On Tuesday afternoon, as most Western New Yorkers focused their attention firmly on Election Day, Buffalo's art community received a piece of devastating news:
Catherine B. Parker, the beloved Western New York watercolorist whose paintings and personal presence had been a fixture on the Western New York art scene for decades, had died at 85.
That evening, as the results from the polls began to trickle in and I went about helping out with the paper's election coverage, I tried to put that news out of my head. But occasionally, a persistent thought about Parker, or about her elegant and emotionally loaded work, would creep in.
That work, which reached its height in Parker's final years, was in perfect counterpoint to Tuesday's nail-biting and borderline-neurotic national mood. Parker's paintings are about contemplation, about zooming out, sitting back and taking in the full breadth of a scene or a situation. They are about appreciating beauty in a way that is uncomplicated without being remotely naive or sentimental.
And most of all, they are an attempt to uncover and amplify the hidden beauty and significance in the seemingly everyday. They are, in effect, or can be, the perfect antidote to a nerve-fraying day like Tuesday.
Parker's work, always fueled by an intrinsic desire to cut straight to the emotional heart of her surroundings, blossomed into its full potential during her final years. About a decade ago, after years of painting alone and attending gallery openings, she grew weary of the solitude of her studio and embraced a different working process.
This drove her to the collaborations with composers and musicians that inspired what is in my mind her most thrilling and emotionally affecting work. That work, inspired by her deep love for classical music performed and composed by people such as her close friends Roland Martin and Janz Castelo, took on a new significance and emotional resonance. In her paintings, Parker was attempting to paint music – not in any predictable way, but by digging into the emotional content at the heart of many of her favorite pieces, some even using the actual scores. She did not merely replicate that content, but integrated it into her own compositions, amplified it and sometimes managed to elevate the wonder of that music into an entirely new experience.
The result of this was far from didactic. Her best scenes held a kind of vibrating energy that sometimes seemed to pulse, if you looked long enough, before your very eyes.
Throughout much of her career, Parker felt – not without justification – that critics and others unfairly viewed her work in the context of her famous father, the internationally famed watercolorist Charles Burchfield (after whom the Burchfield Penney Art Center is named). She was in some ways right to object to this and right, also, to theorize that some of this attitude emerged from a certain brand of sexism.
But it is a great and somehow beautiful irony of her life that she did not finally emerge from her father's long shadow, which so obviously extended to the style and substance of her own work, until she accepted that connection. In some of the most recent advertisements for her work in art publications, she was identified as “Catherine Burchfield Parker.”
Her acquiescence to that biological fact did nothing to detract from the singular power of her work. She was always her own artist. She always forged her own path, which finally led her to an ineffable place where painting and music became indistinguishable from each another: A place only Parker could see and a place only Parker could show us.