt like a painting program even though we were all genres. That was another reason why I wanted to go, which is funny because I don’t paint as much as I used to. But it’s there. I look at paintings; I consume them; I go to painting shows; read about painting and listen to interviews with painters. Anytime I think about art, painting is still the go-to thing. As an undergraduate, I was making these symbolist paintings with representational, recognizable imagery, and when I got to New York the images fell apart. I began working more atmospherically and the pictures moved out of focus. Rather, they moved in and out of focus. I was making things out of an instinctive place, but I hadn’t spent enough time to be familiar with them. Also, I hypnotize easily. I’m very susceptible to suggestions and influences, and in New York I was looking at a lot of abstract paintings. There was a big de Kooning show on at the time, so the history of abstraction was hitting me. I was in a very different headspace.

The mark-making in a piece called Pygar (2011), with its lovely pink swirliness, already suggests how a repeated gesture could become pattern and form, which is what happens in the monoprints. What you were investigating in that earlier painting didn’t get left behind, as much as you began to work with it in a different way.

Exactly. It’s all there. I’d spent many years painting, knowing my hand and being familiar with certain ways of expressing things. But I do have a narrative side and I need a narrative happening as I’m working and that didn’t happen with the painting. Painting was a much slower, metabolic process, and when I moved on to monoprints I never felt like I had stopped painting. I just felt that when I removed the colour, it opened the gates. For me, colour is very much the content. I am amazed and mystified and enthralled by colour in painting, whether I’m using it or looking at it. It adds this whole other dimension. I’m quite sensitive sensorially to colour so when I take colour out in the monoprints, it opens up the dream world of the subconscious and makes a direct connection to the immediate things that I’m seeing and experiencing in the world.

Bea Parsons, 2020, 2020, monotype print on Arches paper, 27.75 x 22 inches. All images courtesy McBride Contemporain, Montreal.

Is that a face with very long eyelashes in Submarine Seer?

I’m glad you see a face. Sometimes I’m not sure if people see what’s there or if it’s just a figment of my own imagination. I made that at UC Davis when I was starting to make the monoprints. I’d been to Fisherman’s Wharf the week before and I took a tour of a submarine from World War II. I went during a weekday, so it was just me and the security guard. Atmospherically, it had an impact on me. When I was in the submarine I kept thinking, man, people slept down here. I hope they felt safe. I had an automatic and empathetic response, and when I went back to the studio I was thinking about this moist air, almost like a lullaby. A lot of stuff like that will happen in my process, where I take things that I’ve observed in the world and relay them through the work.

You said that many things clicked in your imagination while you were at UC Davis in 2015–16. What were those things that were so generative?

It’s that classic experience where you’re not reinventing yourself, but your relationship to the world changes and evolves and who you are moves with that. I was still painting and connected to my art practice, but I wasn’t sinking into it as deeply as I had been. What was strange was that UC Davis reminded me of home. It has a huge, world-class veterinarian and agriculture department, I was meeting people from Saskatchewan and the place looked like Saskatchewan. Suddenly I’m learning about the funk movement through Robert Arneson and Wayne Thiebaud. Everybody was making pictures and it was cartoony and narrative and the reverse of what was happening in New York (during the 1960s and 1970s). So I gained the confidence to make these figures and talk about my life inside a conceptual framework. I even met some Indigenous people out there. I felt very comfortable. I was reflecting a lot on where I’d been and what I’d been learning, and I quickly began working with new materials. I started printmaking because I found the studio space for painting very limited in Davis. I took a printmaking workshop at this beautiful shop called Kala Institute in Berkeley that used to be a Heinz Ketchup factory. I went with a colleague and he said, “As a painter, monoprinting might be something you could pick up and enjoy.” It was love at first sight. I ended up getting a full membership and I was also making the prints at UC Davis. And I was still painting, so both practices were becoming much more representational.

Did the monoprint give you the tonal range that you wanted?

Absolutely. All the moves, like the gestural winding edges around the form in the pink painting, were conducive to the ink I was working with in the monotypes or monoprints. I should mention a technical distinction; a monotype refers to a print where you run the plate through the press. If you take an existing print and then print over top of it, that’s a monoprint, so mine are technically monotypes. Although it doesn’t really matter to me since I’ll call it whatever I want. I’m still a painter.

But they’re one-offs. Four Eyes exists only as one image. It’s not an edition the way a lithograph or an etching is?

They’re each a unique edition of one. If there’s a lot of ink left over on the plate, I’ll run it through again and make a ghost print. I’m in a laboratory mode right now in the studio, working on collages and all sorts of things, but I haven’t exhibited them. That’s the secret, fun part of my studio. I’m familiar with intaglio, but it didn’t stick. It’s too far from painting. There are too many technical steps and it doesn’t allow me to really put my body into it the way I can with the monotypes. For me, the monotypes are similar to painting. It’s a very direct, visceral experience. I think and move very quickly and the immediacy with the mark and the contact is particularly important for how I work.

Bea Parsons, Highland, 2020, monotype print on Arches paper, 22 x 28 inches.

The press release from your exhibition at McBride Contemporain in Montreal refers to a personal language of symbols and scenes, and you have talked about narrative. Is there an ongoing narrative in which a character named Nature Girl, who I assume is a surrogate for yourself, wanders through a series of visual episodes all the while engaging with nature? Is that the narrative?

Absolutely, they’re all self-portraits even if it’s a masculine or androgynous figure. My figures are very feminine for the most part, but when it’s a bit ambiguous, it’s still a version of me. I really know only my access point to the world and that’s who I identify with. But I pick up different bodies and I get inspired by people I see. There’s a painting called Four Eyes, Distance Between the Trees. In terms of narrative, that figure at the top is me, or a version of me where I’m teaching my students and wearing my modernist Picasso mask. I know that Picasso had African masks in his studio, which he appropriated in the paintings. I go to the museum and I see this stuff and it impacts me because my heritage is an Indigenous and European mix. When I discuss who I am in terms of identity, I am very direct with what I’ve actually been in contact with, so I don’t put in cultural signifiers. With traditional Indigenous art forms or craft, I’m not going to reference regalia in my artwork to discuss my identity and in the same way, I’m not going to include a bagpipe or a kilt to reference my dad’s Scottish background. It’s not what I have been in contact with. But I research these things and with this particular piece, I’m talking about who I’ve been in the world, what I’ve been taught and what I know. So that’s me at the top pointing at this sublime landscape. In my version it’s pretty psychedelic, more like a Charles Burchfield situation. Things are very animate, and the figure at the bottom, who is looking down, has a very cute face. I wanted the light to seem like it was emanating from an iPad screen, but she looks a bit more informed by Manga or a Bratz doll. That’s me thinking about my students, because when I’m engaging with them about material, I’m saying, “Let’s look at the history. Let’s look at what we’re influenced by.” I’m looking at them and they’ve got a whole other frame of reference. I toggle back and forth between these two figures. When I was learning how to draw as an eight-year-old kid, I spent hours and hours copying Betty and Veronica Archie comics, looking at the codified visual language, studying how their eyes were shaped. I noticed how the female characters all have the same face. They become separate by having a different hairdo put on them. Whereas Archie, Reggie and Jughead all had different noses: one was tall; one had the funny hair. They all had different characteristics. But what I’m saying is that these two characters, the teacher and the child, allow me toggle between my reference points; how I’ve been educated and what I’ve been exposed to in the world. That’s what I mean by a narrative. I’ll find a sweet spot where I know what I’m talking about because I’m connecting with experiences I’ve actually had. But I always try to open it up to a bigger conversation.

But the young student is also protected by the arm of the teacher. She seems to be looking directly at some kind of monstrous creature in the lower part of the painting.

It does appear that she’s looking at something else. When I made this image, I wanted to put in my big Picasso face, my studious four eyes, my smart glasses and all my knowledge, but then that little person at the bottom drifted in. That was pure inspiration. It just appeared through my hand and it all made sense. He almost looks like a trickster. That was one of those moments where the artwork was talking back to me and telling me something. When that happens, it is always a gift.

There are a lot of eyes in the monotypes. The whole body of work is like an ocular phantasmagoria. When I first looked at them, I couldn’t help but think of Odilon Redon’s signature work, The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity. Were you aware of Redon when you were doing these?

Absolutely. He was one of the artists I ran to at the MoMA when I moved to New York. I couldn’t believe how small those paintings were. But I was very connected to that work and while I wasn’t thinking about him when these eyes appeared, he’s there. He’s definitely one of the artists I (imaginatively) take out for lunch when I go back to looking at stuff, and I’m very happy to welcome that influence in my work because it is very open-ended and dreamlike, and a bit dark as well.

Bea Parsons, Four Eyes: Distance Between the Trees, 2020, monotype print on Arches paper, 22 x 28 inches.

It’s instructive to hear you say that the figures, whether androgynous or not, are always you. Because I read the J in the two figures in Jeans Jeans Jeans as a woman and a man and it looks like the woman is reaching up to undo a zipper. So I read it as a seduction image where something is going on because their feet are moving together at the bottom of the composition.

Yeah, there’s an eroticism to that one. I called it Jeans Jeans Jeans to refer to genetic imprinting. I’m making prints, I’m from a biracial family and I’m about to have a kid, so I’m thinking about a lot of these things. But “Jeans Jeans Jeans” is also the name of a subterranean discount designer jeans shop in Mile End. It’s been around for a very long time and a Mile End landmark. It’s near the print studio and I walk by it all the time. One day when I was going to the studio, I was thinking about my show, “Peyak,” the fact that I was making prints and this idea of DNA. And then the “Jeans Jeans Jeans” just clicked, because genetic DNA is a series of patterns and they shift with every combination. But there’s still a lot of history there, so I wanted to make something a bit erotic and fun and also site-specific. I’m in Montreal and I want to reference where I actually am, like an aging hipster who’s been around the block. I wanted it to be fun, so the feet in the middle that are stacking are the bodies combining, but it also refers to the repeat patterns encoded in our DNA and what happens when we procreate and bring in a new generation. The past is also always trying to reveal itself. As I’m getting older, I have noticed that I’m starting to look more like my mom and my dad. And then I’m like, “Well, they got that from somewhere, they didn’t just land on earth. So who were the people before them?” That intergenerational fascination is always there and a lot of that stuff went into that particular print.

So the girl walking through the Highlands is a reference to your own paternity? She’s moving around the Highlands of Scotland?

Yes. I like to talk about both sides of my identity. My dad is from Hawick, Scotland, which is a textile milling town. I don’t know much about Scotland beyond a few pop culture signifiers. I don’t know much about the culture, but I am really good at dancing and I know some Highland dances. The natural landscape figures quite prominently in my work. The title is also a pun on stoner culture because a lot of my figures are pretty grungy. They’re in jeans and they’re a bit rock and roll. I’m fascinated with the phenomenon of people being really interested in the period right before they were born. Because I was in high school in the ’90s, I feel like these grungy, strange, stoner-looking people are informed by my style in high school. We had grunge and even though Kurt killed himself, there was all that music after him that he influenced. I also had a deep fascination with ’70s punk and disco and whatever was happening in youth culture in the period right before I was born. Now that I’m teaching, I see students referencing the ’90s, as if they’re asking, “What was going on in the world right before we landed?” I don’t know what that means existentially, but as an artist I see how style and how references in art history come back in painting. The past keeps shifting and coming back and being examined and expressed again. I do that quite a bit in my work and as a teacher, too. Matisse was just super-powerful in the last five years working with master’s students. When I was in Austin it was like, “Matisse, whoa, did we just go back in time? What’s causing this?” So it isn’t really far back. I’m just seeing it more immediately because I was like, “Why do I keep drawing these people with jeans? Why do I have these Neil Young, scraggly, grungy-looking dudes and ladies in my work?” I know that’s because I’m endeared to that stuff. As an artist, I think about style; I look at clothes; all my little creatures and characters have a hair flip or an eyelash. There is attention to style going on and there is that throwback. I’m not making futuristic stuff. I’m not putting people in the future, but I’m not putting them too far back in the past, either. I’m looking right before I came into the equation.

Bea Parsons, Summit, 2020, monotype print on Arches paper, 28 x 22 inches.

When the little figure looks up to speakers in the sky, who is she looking up to? Who are the speakers? And what is the First Hand Witness witnessing? When these figures look to the sky, are they finding some cosmological meaning there?

Yes. The speakers refer to a larger ancestral place. The figures aren’t necessarily individuals, but part of a bigger body of what came before us. It’s that sense of knowing where you’re from and connecting to that. It’s largely informed by my Cree background, ancestry and the cosmology involved with understanding your relations and how far they go back, as well as how much of the present they embody. That’s why I put a lot of threes in my work: the idea of the past, present, future. If you tell a story, traditionally it’s picked up and told by another storyteller. The past is reactivated by telling their version of the previous person’s story, and there is always the intent to be passing along information for the future. That’s a big part of the Indigenous world view when it comes to storytelling. I pop that in because I like to divide time and then compress it back into space. I feel that’s what happens when an artwork is being made. It collapses time and I can keep it on the paper for a moment, which is very important. First Hand Witness refers more to being an artist. It refers to technique and form. I’m starting to refine my images and my process. I’m feeling comfortable with how I’m making these things, with being a First Hand Witness. I wanted to let the material speak a bit more directly and I wanted to reveal more of that process. Typically I cover the Plexiglas with a brayer roller; I cover the whole plate with ink and that’s referred to as “creating a dark field.” I learned that by watching a MoMA documentary about how Dégas moved from prints to monotypes. The documentary recreated the steps and I watched it the same weekend I took the printmaking workshop. I was like, “Wow, if it was good enough for Dégas, I’ll try it.” That’s why I love the term “dark field.” I also like it as a metaphoric term. I am a night person and these take place in an underworld of sorts. I like the ritual of setting that up, creating a bit of a night sky and then diving in. Then with First Hand Witness, I’ll be rolling the ink and by the time I move to the right side of the plate, the ink is running out and you can see these little lines curving. That’s the last of the ink before it disappears, and even though the viewer might not see it, I wanted to leave a bit more of that initial experience that I like to see when I’m making them.

Nature Girl literally becomes the topography in which she’s laying, so her shoulder and foot become snow-capped mountains. She’s a wilderness odalisque, which I assume is an Indigenous recognition of the unity of being and nature?

Definitely and it’s a little more political. I wanted to make my version of a Sports Illustrated/Playboy pose, to make a very loving reference to the environment. Humour is a tool for resistance and resilience and that dates back to Rabelais’s idea of the grotesque in medieval literature, architecture and in illuminated manuscripts. I love that kind of sense of combining because the definition of “grotesque” is comedy and horror, so visually in medieval art you’ll have a half-human, half-reptilian figure doing something totally wild in its interaction with the world. Nature Girl’s body morphing into something else is a sign of defiance and resilience. I wanted to make her fun and sexy and campy and, on a more serious side, protective. I was thinking about how sexy it is to protect things that matter and how we engage ecofeminism. She’s an avatar, and if we’re looking for an art reference, it would be an illustration of performance art.

The adventures of Nature Girl are a particular story, but in Pantheon you also plug into a mythological narrative because a dozen or so nature girls make up the entire composition of that image. A pantheon is a temple for the gods, but in this case, it’s a temple for the goddess. Is that why you name it Pantheon?

Yes. Yeah, it’s because there’s so many. I have this same morphing character and Pantheon was a way to express the multitudes and to see how, in creating them, they start to proliferate. It also expresses the multitude of influences on me, like looking at art from all over the place and knowing how informed I am by all sorts of experiences. I should also say that a reason why so many faces appear in Peers and Summit and Pantheon is because we’ve been so cooped up. I made those all in July when we were permitted to go back into the studio and into the print shop here.

Bea Parsons, High Points, 2020, monotype print on Arches paper, 28 x 22 inches. Collection of Hydro- Quebec.

You called your show “Peyak,” which means “one.” I gather what you’re working towards through your narrative connecting is a world that has a sense of oneness about it.

Absolutely. The reality of my personal life and my professional life can feel very different. I had a very different Indigenous experience from my mother’s. I’ve had a very privileged life. My mom had to go back and finish her high school diploma when I was five, even though she gave birth to an Ivy League brat. I have a lot of connections to my mom and her family, but my experience has been very different and I’m very aware of it. It feels very complex and hard to explain. I know a lot of people from biracial or mixed backgrounds who feel that way, not necessarily my specific combination. But I think that’s the way it is in the world, more and more and more. So naming it “Peyak” is a way to go back to my mom’s first language. When I was in high school, I came home later than I was supposed to and I heard my mom speaking Cree in her sleep. In that moment I realized that’s the language she goes into at night on a deep, deep level.

It’s her dream language.

Yes, and it’s so immediate. I hear it spoken in the home between my mom and my aunt and relatives and it’s the language I’m starting to learn. I wanted to put it forward because it was my first solo show and it’s also a conceptual framework for what it is I’ve been gathering up. I’m all these things, but at the end of the day the artwork is where all my experiences become whole.

Back in 2011 you did a piece called Earthly Things. It’s like a proscenium stage where the curtains open up and we see into another world, which seems to be a dream world. In some ways, you’re always going from earthly things into some other place.

It’s definitely a good way to describe it. I know that portal very well. I think a lot of artists tip their toes back and forth. It’s a fascinating place.

Do you see an endless series of possibilities inside the medium of monoprint so that you don’t have to go back to painting?

I never thought I would be doing this. I thought I would just paint. I’m noticing some limitations with printmaking in terms of my equipment. I’d like to start working bigger and the press can accommodate only a certain size. Now that I’m building a bit of a world here, like Pantheon, that is urging me to shift to a bigger scale, I wouldn’t be surprised if things go back into the traditional sense of painting. I’m hesitant to say I’m going to stick with one thing, but I’m excited to see how this might circle back to the canvas. ❚