“According to my own theory of judging quality, the best art is that in which the deepest, most intense, sublime, and occasionally alien feelings are communicated,’’ wrote Stephen Parks, co-owner with his wife of Parks Gallery in Taos, in a 2011 blog on his website. “When I stand in front of Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows (and it has to be the real thing, photos just won’t do it), I believe that I feel what the artist felt as he painted it, and it’s an ecstatic feeling so powerful that I’m left simultaneously breathless and teary.’’
Parks, an art advocate, actor and writer, died Saturday in Albuquerque after a brief illness. He was 69.
Friends and colleagues on Sunday recalled Parks as a debonair aesthete who was personable, generous and unfailingly supportive of the creative endeavors of everyone who crossed his path.
“Everything Steve did was with great heart,’’ said Laura Addison, curator of contemporary art at the New Mexico Museum of Art. “He didn’t just represent artists, he nurtured them. He and [his wife] Joni showed artists working in so many different styles it’s hard to define a particular aesthetic; rather what their artists had in common was that Steve saw that same ineluctable quality of heart in them that he valued so deeply. The New Mexico art community has lost a true advocate and a wonderful, kind man.’’
A native of Waynesville, Ohio, Parks earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. During his junior year, he landed a role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore. Acting, he told friends later, greatly improved his self-confidence. It was a harbinger of a lifelong devotion to the theater.
Parks’ first marriage was to a college girlfriend, Samantha “Sam” Auer, with whom he had his first son, Dylan, in 1970. After college, he joined the Navy and served as a lieutenant aboard a ship that engaged in combat during the Vietnam War.
Following discharge, Parks worked in advertising for Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati and then for Sports Illustrated in New York, living with his family in Connecticut and commuting to the city daily.
Parks recalled his pilgrimage to Taos in a recent blog post. “Nearly four decades ago I packed a young family in a Volkswagen van and crossed the Hudson, headed West,’’ he wrote. “You could still do that in those days — leave an unsatisfying job in the corporate world and a home in the suburbs and strike out in search of adventure. As I remember, I had $800 in my pocket. We were headed for northern California, but after some weeks of camping in Colorado detoured down New Mexico way (there didn’t seem to be much hurry) and arrived in Taos on San Geronimo Day, 1973. The Indians were dancing at the Pueblo, the sunset kept going and going. … We soon met hippies, Hispanos, independent and free-spirited individuals of all stripes, many of them, of course, artists. ‘Let’s hang out a while,’ I thought, ‘see if we can make something happen here.’ ”
Parks made many things happen in Taos, where he would later say his “real life” began. Early on, he acted in local theater productions, strung beads for 35 cents a strand and worked as a bartender at the now-defunct La Cocina on the Plaza, where he met the artists, writers, musicians, actors and philosophers who made Taos an arts mecca.
In 1980, he founded ARTlines, the first publication to offer serious fine art criticism in Northern New Mexico. Parks wrote for the publication but also gave many regional art critics their starts. Parks edited ARTlines through 1985 and, in recent years, had begun archiving some ARTlines issues online.
In 1979, he and his first wife divorced, and shortly thereafter he met Joni Tickel, who then owned a store and advertised in ARTlines. The two moved to New York, where Parks found some success as an actor in theater and local commercials, while Tickel worked as a writer and for temporary agencies. But after three years, the struggle to meet the cost of living in the city and the fact that Tickel had been mugged sent the pair packing for Taos.
The couple later married and had their son, William Grafton “Will” Parks, in 1989.
Parks wrote for regional art publications including Southwest Profile and Taos Magazine and continued to act and befriend artists. He wrote two books about Taos artists, Jim Wagner: An American Artist (Rancho Milagro Productions, 1993) and R.C. Gorman: A Profile (NY Graphics/Little Brown, 1981).
In 1993, he and Tickel opened Parks Gallery with Melissa Zink, Jim Wagner, Douglas Johnson and Willi Wood as their lead artists. Others who would join the stable later included Susan Contreras, Marsha Skinner, Theresa Swayne, Mical Aloni, Erin Currier, Marc Baseman and Johnnie Winona Ross.
In 2001, Parks opened a second gallery location in Santa Fe above the Plaza Cafe, later moving to a space on Galisteo Street. Parks took on additional artists, including Victoria Carlson, Arthur Lopez and Colette Hosmer. But the second location’s second “grand opening” on March 20, 2003, coincided with the beginning of the war in Iraq, and poor sales led to its closing later that year.
Lopez, who continued to show with Parks Gallery in Taos for many years, is a Spanish Colonial santero whose works are sometimes controversial. Parks gave Lopez his first one-person show. Lopez said Parks treated him like family; business was always secondary.
“Stephen spoiled me for other galleries,’’ Lopez said. “He was the only person before or since who said, ‘Do whatever you want,’ and wasn’t afraid to show it, front and center.”
The Taos gallery squeaked through the recession. Melissa Zink died in 2009, and the gallery struggled as the inventory of her work dwindled. Recently, Parks moved into successively smaller spaces, reduced the number of artists he represented and began working in other capacities. His friends Trudy and Ed Healy opened Rancho Milagro Gallery, which he directed part time, and he also began to offer art consultancy services.
Parks also was director of the Po’Pay Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes Puebloan agriculture, especially corn-growing, at Taos Pueblo. Parks did everything from fundraising to driving a tractor in the fields. The endeavor was shared with his best friend, Nelson Zink, who founded the organization.
“I would say he was one of the best people I’d ever known,’’ Zink said. “And that covers all the categories of what anyone would think of as a best person: honest, loyal, easy, gracious.’’ Zink, as husband of artist Melissa Zink, also interacted with Parks as a gallery owner, and said he considered Parks the leading expert on Taos art.
Parks also was well-known as an actor, and served on the board of Working Class Theatre. At the onset of his illness, he was preparing for the lead role of artist Mark Rothko in Red, which was to have opened the weekend he died. The consummate professional, he had begun working on his lines for the play in January, said Working Class Theatre director Ron Usherwood, a longtime friend and colleague.
Usherwood recalled first directing Parks as the psychiatrist in Equus, later as the janitor in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and as the evil magician in Usherwood’s World of Wonders, for which Parks originated the role. Parks’ final portrayal was Krapp in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a role he had played decades years before in a Taos production.
“He came back to it with such passion and pathos,’’ Usherwood said. “The play is much like Beckett, very ponderous at times, but he created such a richly funny and human character out of that — as Beckett intended it to be.’’
Usherwood said when he was staging a play Parks wasn’t in, he always called Parks to sit in on a rehearsal and offer him advice on improving the piece. “I don’t know what I’m going to do in the future, now that I don’t have Steve’s eyes. I trusted him so much,’’ he said.
Parks adored Taos and especially appreciated its wilderness, Tickel said. He hiked at least weekly and often wrote of his love for the beauty of the landscape.
Some of his writings may be found at www.parksgallery.com, where there also is a link to the ARTlines archives.
Parks is survived by his wife, Joni Tickel; son Dylan Parks, wife Liz, and their daughters, Lily and Josie, of New York; son William Grafton “Will” Parks of Taos; siblings Melissa Parks Carothers of Grand Marais, Mich.; Andrew Parks and wife Rosie of Royal Oaks, Mich.; Matthew Parks and wife Leigh of Burlington, Vt.; Jonathan Parks and wife Laura of Silver Spring, Md.; and numerous nieces and nephews. A memorial will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, friends are encouraged to make contributions to the Po’Pay Society, 520 Los Pandos Road, Taos, N.M. 87571.