Catherine B. Parker (1926-2012), Messiaen V, 2010; gouache and charcoal on paper, 26 x 32 inches; Purchased with funds from John and Carol Kociela, 2011
In Praise of Catherine Parker (December 31, 1926-November 6, 2012)
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
This morning I found the perfect card to send to my friend, Cat Parker. The sumptuous color photograph by Eliot Porter (“Frostbitten Apples, Tesuque, New Mexico”) depicts an abundance of golden apples—huge plump fruit still clings to the wide-spread umber branches of a mature tree, while the ground is covered with dozens more that have fallen among curling brown leaves. The image reminded me of some of Catherine’s apple tree paintings. Her trees reflected the essence of fertility: their hefty limbs full of leaves bore the weight of giant rosy orbs, their scale exaggerated for dramatic effect.
The news in my card was about the concert I attended with friends on Sunday night. This special event was the grand opening concert that followed a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Louis P. Ciminelli Recital Hall. I was eager to report that what had been the big North Gallery of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Rockwell Hall had been transformed. We had presented her exhibition, Theme and Variations: The Art of Catherine Parker, in this 2,700 sq. ft. gallery in 1999. What a joy it was to organize that exhibition! We featured recent landscapes from New England, Western New York, the Southwest, California and France. Daringly, she revealed a new body of work that she had been producing in the privacy of her studio. For the first time, the public saw highly abstracted compositions that responded to music with bold brushwork and rich color contrasts. She wasn’t trying to illustrate music in a literal or narrative sense. Instead, she freed herself to express emotions as colors, shapes and patterns that blended the visual with the auditory. Catherine was an accomplished cellist, so she appreciated the music of Bach, Beethoven, Copland, Messiaen and Sibelius with a far more complex level of understanding than average listeners. She would certainly have attended the concert had she still been living in Buffalo, and she would have loved the program. JoAnn Falletta played guitar with clarinetist Robert Alemany and the Clara String Quartet. The first piece was Grand Trio, Op. 16 by Joseph Kreutzer. The second work, Quintet No. 1 in D minor by Luigi Boccherini included cellist Amelie Fradette, who also played in the final work, Quartet No. 15 in A minor by Niccolo Paganini
Today is Election Day, which means the post office is closed; so decided I would finish writing about the concert and renovated space—from art gallery to recital hall—later in the evening. Later in the afternoon I found out that Catherine will never see the card or hear the story meant to bring her a smile from so many miles away. Catherine Parker died today, at the age of 85, after a long and productive life as a creative force.
Born Catherine Esther Burchfield on New Year’s Eve in 1926, she was the fourth daughter of Bertha and Charles Ephraim Burchfield. (Her siblings were Mary Alice, Martha and Sarah, who was known as Sally, and a younger brother, Charles Arthur.) Catherine seemed destined for art-making, having been given a name with the same initials as her father, who was working as a wallpaper designer in Buffalo while gaining recognition for his paintings shown in solo exhibitions in New York and London and group exhibitions in Paris. The family had moved out of an apartment in the city the year before her birth and now lived in a house in Gardenville, so “Cathie” grew up in a suburban environment on Clinton Street next to the Buffalo Creek in West Seneca. As a result, we claim her as “one of our own,” a long-time resident of western New York State, who developed an aesthetic and intellectual base here during her formative years with a family that valued art, music, literature and nature.
After high school, the Art Institute of Buffalo provided her first formal art education in 1946. Next she studied at the Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri, where she met and married Ken Parker. They moved to Texas and raised a family of three children: Christine, Jennifer and Douglas. Once they grew up, Catherine attended the West Texas State University in Canyon and received a Bachelor of Music Education degree in 1970. Her skill as a cellist earned her a place in the Amarillo Symphony.
After many years, a divorce, and residence in California, Catherine returned to Buffalo in the early 1980s. Her career as a painter flourished. A comprehensive list of the exhibitions of her work is too extensive to include here. People were interested in how she painted the world around her. While she found the waterfront, countryside, city neighborhoods and gardens to be compelling subjects, such as her father had, she was determined to emerge from under the shadow of his national reputation and gain recognition for her own style. However, success as a painter was not her only goal. Catherine was attuned to more than the visual arts. Her life was filled with all kinds of music: classical, choral, symphonic, chamber music, and 20th-century works. She attended the “June in Buffalo” programs faithfully and listened to Canadian radio broadcasts to hear the work of contemporary European composers, such as John Tavener and György Ligeti.
One of the joys of being among her friends was attending concerts together. Especially meaningful were world premieres of compositions by her friend and colleague, Persis Parshall Vehar, including Peace Requiem (1999). Vehar also composed works based on Catherine’s paintings, which were exhibited for the performance near the musicians. Catherine’s nephew, pianist David Richter, performed in the first, titled Parker Treescapes—Gallery Walk II (1996). This event, held at the Buffalo Seminary, launched a series of collaborations with other musicians, poets, performers, and artists. Nearly every year we were treated to a new troupe of harmonious partners. Among them were Michael Colquhoun, Bryan Eckenrode, The Freudig Singers, Susan Gagnon, Ann Goldsmith, Cristen Gregory, Jorge Guitart, Elizabeth C. H. Macmillan, Roland E. Martin, David Richter, Michael Tunney, Persis Vehar, Vivian Waters, and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo Choir conducted by Barbara Wagner. In 2008, a collaboration that resulted in a book and CD that documented an exhibition and performance was A Rose Bedside the Water by Roland Martin. His song cycle, based on the poems of Poet Laureate Pablo Neruda, was performed by Martin, Jeffrey Porter, Cristen Gregory, Janz Castelo and Olga Karman.
Catherine loved gardening, wandering in the woods, and visiting friends’ gardens, like the annual summer party hosted by Bea Elye, “the garden lady” who grew an amazing variety of plants in imaginative displays of color and texture. Her own home landscaping at 33 Berkley Place was filled with many exotic looking shade-loving plants, like giant Elephant Ears and spiky yellow Ligularia, as well as aromatic roses and specially placed stones. She painted the variety of plants and trees she observed while traveling to places around the globe from the American Southwest to Europe and Papua New Guinea. Once we met in Paris and ate lunch at Les Deux Magots, a restaurant known for attracting Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other famous authors and artists. Afterwards we explored Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the cathedral across the street, marveling at the medieval Abbey, centuries’ worth of architectural additions, and rows of hollyhocks along its iron fence.
All these facets of Catherine’s life and career define the complex woman we cared for so deeply. She enriched our lives by bringing people together in the name of world peace and universal understanding. Surely we knew her art as the most visible part of her life, but she was more than a painter. She will be missed, but through her paintings, we have come to see what is meaningful in life.
At present, the Burchfield Penney Art Center owns ten artworks by Catherine Parker, dating from 1984 to 2010, with a new donation soon to be acquired. The Archives also contain early works and materials that document her career. We are proud to be the museum to represent her career and will continue to exhibit her work so that her accomplishments will always be remembered.
We welcome your memories to add to her artist’s file. For more information about the collection, see the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s collection online at www.burchfieldpenney.org. Also visit the Web sites for Meibohm Fine Arts in East Aurora, which represented her work for many years (www.meibohmfinearts.com) and 20th Century Finest, which has exhibited her work recently (http://www.20thcenturyfinest.com). An obituary by Michelle Kearns was published in The Buffalo News and online at: http://buffalonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20121107/CITYANDREGION/121109423/1116
Head of Collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator
Burchfield Penney Art Center
November 6, 2012