Self-taught artist Carl Parker: Life in Paint

Empty City by Carl Parker
Carl Parker "Empty City"

By Carl Parker

I was born in New Brunswick, Canada in June, 1970, and from as far back as I can remember the question on everybody’s mind was “what’s wrong with Carl?” I was a pretty good kid, handsome, smart enough, but for some reason, I never really “fit,” It was a great sense of frustration to the adults in my life, although I can’t really say it bothered me all that much.

As a small child, I preferred to spend my time alone, in my room, reading and drawing, learning how to control a pencil by first tracing the characters in my Spiderman comics. It was then that I discovered the joy of creating.

As I taught myself to draw, I began entertaining my classmates by fashioning musclemen on the blackboard, much to my teachers’ dismay. I didn’t realize it at the time, at least not consciously, but art was my way of connecting with others, even at that early age.

I was never much of a student, preferring my own pursuits to whatever was being taught.

I eventually left school in grade 12 before graduating and headed out to work. As it turns out, I never fit there either.

Throughout my life, I’ve had pretty much every job known to man, a short stint in the military, construction work, security guard, shop clerk, contact centre agent, you name it, I did it. And I either quit or was fired from all of them, again to the frustration of everyone around me. And to myself by this time too. I knew I had something inside me to offer the world, but I had no idea what it was.

I continued to draw throughout my life. When I was 26, my grandmother, Dorothy, a hobbyist oil painter, encouraged me to pick up a brush. She was the only person in my life who treated me as if there wasn’t something wrong, something that needed fixing, So why now, I thought, and from then on, I was hooked. I took to it like a duck to water and soon it was all I wanted to do.

I spend countless hours honing my craft, developing my own style and studying the great masters like van Gogh, Matisse, and Cezanne. I began to have success almost right away.

The answer to the question of my so-called lifelong inability to “fit” came about ten years later. After several sessions, assessments, and testing, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, or what they now call high-functioning Autism. Things began to make sense suddenly. In an odd way, the diagnosis and the fact there was a name for it, gave me a sense of freedom. There was an explanation for the way I was.

As time went on, I continued to paint and to sell and show my work. Today, I’m happily married to my high school sweetheart, and have shown my work in Toronto, Calgary, Florence, Italy and Paris as well as some smaller cities.

Empty City by Carl Parker
Carl Parker “Empty City” Acrylic on Canvas 24″ x 30″

There are some things that just stick in your mind, random things that likely have no meaning to anyone else, but they stick anyway. That’s what this painting is about.

A few years ago, Misty and I went on a road trip, one of those fun impromptu, let’s just get in the car and see where we end up type of trips. We ended up halfway across the country and travelling through 3 or 4 states. On our travels, I remember a certain city, I won’t mention the name because I wouldn’t want to insult anyone who has the misfortune of living in this town or may, for some inexplicable reason, like it. We stopped for gas and something to eat in this “place.”

It had to be the saddest city I’d ever seen. Sad because you could just tell it was one of those places that the townsfolk described as being “a great place when…” And I know they’d be telling the truth. All along the streets of the all but abandoned downtown core, you could see fading monuments to the city’s former glory.

Once brightly coloured painted storefronts, now sun faded and peeling, lined the streets and despite the early fall sun, it was eerily quiet.

There was hardly a soul around, and the handful of people we did see, in the gas station and the restaurant, and on the street, had the same faded look as the buildings, as if their lives, along with the city’s had lost all colour and just went gray. It felt much like a giant cloud just enveloped the place and everyone in it. They were friendly enough, the people we met, making small talk, smiling, from their mouths, not their eyes.

I couldn’t help feeling sad for them and for the town. It was an uncomfortable sadness because from my newcomer’s perspective, I could see some light, some potential to restore colour and life to the city, if only someone had enough spark left in them to try. That, and I could hardly wait to get the heck outta there! I wonder what it looks like now; if someone did have enough spark left to bring the city back to life? Do I dare take another road trip?

Carl Parker "The Knowing" Acrylic on Canvas 24" x 30"
Carl Parker “The Knowing” Acrylic on Canvas 24″ x 30″

Have you ever known something, about you, what’s best for you or just what was right or true in a more general sense, yet everyone else insisted you were dead wrong? I mean everyone! You say left, they insist on right, you say black, they say white? Even the wind is against you, blowing in your face as you walk in one direction, only for you to turn around and get that same wind in the face. You’re alone, different and seemingly in the middle of a strange city without a soul.

I’ve been there several times, and it’s not a great feeling. When I decided to walk away from the 9-5 grind in favour of painting full time is just one small example. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had a problem with it. Get a job, Carl. Keep a job, Carl. You can’t just paint and nothing else, Carl. What will people say, Carl? And on and on. The pressure can be overwhelming because you know you can’t please both yourself and these other voices.

I suppose the best teacher is life itself, because here’s what I learned. If you know the truth and you know deep down what’s right, and the choice is between pleasing yourself and those voices, choose yourself each and every time! You can tell those others to get lost, they may mean well, and it may be hard, but either they can get on board and support you or they can go. The only person you’re ever truly stuck with is yourself, and no one wants to be stuck with a miserable S.O.B. 24 hours a day! In fact, it turns out that strange city, population 1, with the wind blowing in your face, is an awesome place to be.

So awesome in fact that a funny thing happens, those same nay-sayers, once they see how happy you are there, they begin to move to town too. 😉

Carl Parker Train Station
Carl Parker “Train Station” Acrylic on Canvas 22 x 28″

This piece, which I called Train Station, reminds me of my time in Montreal. It is, of course, part of my City Life series. It makes me think of my short sprint across the street to the Papineau metro station to hop on the Green Line to go wherever. Some days, the trip had a distinct purpose, shopping, business. Other days, it was just an exercise in exploration. And when I say exercise, I mean exercise, first, all those stairs…. then, of course, as is the rule rather than the exception when riding the underground in any big city, more often than not, the train pulls up just as you’re setting your first foot on the stairs. Ever see a big man sprint down 100 steps and leap ballet style into the slowly closing doors of a subway car? It’s likely quite a sight and one you’d have seen many times had you been around me in Montreal.

As an artist, and as a student of human nature, one of the most fascinating things about the subway station for me are the people.

I enjoy people watching, and the station is a great place to observe. Of course, you observe discreetly, avoid eye contact, you know the drill. You see all these people, they’re waiting for the same train you are. Some, you know, sort of, because you see them every day, others you don’t, but you know their story by looking at them.

There’s the young guy with the beat up brown leather satchel bag and man bun wearing skinny red jeans and a suit jacket, he’s a student, young, optimistic, eagerly waiting to take his place in this big world.

There are the middle aged, balding men in cheap suits, phones at their ear, speaking loudly on the platform, shouting orders, their dreams of corporate mastery having long since been dashed. They’re left with mundane middle management call centre jobs and the illusion of importance they try to create. We’re onto them, but we just look away, no need to kick a man when he’s down. You can always spot these cats, they’re the ones who take the time to look all around as tey shout their orders, making sure everyone is witnessing their authority.

There are the women, well dressed, waiting silently, eyes straight ahead until they board, then they pull out a book, they’re heading to any manner of jobs, and they just want to get there unbothered, they’ve endured enough foolishness on this train.

There’s the guy with no legs and a hat and a sign, asking for donations because the pension just doesn’t cut it, and the guitar playing bearded guy, smelling vaguely of coffee and maybe alcohol, who does such a mean version of Stairway to Heaven, you can’t help but throw a toonie in.

Finally, there are the young people, full of lively chatter, roughhousing a bit, they embark and always choose to stand they’re a bit loud, the boys’ pants seem to be in a perpetual state of falling down and they’re very animated as they tell their tales to the girls, who giggle loudly. It’s a wonderful study into the human condition and all before you get to your destination.

Carl Parker "Safe with Mother"
Carl Parker “Safe with Mother” Acrylic on Canvas, 20 x 16″

This piece takes me back to my childhood when I relied on my strong mother, well, for everything. My mother worked two jobs and raised my sister and I as a single mother. My parents got divorced when I was 4. I didn’t have the easiest childhood, but I didn’t have the hardest, either. We had enough to eat and wear. We were safe and warm. This painting speaks of these essential things that every child should have.

A child’s mother can be like God, angel, warrior, psychologist, protector, provider, storyteller, disciplinarian, teacher, or best friend. .

The strong mother stands out, she shines. The courageous mother shines and glows just like this painting.

Remember your mother for all she did and does. Where would you be without her?

Carl Parker

Currently, my paintings hang in homes and businesses throughout the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, the UK and Portugal. In late 2017, I wrote a book, a kind of retrospective on my life and work up to that point called Carl Parker: A Life in Paint: How One Adult With Asperger’s Found His Place in the World Through Art, which is available through Amazon.

0 replies on “Self-taught artist Carl Parker: Life in Paint”