Norman Parish, artist and gallery owner, dies at 75
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter Twitter @suntimesobits July 11, 2013 6:08PM
Norman Parish ran a landmark art gallery in Washington, D.C., for 22 years. When he opened it in 1991, it was one of the few black-owned galleries around. He died Monday at his home in Germantown, Md. He was 75. He was born in New Orleans, and his family moved to Chicago to escape the Jim Crow South.
Updated: August 13, 2013 6:13AM
It didn’t matter if you were a big spender or aLookie Lou. An established artist — or an emerging one.
For 22 years, Norman Parish ran a landmark art gallery in Washington, D.C., welcoming anyone who ambled over its Georgetown threshold with a warm smile and jazz playing in the background, often the Miles Davis masterpiece, “Kind of Blue”). When he opened it in 1991, it was one of the few black-owned galleries around.
Mr. Parish was born in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where his father, who had a seventh-grade education, worked on a cotton press. But his father was a polymath who built his own house, made mouthwatering ice cream and caught his own fish to fill up the gumbo pot.
Even as a young man, Mr. Parish was known as “the guy that could draw,” said his son, Norman Parish III, an assistant metro editor at the Chicago Sun-Times.
He studied at the School of the Art Institute, where his teachers included critically and commercially acclaimed artists such as LeRoy Neiman. He became a leader in Chicago’s Black Arts Movement. He helped paint a famed 1967 mural at 43rd and Langley that was called “The Wall of Respect.”
Today, American cities are filled with public art. But this work was — in the terminology of that time — “a happening.” It featured black statesmen and women, sports figures and musicians. It was considered a forerunner of the public mural movement, and Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a poem about it, “The Wall,” that captured the jubilance and pride of the Afrocentrically garbed artists and audience members at its dedication. It has since been razed.
During the third act of his life, Mr. Parish opened his Georgetown gallery. Though it featured a variety of works — including his own — it was a showcase for artists of African heritage and emerging artists who might have had trouble getting their work into stuffier galleries.
“Parish Gallery was very well-respected and presented quite a number of artists who deserved to be presented and celebrated, but who might not have, had it not been there,” said Edmund Barry Gaither, director of Boston’s Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.
“His gallery was extremely significant,” artist Wadsworth Jarrell said. “He showed a lot of unknown artists. It would be almost impossible for them to get into established galleries — African-American, or white.”
Mr. Parish, 75, died Monday at his home in Germantown, Md. For the past year, he had been getting treatment for a brain tumor, his son said.
After he spent his first six or so years in New Orleans, his family moved to Chicago to escape the Jim Crow South. He met one of his first mentors while attending Wendell Phillips High School.
Art teacher Geraldine McCullough, a respected sculptor, told him he had talent. He transferred to Hyde Park Academy High School, where he met a student who would become one of music’s best-known jazz pianists: Herbie Hancock.
After graduating from the School of the Art Institute, he struggled to find work in his field. Interviewers at ad agencies and design firms said they couldn’t help him, his son said. “They would basically tell him they would love to hire him, but they couldn’t, because he was black. And this was in the 1960s. It was not that long ago.”
For a while, he worked at the Post Office. Then he landed a job as a draftsman and graphic designer at Sargent & Lundy, where he worked on the design of the Zion power station and the Clark refinery near Blue Island, his son said.
He painted at night and on weekends, sometimes visiting the Cook County forest preserves for inspiration. “He thought it was a connection between God and nature,” his son said. “It fed his soul.”
He sold his works, saturated with vibrant color, at street fairs.
He and his first wife, Shirley King, raised their oldest child in Robbins and the younger two in Homewood, where he encouraged them to reject the status quo. He didn’t like the commercialism of Christmas, so instead of exchanging presents, he took his family on vacation. After their marriage broke up, he moved to the Washington area and did computer-assisted design for an environmental consulting firm, where he met Gwen Burkett, who would become his second wife.
They operated the gallery together, exhibiting the work of more than 170 artists in 22 years, including Michael Singletary, whose work was featured on the “Cosby Show” and in Spike Lee films.
“Everybody was met with a smile and a hug,” his wife said.
Neat and organized, Mr. Parish vacuumed and cleaned the gallery each night. Somewhere, his wife said, there is a photo of him dancing with his vacuum.
“One time, I walked in there and I saw [civil rights advocate] Vernon Jordan,” his son said. In Mr. Parish’s final days, former D.C. mayor and current D.C. Council member Marion Barry came by to visit him.
Other survivors include two other children from his first marriage, Kimberly Parish Perkins and Malcolm Muhammad; his mother, Vieran Parish; his siblings, Sedette Ward, Elaine Govan, Joyce Hobbs and Conley Parish, and five grandchildren.
Services are scheduled Saturday at the Unity Church of Gaithersburg in Maryland, with a viewing at 10 a.m. and funeral service at 11 a.m.