Centering: The Origins of a Painting

"Centering", 48 inches x 48 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas, © Leslie Parke 2018
“Centering”, 48 inches x 48 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas, © Leslie Parke 2018

I painted “Centering” right after “Conversations with Giotto” and “Silver Light”.  In “Conversations” I explored the seminal story in Western art about Giotto creating the perfect circle. The circle itself became a symbol for the artist. In “Silver Light” I explored how I could turn a line into the field. When I painted “Centering” I was after something else entirely.

“I lost the use of both thumbs and my hands were in splints for several months.”

I was living through a challenging time when I lost the use of both thumbs and my hands were in splints for several months. I knew that my ability to paint was not just in my hands, nor was I the first artist to face this limitation. Renoir suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and his brush had to be strapped to his hand. Chuck Close became a quadriplegic but regained use of his arms. He, too, straps his brush to his hand and paints, sometimes guiding the right hand with his left.

With “Centering” I wanted to see if when giving myself the limitation of making a painting only using circles, I could make a painting that was also expressive of the upheaval I was going through. It did not come out right away. It was as if that aspect of the painting was buried. I started on a black background. I covered the entire painting with a thick coat of white oil paint. Then I made the circles with a pencil, dragging the point through the white paint revealing the black underpainting. I continued this way until I removed most of the white paint with the point of the pencil. It was not what I was after.

Ivory black, the same black that was used by Manet, originally was made from a porous, black, granular material produced by charring animal bones.

I decided to continue using an ivory black oil stick. Ivory black, the same black that was used by Manet, originally was made from a porous, black, granular material produced by charring animal bones. (It is no longer made this way.) It is also what Richard Serra used to make his heavily blackened drawings. I believe it was also used on his wall drawings at The Menil. All of these associations went into my choice of this material.

It was easy for me to wrap my hand around the large oil stick. I dragged it repeatedly over the surface until I was able to get thick dense circles. Ivory black is a warm black, and I wanted the circles to be dense, warm and primordial.

“The hand injury made me question the source of my art. Where does it reside in me?”

The hand injury made me question the source of my art. Where does it reside in me? These large circle paintings are meditations on that – the origins of art, where it comes from, and when the means of conveying it gets interfered with, will it still come out, will it still be a full expression of me and my intention?

As I painted this, the question it posed to me was – what makes me an artist, is it in my hands or does it reside elsewhere. I call the painting “Centering”, because like meditation it both poses and answers the question, and poses it and answers it, and poses it and answers it.

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Goya on Garbage

Goya on Garbage

Courtyard in front of AIR Vallauris

You are an artist-in-residence. Now, what?

The last time I was a resident at A.I.R Vallauris in 2008, I left a box of materials. This time I decided not to take any materials with me and to just make use of what was in the box and whatever I foun in the street.

I have two notions about how to use my time. One, is to experiment, respond to the moment and not plan everything out. The other is to look at Goya’s paintings and see if there is a way to distill their essence into something abstract. I didn’t think that I would do these two things together.

When I open the box, I have plenty of paint, some brushes, and several pieces of 300 lb Fabriano watercolor paper. But what really excites me, is the box itself. It sat in a dry shed for eight years. The cardboard is soft and no longer has much structural strength. One side is white. I tear off one of the flaps and start painting.

Goya on Garbage: The Dog

Goya’s Dog on Cardboard, 4 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016

Goya on My Mind

Since Goya is already on my mind, I start by loosely painting one of his portraits with black ink. I switch to oil paint and the soft cardboard yields under my brush. The un-even torn edges make a beautiful deckle* around the piece. As I paint Goya’s, “The Dog” I like how the creases in the cardboard interact with the image.

All the pieces are small, averaging 4 inches by 2 inches. In the end, I branch out to include the back of a tuna box and a crushed can that I found in a parking lot.

*deckle edge paper—a type of paper with rough edges

Goya on Garbage: Maja on the Can

Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Maja on the Can”, oil on soda can, 2.5 inches x 5 inches, 2016


Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Dona Tadea Arias de Enriquez on Tuna Box”, 6 inches x 4 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016


Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: The Countess of El Carpio on Cardboard”, 4 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016


Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Arsensio Julia on Cardboard”, 2 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016

Goya on Garbage

Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Goya’s Countess on Cardboard”, 3 inches x 2 inches, ink on cardboard, 2016

Goya on Garbage

Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Portrait of the Countess of Chincon on Cardboard”, 3 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016






The Aurora Borealis in a Zip Lock Bag — Essay about Leslie Parke’s New Paintings by Christopher Millis

Little do I remember of the astronomy lecture I attended twenty some years ago on a warm summer night in an observatory on what may be the last densely wooded tract of land in Cambridge. What I do remember is that the lecture put me in a kind of swoon. For the first time in my life, science and poetry became one. Somehow a talk on chaos theory and its relation to the order of the universe – randomness as the predictable and necessary precursor to design – had the heft and elegance and perspicacity of a poem you want to memorize or a painting you don’t want to leave.


Leslie Parke, “Road Work”, 56 inches x 43.5 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo Credit: Jon Barber


Leslie Parke’s paintings live at the same intersection where patterns court chaos, abstraction approaches the figurative and stasis hovers on the cusp of implosion. Her paintings are charged by contradictions: impersonal grids softened by sunlight; watery washes with metallic spikes; a cathedral of squiggles above a perfectly triangular black hole; the aurora borealis in a zip lock bag.


Leslie Parke, “Silo”, 46 inches x 96 inches, oil on canvas, 2014.


But even contradictions are connected by themes, and what’s most striking across these disparate, spirited works is their relentless energy. This is a painter who thrashes in her sleep. And it is not merely high-powered kinesis that comes through so much as the integration of movement, color and form. It is no coincidence that the lines of “Silo” shift from vertical on the left half of the diptych to horizontal on the right; those same lines correspond with the play of light – muted to the left, increasingly luminous as the eye moves right. For all that it initially appears purely cerebral – the meticulous study of an industrial grid – the painting as a whole achieves the thrilling solace of a sunrise.


As with many artists at their performance peaks, Parke’s recent paintings seem deceptively effortless. They’re not. Go back to them; they have a lot to say.

Christopher Millis

Cambridge, MA

Christopher Millis’ criticism has appeared extensively in such publications as Art News, Artspeak, The Black American and The Boston Phoenix as well as on National Public Radio. He is the former editor of artsMEDIA Magazine in Boston.

Christopher Millis‘s writing has been published, produced and broadcast widely in the United States and Europe for the last twenty years. He has authored three books of poetry: The Handsome Shackles (2002,) Impossible Mirrors (1994,) and The Diary of the Delphic Oracle (1991,) and his poems have been featured in numerous magazines and anthologies. In 1994, his translations of the Triestine poet Umberto Saba appeared as The Dark of the Sun (University Press of America,) and the first of his acclaimed translations of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “Requiem for Mohammed Al-Dura,” was published in The London Review of Books in 2000. His translation of Darwish’s “I Remember al-Sayyab” appeared in 2004 in The London Review of Books, The Daily Star, and The International Herald Tribune.

In 1979, Millis was commissioned by the Theater of the Open Eye in New York to write the libretto for Jean Erdman‘s dance opera The Shining House, a collaboration with Michael Czajkowski, Paul Jenkins and Ralph Lee. The Shining House established itself as part of the repertoire of Jean Erdman and Joseph Campbell’s Theater of The Open Eye with productions until 1984. The following year, Poems for the End of the World (1985,) choreographed by June Anderson, appeared at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio. Millis collaborated with Anderson and David Leisner on The Magnetic Properties of Moonlight at New York ‘s Dance Theater Workshop in 1986.

Millis’s one-man autobiographical play Garbage Boy, directed by Ashley Lieberman, premiered to critical acclaim in Cambridge Mass. in 2004 and was included in the 2006 New York International Fringe Festival