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.
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.