Last month, Spokane fiber artist Helen Parsons had just put the finishing touches on her new solo exhibition set to open at AS2 at the Wonder Building as part of Spokane’s monthly First Friday Art Walk. Then the COVID-19 bomb went off.
Parsons, along with thousands of other local artists, watched helplessly as once-dependable creative outlets – from music concerts, theater productions and author readings to film festivals, dining experiences and gallery visits – shut down practically overnight.
But Parsons and her exhibition’s curator, Andrew Whitver, who runs Art Spirit Gallery’s sister venue in Spokane, refused to roll over and cancel. Instead, they decided, in true artistic fashion, to try something new. Parson’s AS2 exhibition will now become Spokane’s first-ever First Friday virtual art walk show in the age of coronavirus.
Starting at 5 p.m. Friday, Parsons and Whitver will host a Facebook Live and Instagram watch party as they walk viewers through the Wonder Building’s lobby to view the exhibition live. Virtual attendees can text comments and questions in real time.
“When things took a turn for the worse, we knew we couldn’t have groups of people in the space – it would be irresponsible,” Whitver said. “I hope people will tune in online. It will be a great way to support Helen and also the Art Spirit Gallery during such a hard economic downturn.”
Riding out a pandemic in her South Hill home studio isn’t the only curveball to come Parsons’ way. After what she’s been through, it doesn’t even sound that bad.
Thirteen months ago, the bubbly optimist woke up one morning with sudden and complete blindness in her left eye and impaired vision in her right eye due to psoriatic arthritis, which attacks major organs of the body. Although she had already suffered the first debilitating arthritis attack 6 years earlier, over the years she had learned to manage the pain.
This time it was her vision at stake. Parsons’ art practice, a sewing passion she picked up and honed since age 5, came to a complete halt.
It was a scary time, but Parsons, who grew up the first born of six kids in extreme poverty, has never let tough conditions keep her down. One year and five eye surgeries later, Parsons’ hair color has changed several times, but her sunny outlook remains steadfast. She has regained enough of her sight to discern between the endless color shades of her hundreds of spools of threads. She also is able to sew her lines as straight or as wonky as she wants despite the light fogginess that will forever blur her vision.
COVID-19’s devastation is monumental, but it’s also just another obstacle to overcome in an artist’s life. “I think about that scene in ‘Titanic’ where the band keeps playing while the ship is sinking,” Parsons said. “They did it to calm passengers, sure, but they did it for themselves, too. They needed to do the thing that they know best at a time of crisis. For artists, in a way, this is our time. Our time to be present, to express, to be hopeful.”
That spirit of hope extends throughout Parsons’ show despite its heavy subject of gentrification and the losses caused by so-called neighborhood improvements. Three large fiber pieces in her “Harmful If Swallowed” exhibition are what Parsons calls her “Urban Landmark” series. One large cloth canvas depicts a graffiti-scarred dumpster, another is an ice machine found outside a gas station, and the third is a newspaper box on the street. All the objects, handsewn on bleached muslin, have the look of forgotten relics painted many times over. All three are vivid and startling celebrations of deteriorating nostalgia.
In an effort to spruce up a neighborhood, rusty ice machines and old dumpsters will often be hidden or painted over. But Parsons views the objects as beautiful, not eyesores to be improved. Her partner, sculptor and musician tech James Barrett, is always ready to pull their car over to the side of the road whenever Parsons spots a particularly worn or graffiti-laden dumpster or newspaper box.
“(Barrett) is so sweet and supportive,” Parsons said. “He will screech the car to a halt so I can jump out and photograph some forgotten or obsolete object. People think I’m so weird when I rush to take pictures of old trash cans and ice machines.”
The more layers of graffiti and rust, the better. With the push toward gentrification, dumpsters are corralled behind buildings or fences now, and metal ice machines are being replaced with slick plastic and brought inside. “I think gentrification means we could lose something forever without even realizing it. Be careful what you wish for,” Parsons said. “I love those old things, especially when they have graffiti. I even recognize now which graffiti artists did the work.”
As with most of Parsons’ fiber creations, the realization by the viewer that all the lines and layers are actually laboriously handsewn onto the piece rather than painted is a mindblower. “I could just paint all this on a canvas and call it good, I suppose,” Parsons said. “But I love the texture and the element of the stitches.”
One of Parsons’ personal signatures is to leave dangling threads after every few stitches in a very deliberate way.
“I always brush the threads downward, kind of preparing it, making sure it has the right length,” Parsons said, rolling a round brush down the front of one of her geometric works that will hang in the show. She then messed up the piece’s threads with her hands like ruffling the top of a child’s curly head. “I like it when it’s like this, too, but I like it better when I brush it down and out with a little bit of static so the threads are sticking out, coming away.”
Another trademark is her method of leaving thread nests to populate the backs of her intricately sewn pieces. “Everyone who sews hates thread nests. It’s bad, really bad,” Parsons said. “But for me, it’s like when a teacher asks you to do a math problem and you need to show the work on the side. I like showing the work.”
Along with the urban landmark pieces and geometric shapes are whimsical bank bags onto which Parsons has sewn ski masks, guns and dollar signs. “Depending on where you are, a ski mask can mean different things,” Parsons said. “On the slopes it’s OK, but in the bank or in the bedroom, it can mean something else entirely.”
Parsons said she isn’t very concerned for her own show at this point but more for the arts community in general. She has been a longtime arts advocate and even created an artist-centric Facebook page, Spokane Art Calls, in order to connect local artists with creative opportunities and, most importantly, to each other.
After four years, the page has attracted more than 1,500 members. “That’s the whole purpose of Spokane Art Calls really, to find each other,” Parsons said.
Lately, there has been more traffic on the site than ever before as creatives affected by COVID-19 share information and resources – and maybe even a funny meme or two. “The other day, I approved 31 new members to the group,” Parsons said. “It’s very moving to see the community reach out to each other in that way, and I’m just glad I can provide a platform to help that happen.”
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