I was 13 and at a friend’s house after school and Predident Kennedy had just been elected and his portrait was on the cover of a magazine.
It was cold and rainy outside and a good day to stay inside.
My friend’s older brother knew I liked to draw and handed me a piece of paper and the magazine and told me to “draw this.”
I spent a rather nervous hour or so hoping to impress him and when I was done he came in and looked at the drawing and proclaimed in a rather matter of fact voice, “Ricky is going to be an artist when he grows up….”
I was both surprised and pleased to hear him say this, because I was an insecure kid and not sure about a lot of things.
But at least that part of my life had been settled.
Decades passed and we all grew up. Well, he did, anyway.
I guess I had my first big success as an artist when Beavis and Butt-Head Comic Book came out in 1994. I was working for Marvel and living in New York City at that time but was back in Savannah visiting my parents and I happened to pass the pharmacy where I knew my friend’s brother was now employed. I decided to stop in and give him a copy of the comic book I had with me since he had been so nice to encourage my artistic endeavors 30 years earlier.
I hadn’t seen him in about 35 years at the time.
The lady behind the counter went into the back to get him where I imagine he had been counting pills and putting them into a little vial.
“Hi, Jerry….it’s me, Ricky Parker…you remember me, don’t you?
He stared at me momentarily with a slightly fearful, but vacant expression.
So I continued…..
“You encouraged me to be an artist when we were kids. I brought you a present.”
He reached out his hand took the comic book and looked at it with a rather preplexed expression. It was one of those awkward moments.
“Thanks, Ricky”, was all he said.
No one dared move or make a sound.
Into our bunks we had already shimmied, so as not to disturb them.
We would ease out the next morning, like puppies being born –and pull the blanket up tight and not remake them.
Flat on our backs in the darkness we lay, between white sheets, clutching our unopened candy bars and fruit pies, trying not to choke or drown in our own spit as our mouths watered from hunger.
Then one of our “Tac Officers” would regale us with some half-made-up story from his previous life as a civilian.
Sometimes, he would order one of us to tell a story.
I lived in fear that he might pick me, as I was positive that nothing in my life worth telling others about had happened yet.
As he began to intone his story, I could hear my contemporaries trying to slowly unwrap their candy bars or tear open the packages containing their cherry pies without making a sound.
I wondered why he couldn’t hear it.
I guess he was too wrapped up in what he was saying to notice.
Sometimes, if the Tac Officer was a smoker, all you could see in the blackness as you sunk your teeth into your Mounds Bar or bit the end off your Butterfinger was the orange tip of his cigarette moving past each cubicle, or quickly back and forth to his mouth as he took a drag between sentences.
And the last thing you heard after he had finished his story was the steady tromping of his combat boots down the middle of the floor you had just finished polishing.
A Safety Pin can be used for all sorts of things, like to pin a crisp twenty dollar bill inside the pocket of a boy’s white shirt, like my mother did for me the first time my parents ever put me on a train by myself in 1962.
I was headed to New York City from Savannah, Georgia and when I got to Penn Station I was supposed to take the subway “….over to Grand Central Station and continue on to Portchester in Westchester County”.
That folded up twenty my mother pinned in my pocket rubbed up against my chest in a most annoying way.
The next morning when the train arrived at Pennsylvania Station, this guy saw me standing there with a slightly-confused look on my fifteen-year-old face and came over to help.
“Where’re you goin’?” he wanted to know.
“Grand Central Station”, I proudly answered.
“Follow me,” he said, as he grabbed my one suitcase and led me away.
I had to struggle to keep up as we dodged crowds coming toward us in the long white-tiled passageway, but I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty nice of him to have a subway token ready to put in the subway turnstile for me.
We took the “shuttle” over a couple of stops and then got off at The Grand Central Station Platform.
He put my suitcase down and just stood there looking at me.
“Uhm….what do I owe you….?? “, I asked.
“Pay me anything you want,” he said.
So I gave him the twenty.
If you are one of the lucky people who got to be friends with my friend from Brooklyn, then, like me, you are very sad to think that we will all have to go on living in this world without him.
Still a relatively young man, he lost his life last week to brain cancer.
I first met my friend over 30 years ago when he needed someone to letter his comic strip and he brought it over to my studio each week for years. Then sat down next to me while I worked and we talked about all kinds of things, but mostly about comics.
We had a lot in common.
We both loved Forest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, horror movies, Mad Magazine, EC Comics, independently-produced comics and wearing black clothes. And while I did it mostly so I wouldn’t have to think about what I was going to wear or worry about spilling ink on myself, I suspect he did it because he felt a strong connection to the newspaper cartoonists of old, like Winsor McCay, E.C.Segar, Frank King, and George Herriman, to name but a few. I have to admit– the man had style–and it wasn’t just in his art, though his art had plenty of style–it was also in the man himself.
And just like a story with a happy ending, he fell in love and moved away from his home in New York with all his pens and brushes and went to live in California with his Ladylove and they were happy there for 25 years.
I went to visit him in his studio once about ten years ago when I attended the San Diego Comics Festival. As I sat there in his studio watching him scurry about gathering up his books and the things he would need at his booth, I thought to myself. “….I don’t think I have ever seen any artist who was happier than he is in his studio this afternoon”. Not only was he in love, but he had created his own original characters and he could be his OWN cartoonist in San Diego and all his cartoonist friends would come out to California every year to see him–!
And while they were visiting him, they could also check out the show.
As I helped him carry his books and things down the street to the convention center, I was genuinely happy for him. “What a big change from the old days in New York”, I said.
And we both laughed.
And then suddenly I realized that I was happy, too, for he had that effect on people.
And he was inspiring to others. He didn’t just “talk the talk“, he “walked the walk“.
And he showed us the way. He knew what he wanted and he worked hard to make his dream into his reality.
For that reason and many others too painful to recall, I have decided that from THIS DAY ONWARD–, for as long as I can hold a pen in my hand, that right next to my drawing board where I can see it EVERY day, I am going to have that drawing I did of my old friend right by my side.
This time, he’ll be hanging out in MY studio –with ME!
He’ll be the first one I see every morning when I sit down to work and the last one I see late at night when I turn out the light. He will be the first to see any artwork I do. He’ll have no choice but to watch me doing it!
I might even ask him what he thinks of it! He was always honest and had a suggestion to make it better.
And maybe this time, I will actually listen to him.
Forty years ago, I used to exhibit my three-dimensional artwork or “assemblage*” in the front window of my storefront studio in Soho inside an old wooden milk crate I had painted white. (*In fine art, a sculptural technique of organizing or composing into a unified whole a group of unrelated and often fragmentary or discarded objects.)
One day I found a pair of discarded mannequin legs in the trash. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with them at first.
A day or two later, I put a pair of my old lace-up Brogans® on them and took them back to where I had found them to photograph them. I liked the resulting black and white photograph so much I framed it.
Soon afterward, I agreed to put on an art exhibit of my work in which I would open up my studio to the public for four consecutive weekends in the Spring. I moved all of the furniture and everything except for the piano to the back half of my studio. Then I got some lumber and sheetrock and built a wall dividing my studio in half. I hung twenty of my photographs along the East wall of the space. On the West wall, I hung eight or nine of my box sculptures.
Then I got the idea that I would cut a window (similar to the one in which I had been exhibiting my work in for years) at slightly below eye-level into the wall I had just built and construct a wooden box behind it. The box had two openings cut into its top which were the exact diameter of my lower legs at the point just below my knees.
On the other side of that wall I constructed a sort-of platform which enabled me to sit down and extend my own legs down into the empty box.
I then placed a pane of thick, clear glass in the opening I had made in the wall.
Next, I hung the framed photograph of the mannequin legs with my size 13 black Brogans® on them in close proximity to the window I had made.
On the morning of the show I shaved my legs from the knees down and dusted them with talcum powder in order to make them look more like the legs in the photograph. Then I put on the same old black Brogans that were on the mannequin legs. Just prior to my then-wife opening the storefront door to the public, I took up my position out of sight behind the wall and waited for those who wanted to see my art to enter.
A small crowd of people who had gathered outside came right in, dispersed somewhat and began slowly looking at my artwork arrayed on opposite walls. These artlovers were carefully looking at each piece and each photograph and they were working their way toward the back. When they reached the wall I had built, just for this show, they came upon the window with my legs in it and the adjacent framed photograph of the mannequin legs with my boots on them.
My intention was to try and get them to initially believe that the legs in the box were the same mannequin legs in the photograph.
I had also cut a small opening in the wall and placed a metal vent in front of it so that I could peer down and see their faces as they stood in front of the window with my legs in it.
Most viewers would stand and ponder the window display for a moment or so and look back and forth between my legs and the photograph.
When I observed them shift their gaze to the photograph, I would slightly change the position of my feet in the box.
Then I watched their faces to see if I could detect the shock of recognition.
If they appeared somewhat perplexed, I might flex my feet in my boots without altering their position, similar to the appearance of someone’s chest rising and falling as he deeply breathed-in air, paused for a moment and then exhaled.
At this point I had their total attention, a brief condition that was usually accompanied by a gasp of air– or a giggle, as they suddenly came to realize that there was an actual person behind the wall with his legs and feet slightly below their eye level. What would usually happen next, was that the viewer would casually move away and stand off to one side, quietly waiting to see what would happen to the next unsuspecting person who came along.
During the four hours each day I spent with my feet in the box, over a period of four consecutive weekends, we had over a thousand artlovers come in to look at my artwork.
To my dismay, no one ever wrote an article about it.
At least not that I am aware of.
After the show was over, but before the hair grew out on my legs again, I decided to invite the art dealer Barbara Toll to my studio. Several years before, she had been intrigued enough by my work to include me in a group show of emerging artists. She even exhibited one of my pieces in the front window of The Hundred Acres Gallery on West Broadway.
My then-wife, met her at the door and I watched from my platform as she walked around the empty room carefully contemplating each piece of my artwork. When she got to the box with my legs and feet in it, I froze. I watched her face and just as she seemed about to turn away, I flexed one of my feet.
I thought I detected the hint of a smile, though she neither gasped or giggled and spoke not a word.
After she left and the door was quietly closed behind her, I came down from my perch behind the wall for the very last time and asked my then-wife, “Did she say anything?”
“She said you have a great mind.” my then-wife told me.
I don’t know if that was true or not, but I would have liked to believe it.
In the ensuing decades since the events here related have transpired, I am still trying to sort that out.