Growing up in Houston during the early days of World War II, ceramicist Rebecca Parsons shuffled between three different homes with her mother, grandmother and an empathetic aunt.
She sought creative outlets by molding small animals, storybook figures and cups and saucers out of clay by the time she was 3. More than 30 years later, her ceramic light fixtures — which fit into the surrounding adobe architecture and created a light suggesting a desert sunset — became a mainstay of what is now known as Santa Fe Style.
Parsons reached her final sunset Sept. 19 when she died of ovarian cancer, surrounded by friends and family members at her home in Santa Fe.
She was 80.
“She always had something going on with her hands, whether she was sewing or cooking or working in the yard or throwing clay on a wheel,” said her husband, photographer Jack Parsons. “If we were watching television, after about 15 minutes she would get up and go do something. She just couldn’t sit there doing nothing.
“She didn’t really care what anybody thought about her art, whether they liked it or not. She would do her own thing through her own process of self-discovery.”
Rebecca Parsons — known as Becky — was born on June 24, 1939, in Houston. Following high school, she studied philosophy at the University of Colorado, where she met her future husband as well as influential ceramicist Betty Woodman.
Woodman, as well as the women who helped raise her as a child, inspired Parsons to strike out on her own as an independent-minded artist. She studied art at The New School in New York and continued to study pottery at the Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design in London. Along the way she was trained in the art of hand-thrown pottery, which is made on a pottery wheel.
Parsons moved to Taos in 1969 and then, after a brief spell in Boulder, Colo., moved to Santa Fe in the mid-1970s, where she took a job in the exhibition division of the Museum of New Mexico. Friend and art historian Christine Mather, who first met Parsons around that time, recalled a “delightful person, always positive and fun and laughing. She had a really sunny personality and always wore huipils [Mexican embroidered shirts].”
Parsons began selling porcelain dishes, though that didn’t bring in enough to pay the bills. Her breakthrough came in the 1970s when she was approached by Santa Fe architect Harold Stewart with an offer to make the clay light fixtures for the new Inn of Loretto hotel.
“My challenge was to make Stewart’s drawings work in clay, to make clay work in an architectural setting and make it aesthetically right,” she told writer Carmella Padilla for a 1998 New Mexico Magazine article. Padilla noted it took Parsons “one year and 500 lights” to complete the job, creating “an array of interior and exterior sconces, simple and elegant expression of shape, shadow and light [which] blended naturally into the building’s adobe facade.”
As a result, Parsons began pursuing the art of clay lighting, starting a company called Southwestern Lights while still creating works for herself — such as a series of clay Buddhas inspired by trips through Southeast Asia and India.
“She had a private, intuitive response to the Buddhas,” said Jack Parsons. “Hers was a direct, emotional appreciation.”
Artist Brian Arthur, who often watched Rebecca Parsons at work, said the Buddha figures showcased her level of enjoyment and a “Zen-like quality” that evoked a state of peaceful bliss while she created.
He said Parsons was “very disciplined, very precise” when it came to making art.
Mather said Rebecca Parsons was a work of art in herself. “It’s hard to imagine a world without somebody like Becky,” she said. “She was a really kind and lovely person, and there aren’t many people like that out there.”
Jack Parsons said the family is planning a private memorial service for his wife, who also is survived by her sister Barbara, two sons — Alexander and Christopher — and three grandchildren, as well as several in-laws.