You're a sculptor of heads. Your living room at home is full of heads you've made. Who are they? Let's see. Down the line, there's Leonardo da Vinci, Desmond Tutu, Albert Einstein, Beethoven. Ah, here's Edwin T. Pratt. A Native American. Michael Jordan, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Queen, John Stanford, Van Carvinton, George Washington. Here's a portrait of myself. Um, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. Let's see now, one called Black Southerner, Forest Whitaker, one called Penetrating Eyes, Benjamin Banneker, Inigo Jones, John F. Kennedy, Ken Griffey Sr., John J. Oliver, one called Black Character. Mike Dillard, you know, of the department store in the South? This one is Architectural-Geometrical Portrait. That there is Old and Lonely. Michelangelo, Jimmy Carter, Karl Marx, and Malcolm X. And one more—who is that? I can't think. Oh. Lawrence Welk.
They're made of foam and painted to look like bronze or marble. Why? I'd rather work with bronze or marble. Foam is just what I can afford.
When you walk down the street, do you just constantly look at people's heads? Yeah, I do. I find myself doing that. You see the squares and the rectangles. Most times, a woman's face is like a pentagon, and then the male, he's either round or a rectangle. And then you look at the horizontal and vertical lines inside the geometry. You want to come from the interior line of the bone because that's where everything starts. When you get to a certain age, from 17 to 21 or 22, that line of your head locks, and then you stop growing.
Have you ever told a lady she looks like an especially good pentagon? Oh, I never do that. They might get offended.
You work as groundskeeper at the James and Janie Washington Cultural Center in the Central District, where you also use the studio to make actual stone carvings. You've shown drawings and sculptures there, and a few other places around the city including A/NT Gallery. But if you could show anywhere, where's your dream venue? I would like to have a Martin Luther King Jr. or an Edwin T. Pratt out on the waterfront.
Pratt was a local civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1969. He's the namesake of the arts school in Squire Park. In some ways, you know him better than anyone because you made his face. What was he like? I had a scholarship at that school there, and after my scholarship, I made this piece of him. I wish I had known him better. When I got here to Seattle, he had already died. He had been murdered. His face, it was subtle. It was a rectangle.
If you had an Edwin T. Pratt on the waterfront, what would you want it to be made of? Bronze, maybe, or stone carving.
What's your favorite portrait sculpture in Seattle? The one up there on Broadway of Jimi Hendrix, I guess. I like that one up there. I love the expression that he has, and the profile of him, the feeling, the emotion of it.
Did your family think it was normal to go to art school? Were they artists? No, my father worked for DuPont in janitorial. My mother, she worked as a cook and as a hairstylist, she was a pretty smart lady, but she died when I was 4, and so my father raised me. My mom had a bad heart. When she was pregnant with my little brother Johnny, the doctor told her it was between the baby and her, and she picked the baby.
Did art always come easily to you? I got better at it. I'd draw people. We'd have people pose in front of us. I did that from eighth grade up till twelfth grade, and I got good at it. My dream when I graduated from high school was to be a portrait sculptor.
What inspired that? My teachers Charles Bishop and Ken Swanson. I used to work at the country club, and my teacher Charles Bishop would come through the door and say, "Where's Charlie at?" He said he thought I had a good imagination for it.
Before art school, you took high school art classes in Greensville, Virginia. Were there many portrait sculptures in Greensville? No. When I was a kid, though, we went to Washington, DC, and I saw the Abraham Lincoln memorial and stuff and things like that. On Capitol Hill, I saw all those presidents going around in a circle.
That's what I wanted to do. I pick a lot of people from the past who haven't been done before who I think the public should know about. Especially the black people in America. Every one of my pieces down at the Washington Cultural Center is black.
You lived for years at Yesler Terrace, but now that it's being torn down, you've had to move. What do you think of what's going on there? Well, they gave me a two-bedroom apartment, housing did. So actually, it's a good thing for me. I got two studios now. I didn't even have a studio at the time when I started at the Washington Cultural Center seven years ago.
How did you get the job? A guy named Tim Detweiler brought me in as groundskeeper, and then he found out later that I was an artist. He said, "I hear you know something about stone carving." And I said, "Yeah, yeah, I know something about that."
See more of Charles Parrish's heads at A/NT Gallery (2045 Westlake Ave, 233-0680, antgallery.org, Wed–Sun 11 am–6 pm, free), where he is a lifetime member, or at the James and Janie Washington Cultural Center (1816 26th Ave, 709-4241, jameswashington.org, by appointment, free), where he spends his days.