Inside the Academic Mind: Herb Parker

Since 1991, Herb Parker, professor of sculpture in the studio art department, has opened the minds and changed the attitudes of countless students at the College with his unique artistic perspective. We tracked down the busy sculptor – known internationally for his site-related, nature-based installations – to find out a little about his background, his thoughts on art and what he likes to listen to in the moments of creation.

Why Sculpting? I like working with my hands, creating something that did not exist before. I like the physicality of sculpture.

When do you find that you’re most creative? In the mornings, I like to think and explore possibilities in a quiet contemplative atmosphere. During the day, I work, and, in the evening, I continue working, but the later it gets, the more adventurous I become. Sometimes I have to spend the next day rethinking and then reworking the adventurous idea from the night before.

How did growing up in Elizabeth City inform your art? Growing up in rural North Carolina was beneficial in many regards. I spent the majority of my time in the swamps and forest and developed a sincere reverence for nature. The fine arts didn’t really exist there. Duck prints and religious imagery were about it. The only sculpture I remember seeing growing up was the Confederate memorial on the courthouse lawn.

You served with the Marines and then the Peace Corps in the Grenadines. In what ways did those experiences influence you? The Marines do a great job of focusing one’s attention. I matured a great deal in a short period of time and developed a self-discipline that has been indispensible in maintaining my career as an artist.

The Peace Corps was more difficult in many ways. For an introvert, it was difficult to force myself to get involved in ways that benefited the society in which I was embedded. The primary job I was sent to complete involved setting up a wood shop and training 12- to 16-year-olds how to use power tools to create work related to the handicraft industry. We never got electricity in the two years I was there. So that program became more about creating a product with what hand tools we had. Several secondary activities I became involved with probably had a more direct impact on the population, primarily under-served elements of the society.

Both activities had a significant influence in my development. I think that every enterprise to which you commit yourself becomes a component in who you are.

How did you get into nature-based sculpting? At the time I was in art school in the ’70s, some artists were trying to break away from the confines of the art world. Ephemeral work, conceptual work, performance art, body art and many other departures were all attempts to redefine the art experience.

My initial experiments in the landscape were from a conceptual and ephemeral background, exploring the idea of systems manipulation, removing elements from an open system and placing them into a closed system and then returning them to the open system. I was thinking about life, death and regeneration.

As I was exploring ideas and sculptural possibilities, I had a desire to work on a large scale, but I had no money for materials. I convinced the head of grounds at the university where I was a student to allow me to use the lawn and excavate the earth near the art building. I was lucky in that the head of the grounds department was a retired Marine colonel and I had just gotten out of the Marine Corps. After some discussion, he agreed to let me proceed with the caveat that if I did any damage to his lawn, he would personally kick my ass. I was very meticulous about returning all materials to their original condition. Within a few weeks, all trace of my interaction disappeared. That ephemeral approach was a consistent element in my nature-based work for several decades.

For your non-arts students, what advice can you give them to better appreciate art? Art in academia is about problem solving. In the beginning classes, the faculty sets the problems and the students attempt to come up with creative solutions. As the students mature, they begin to set their own problems and solve them in a way that helps them define who they are. Problem solving is what life is all about, and asking the questions that you need to answer is a major step to achieving your potential.

What does art do for our society? Art is a reflection of society? Art is a beacon leading society? Art creates a space for personal, intellectual and emotional freedom? At its best, art is trying to communicate to an audience in a way that will enable that audience to see the world in a different light.

What do you like to listen to when you’re working? Silence. I like quiet. I think better without distractions. When I do listen to something, it is usually NPR. In music, I generally prefer classical.

What are the special challenges facing a sculptor? With sculpture, you have to build something that will not fall apart, unless that’s what you want it to do. It’s beneficial to have some experience with a lot of approaches. Some useful skills include wood and metal fabrication, modeling in clay, carving and casting.

For about 500 years before the mid-20th century, sculpture hadn’t changed a great deal. The styles shifted with fashion and the whims of society, but it was pretty much figurative work. The 20th century fostered a new experimentation and pluralism in the art world. In the contemporary art world, the materials are unlimited, along with content. Sculpture now can be an action or a sound or some other time-based idea. The idea of creating an artifact/object is no longer the end product of art. This is an exciting time to be an artist.