“Art Should Be a Place Where Certain Rules Don’t Apply”

by Steve Parke, 2010.


As far back as I can remember I enjoyed drawing. Apparently I announced at a very early age that I intended to be an artist. What I didn’t know back then was just how many meanings that word could have. What I did know is that I had fun drawing and the pop culture icons of the 60s and 70s gave me plenty of fodder for teaching myself and sharpening my skills.

Through High School I drew religiously, almost every day, even though I was bitten by the acting bug and took much of my focus in that direction. College brought me the scholarly goal of a BFA in acting, but along the way I discovered I was more comfortable behind the scenes and relying on my own skills and motivation than having to rely on other actors to bring their best to the stage every time. Through the many twists and turns of my teen and early twenties, art was still my escape. I enjoyed drawing my favorite musicians as I listened to their music blaring through my bass-weary paper woofers. It was my own personal way of giving back to them, even if they had no idea. Along the way I started meeting some of my favorite musicians and literally started giving back in the form of original works - pencil on paper, paint on canvas, tees shirts, whatever the latest medium I was trying was my sacrifice to the music gods who made my life more enjoyable every day. 

Eventually some sketches I made backstage at a concert on a napkin pulled me into what I thought might be my ultimate gig. Starting in the late 1980s I snagged a job working for Prince; yeah - the one who would eventually trade his name for a symbol and back again. I spent thirteen years pretty much stepping up to any challenge thrown my way. I was the “art guy” who worked on sets, tour merchandise and albums - whether illustration, design or photography. Most of it was cranked out quick and dirty, much like college assignments. During this time I also went primarily digital, trading in my real world tools to create photorealistic paintings for a computer and Photoshop. Teaching myself I learned approximately 100 ways to achieve almost anything visually. None of them turned out to be the quickest route, I learned, as I started interacting with other digital artists. I will say that I am glad to have learned this way, as I never feel like I can’t work my way around a problem.

During my tenure with Prince I learned a lot but eventually started to feel like I needed to focus on my own vision rather than just being an outcropping of someone else’s ideas. When I left it was a rather jarring feeling. I left behind a sort of security blanket…a job that was almost the best possible position to be in, at least from an outsider’s perspective. 

After I spent the span of an adolescent lifetime being tied to one situation, I was lucky enough to land on my feet collaborating on a couple of photo-graphic novels for Vertigo Comics and a book for children with Houghton Mifflin; something I never suspected I would do. The reality is that these projects had taken me full circle to my days in theater through story telling and directing the models I used in the books. As I plunged forward trying to build a new identity (the Prince connection being a plus and minus depending on who I was trying to get work with) I started trying to plot a new course and determine just what it was that I was doing.

I looked at my skill set, looked at what I liked to do and realized I didn’t exactly fit into the mold of a “commercial” artist. I kept trying to fit in, entering design contests and taking out ads in workbooks. Ultimately I was never hitting what agencies were looking for at a given time, I always seemed to be someplace else. So I gave into the fact that my best shot was to just do what I do. This tended to lead me from one job to the next via my clients telling someone else about me. I took each job as a specific challenge, to take the individual job and make it about the project rather than forcing a “style” onto my client.

My problem solving skills, along with my multiple methods of approaching a project, made me start to feel less and less like a commercial artist. I took chances every step of the way, though ultimately needing to finish to my client’s satisfaction. Often I’d forget how I made the look of the image during my process and have to figure out another way to achieve the same effect. All the while I would take images I had photographed just for fun and start doodling with them when I was between projects, or waiting for a call back with changes. I created images with no real end goal or purpose other than to share with friends.

Ultimately parts of this body of work won a fine arts award and are now hanging in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Certainly these are not experiences I could have envisioned as a child who simply enjoyed drawing. I never would have imagined how art can be viewed so many different ways, or how people and institutions want to label what you create a certain way because you use or don’t use certain tools. The upside is that the “digital revolution” has firmly blurred the lines between fine and commercial art. Now it just feels like creativity. I’m hoping that emerging artists don’t feel they have to cater to the “all in or all out” mentality with art. It should be a place where certain rules don’t apply.