Connected \\ July 31, 2019

Libby Parker studio visit

One of the many ways that we share content and ideas at PEM is by making books. We create publications that encourage close looking at art, further original scholarship and research, and embrace a multiplicity of voices. We consider the finished book’s “look and feel” and interrogate choices of paper, typeface, color and binding style to consider what relates best to each project. We commission authors and edit the content with the goal of telling a compelling story that appeals to scholars and general readers alike. As the leader of our publishing program, I am happy to remind my colleagues that a museum exhibition will exist for a finite period of time while the publication will serve as a lasting record that can be seen by people all over the world, including those that may not have the opportunity to experience the art in real time.

The cover of Order of Imagination: The Photographs of Olivia Parker

The cover of Order of Imagination: The Photographs of Olivia Parker, designed by Margaret Bauer

Recently I was privileged to work with photographer Olivia Parker to produce the book that accompanies her retrospective at PEM: Order of Imagination: The Photographs of Olivia Parker. Libby (as her friends call her) has spent a lifetime making pictures. And unlike some artists who find a particular style or medium that they iterate over time, she is endlessly curious, trying new techniques and finding fresh sources of inspiration. One of my favorites of her photos is a large color polaroid of a kohlrabi. “I ate it afterwards,” she told me with a sly grin. Her work abounds with her subtle wit, and like many successful artists, she has retained a child’s unique sense of the world as a place of possibility and wonder.

Olivia Parker, Circles of Influence 1985

Olivia Parker, Circles of Influence 1985, dye diffusion print, 20 ½ × 24 in. (52.1 × 61 cm) © Olivia Parker

Olivia Parker, Interior with Pears, 1979

Olivia Parker, Interior with Pears, 1979. Gelatin silver print. © Olivia Parker


© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

For me, going to visit Libby is like getting an oxygen boost to the brain. After each visit I leave feeling inspired, amused and preoccupied with a fresh sense of possibility. (Full disclosure, this project inspired me to pick up an actual camera again after years of iPhone photos.)

Olivia Parker studio
Libby Parker in her studio. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

Every surface in Libby’s home and studio is bursting with objects, books and images that she has amassed and combined in inventive ways, some found during her lifetime of travels around the world, some collected from the beaches or the woods of the North Shore where she has lived for over 50 years. You see the connections among the disparate objects—some joyful, some funny, and some deeply touching. You want to hear all the stories that are surely associated with each discovery.

Olivia Parker studio

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

Olivia Parker studio

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

Olivia Parker, Shell in a Landscape 2011

Olivia Parker, Shell in a Landscape 2011, inkjet print, 33 × 22 in. (83.8 × 55.9 cm) © Olivia Parker

A tabletop in Libby’s home

A tabletop in Libby’s home, photo by Kathy Fredrickson.

Chinese bronzes and toilet parts

Chinese bronzes and toilet parts, photo by Kathy Fredrickson

During one visit, we entered her studio to see some early Chinese bronze tools juxtaposed with some mysterious objects. Libby breezily reported that the latter were fixtures from the toilets in her home that a plumber had replaced. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she exclaimed.

Libby has an impressive library of recent and antiquarian books that frequently make appearances in her work. For the exhibition catalogue we created with her, Libby created the art for the book’s endsheets (the pages that open and close a book) out of line drawings collaged together from books in her collection.

Art created by Libby Parker for the endsheets of Order of Imagination

Glass vessels in Libby’s studio

Glass vessels in Libby’s studio. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Bob Packert

Libby’s studio is filled with glass bottles of all shapes and colors. Her most recent body of work, inspired (or perhaps driven) by her husband’s tragic decline into Alzheimer’s disease, features large color images that picture the world as it might be perceived by his failing mind. As his illness progressed, Libby’s husband, John, started leaving reminder notes for himself and amassing small piles of office supplies. Libby documents these objects with powerful empathy. To me, her use of light and color evoke the mysterious workings of a brain gone sadly awry. Ethereal squiggles and bands of light dance across the surface of these images, capturing and distilling magical distracting patterns and colors. The affect is heartbreaking, beautiful and haunting.

Olivia Parker, Alzheimer's Note 2016

Olivia Parker, Alzheimer's Note 2016, inkjet print, 14 ⅝ × 22 in. (37.2 × 55.9 cm) © Olivia Parker

I joke that my museum and design career is an excuse to extend my liberal arts education, but seriously, I count myself lucky to be able to work with my colleagues and the artists and communities that surround PEM.

At PEM publications and exhibitions are highly collaborative team efforts. This book included Sarah Kennel, Virginia Myhaver and Rachel Allen on the curatorial side. Margaret Bauer designed the book. Rebecca Bednarz and Susan Higman Larson provided editorial support, and Claire Blechman coordinated all the moving parts. To find a copy of the publication Order of Imagination: The Photographs of Olivia Parker, visit the PEM Shop.

A new PEM is launching this September -- a new wing, new installations and a whole new museum experience. PEM Members get to see it all first. Join or renew on our Membership page to ensure you don't miss out! Follow along and share in the excitement using #newPEM.

For more behind-the-scenes stories from PEM, sign up for What's On, our monthly e-newsletter, here.

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