That old expression about being “no ways tired” aptly applies to Gordon Parks, who, since his days as a photographer for Life magazine in the late 1940s, has maintained a full plate of artistic endeavors. That old expression about being “no ways tired” aptly applies to Gordon Parks, who, since his days as a photographer for Life magazine in the late 1940s, has maintained a full plate of artistic endeavors.
Widely—and quite accurately—known as “the Renaissance Man” for his successes behind the camera, with pen and paint brush, and at the piano, Parks will be 90-years-old on Nov. 30. He’s going about 90 in a rush to complete several projects, including his novel on the great English painter J.M.W. Turner.
Turner is best remembered for his atmospheric wash of glowing colors and “heroic” landscapes. “I’m just about three-quarters into it,” Parks related in a recent phone conversation. “I’ve been working on this for quite a while, and I want to get it finished so I can move on to other projects.” Some of that moving on will be more physical than mental, as he and his daughter Toni, herself an accomplished photographer and composer, are bound for Fort Scott, Kan., where Parks was born and where a wing of a new hospital is to be named in honor of his mother and father. A few weeks ago, Parks donated a collection of his work—photographs and poems valued at $100,000—to the new Mercy Health Center, which opened about three months ago.
This will be Parks’ first exhibition in Fort Scott, about 60 miles south of the Kansas City-area. For one of Parks’ most poignant creations, The Learning Tree (Harper and Row, 1963), both book and film, his coming-of-age in Kansas is the source of this marvelous production. “When copies of The Learning Tree arrived,” Parks wrote in Voices in the Mirror, one of three memoirs, “I had stuffed my pipe with tobacco, lit it, made a cup of tea, stirred delight into it and sunk into the pages. It was like dipping into a well of memories.
“I’m still getting royalties on The Learning Tree”, he said, his voice just above a whisper.
And there are royalties on a trove of other books, photos, compositions and films. From his window at the U.N. Plaza, where he has lived for a number of years, Parks can see the ships plying down the East River, and with his customary pipe and cup of tea, it is on such occasions that it must be difficult for him not to reflect on his travels, the trips to Europe, Africa and practically every inch of the United States. Each of these journeys has been documented either by text, photo or painting because Parks is an inveterate chronicler of the moment, particularly his treasured moments.
“I guess I’ve come a long way for someone who never graduated from high school,” he said, a story that is now part of his legend.
There is no high school diploma for Parks’ expansive and memento-filled walls, but there is a slew of honorary doctorates—too many to count—to say nothing of ribbons, statues and other awards that beg for his attention. When asked how he manages to portion out his time to his various passions, he quipped, “one at a time.”
Parks offers another gibe when asked what motivates him. “Three ex-wives to take care of,” he said without hesitation. But there has been more than one opportunity to combine his talents. He even displayed some acting skills in his movie Shaft, which he directed and which brought him immense respect from other filmmakers. In a few books, such as Arias in Silence (Bulfinch, 1990), he wrote the text and used his vision as a painter to embellish found objects that he later photographed. The book, he says in the foreword: “is a rummaging through my imagination—finding things blooming, things living and dying with a certain elegance. Each image expresses the need for me to accept life gracefully—without trembling at the inevitability of my departure.”
It was not his departure but his arrival in Harlem that resonated most forcefully in A Choice of Weapons (Harper and Row, 1966). Parks vividly portrays the speeding, hectic q