Connected \\ October 4, 2019

Lives lived curiously

As the saying goes, all artists have one story to tell and they tell that story in many different ways. An audience member asked if this rang true for photographer Olivia Parker and artist Wes Sam-Bruce during a special conversation at PEM last month. While both agree that a common thread is undeniably present, the artists say they work to tell many different stories.

As part of the opening celebration for Where the Questions Live: An Exploration of Humans in Nature, an immersive installation created by Sam-Bruce, curators invited photographer Olivia Parker to join in a conversation about how the artists approach their work. Order of Imagination, her first career retrospective, is on view through November 11.

Jane Winchell, prompts conversations with Olivia Parker and artist Wes Sam-Bruce

Jane Winchell, PEM’s Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of the Art & Nature Center, prompts conversations with photographer Olivia Parker and artist Wes Sam-Bruce. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

A common theme found in their work soon unfolded: the point where reality blends with the imagined.

Widely known for his large-scale immersive installations, Sam-Bruce told the dozens of guests gathered in the museum’s Morse Auditorium about a piece he created for the Children’s Museum of Denver. Titled Adventure Forest, the aerial adventure course showcases how humans interact with the living world in an imaginative way. That play of where fact meets fiction, he says, is similar to the enchanting world Parker creates through her photographs.

Artist Wes Sam-Bruce’s art installation, Adventure Fores

Artist Wes Sam-Bruce’s immersive and magical art installation, Adventure Forest, was created for the Children’s Museum of Denver. Photo by Andrew Han.

Olivia Parker, Sea Creatures, 2014

Olivia Parker, Sea Creatures, 2014. Inkjet print. © Olivia Parker.

I take inspiration from that as someone who is early on in my art making. I hope I can step into a life of curiosity that you have lived so far,” he said while motioning toward Parker.

For nearly half a century, Parker has created works that inherently reveal the complexities and beauty found within the natural world. As she took to the stage, she shared a glimpse into the creative process behind a few of her pieces through a slideshow presentation.

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.


Many photographs, like her basket starfish, Cinquefoil, relate to Sam-Bruce’s installations that infuse life into everyday objects. “How can I give these things some of the energy that I think they have?” she asked the crowd.

Moderator Jane Winchell, PEM’s Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of the Art & Nature Center, asked the two to expand on the role of playfulness in their careers. Whether it be Parker’s whimsical pea pods, Dance, 1977, or Sam-Bruce’s daring Adventure Forest course, the playful, childlike spirit they bring to their work is palpable.

panel discussion olivia parker

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.

wes sam bruce art installation

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing.

Parker then presented an image of a rotten potato sitting within a luxurious room at The Louvre. Met with laughs from the audience, she says thinking both visually and verbally, as in this case, is very much a part of her process. “It’s a different kind of seeing and a different kind of knowledge,” she added. “And I think it’s very closely related to play.”

For Brooklyn-based artist Sam-Bruce, he reflected how playfulness is often only associated with children. And as we grow up, there’s an inherent need to become serious.

I’m processing all of these things as an adult who was a child, as we all were,” he said as a smile formed on his face. “Playfulness allows us to maintain curiosity. It’s fuel for a good life.

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing.

child exploring where the questions live

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.

He compared this kind of play to Parker’s recent work depicting her husband’s memory loss. Her imaginative and thoughtful interpretation on processing Alzheimer's disease, he says, is still serious but is done with some levity. Experimenting with light and dark is necessary in order to showcase both ends of the spectrum, added Parker.

Olivia Parker, Honeymoon, 2016

Olivia Parker, Honeymoon, 2016. Inkjet print. © Olivia Parker.

In the heart of his installation Where the Questions Live, Sam-Bruce incorporated that metaphor of where the light meets darkness. “It’s a wider sense of authenticity to include both I think,” he says. Quoting a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke, Sam-Bruce recited: “I live my life in widening circles.” Serving as the foundation for many of his projects over the years, he says visitors will discover that recurring theme repeated throughout the exhibition.

visitors in where the questions live

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.

Sparking a question from the crowd, a young art student asked the two established artists where they picture themselves in terms of the lineage of the art world. Sam-Bruce spoke honestly of the difficult time early in his career as he tried choosing between becoming a writer, painter or sculptor. “It’s been my artistic challenge to zoom my lens out to see them all as a single practice,” he answered, noting it’s an ongoing pursuit of working toward your fullest self.

On a similar note, Parker said she also wondered where she’d fit in within the world of painting and photography when she was young. But that sentiment soon changed. “The work took over and I went my own way,” she says. “I know I have to work true to myself because if I was trying to fit into something else, it wouldn’t be the work that I do.”

Olivia Parker, Eggs, 2005
Olivia Parker, Eggs, 2005. Inkjet print. © Olivia Parker.
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