Pokey Park | Wonderland of Characters

By Mark Mussari

Pokey Park is a self-proclaimed loner, but her world is peopled with more characters than an anthology of fairy tales. Birds, wolves, turtles, frogs, lions, dragons—her work comprises a menagerie of creatures recycled through her own idiosyncratic, mythical lens. The results would make Lewis Carroll proud. 

A kaleidoscope of anthropomorphized animals that frequently wrap their limbs around themselves in circular bliss, her works range from chess piece-sized miniatures to monumental sculptures. Park’s imaginative bronzes stare at you from every corner of her home high in the Santa Catalina Mountains of Tucson, AZ.

“You have to be strong to love the desert,” asserts Park, whose real name is Marie Whittle-Webb Park. Her great uncle gave her the name “Pokey” when, as a girl, she would fall behind him during their nature walks. “I was always stopping to observe,” she recalls. “I like to absorb where I am.” And where she has been is just about everywhere, from the Aleutian Islands to Southeast Asia to the Canadian Arctic. “I’ve been lucky to visit many different places in the world,” she adds, “and that tendency has helped my art.”

Park was born in Brunswick, GA, and grew up on St. Simons Island, a barrier island off the Georgia coast. The ocean scenery spoke immediately to her visual sensitivity. “I love patterns,” she explains, “all those textures in seashells, driftwood, and shadows on the dunes.”

Her father bought her first art supplies. And she can thank a bar of soap for her first sculpting experience. “I was a Brownie, and I carved a bar of soap to get an art badge,” she says, “but I ended up with nothing but a sliver of soap.” She adds that her dyslexia also fed into her desire to express herself visually: “If I couldn’t find the words, I’d draw a picture and communicate that way.” Park was also fortunate to have a mother with a heightened sense of aesthetics, which she imparted to her daughter.

Art and nature began to merge as the driving forces in Park’s youth. She attended the University of Georgia, where she majored in ceramics and earned a bachelor’s in fine arts. After graduation, she also took classes at a ceramics workshop in California, where, she says, “I learned to throw just about anything on a wheel.” Although her first marriage and raising four children took precedence over her artistic endeavors, she still found time to sculpt on the side. “I sculpted everything—people, animals, plaques,” she notes.

Bronze soon emerged as her favored medium. “Bronze is permanent, and I like things to be real,” she comments. “I used to stare at pictures of ancient bronzes, especially observing the negative spaces.” This study eventually informed her overall compositional sense, particularly in the narrative play of negative and positive spaces.

As whimsical as Park’s sculptures often appear, a realist element surfaces in their careful detail. “Even if I take it to an extreme,” she explains, “you’ll still see a paw or a nose or some anatomical detail.” Although categorizing Park’s sculptures is somewhat difficult, she feels comfortable being called a whimsical realist. “They’re whimsical but with an attitude,” she is quick to add.

While her work includes reclining turtles, hopping rabbits, and children at play, many of her figures appear in ovoid shapes—multi-textural, mythical creatures with limbs and tails swirling in on themselves. Addressing the dynamic sense of movement this creates, Park points out that she doesn’t want figures that are static. “I use a lot of piercing, opening up the surface to create light and movement,” she says. “It keeps the eye moving.” This curvilinear element also reflects her diverse cultural interests. Says Park: “I’ve been influenced by many different cultures, especially the arts of the northeastern Inuit and Japanese netsukes.” The latter are intricately carved purse toggles, usually made of ivory. “I’ve learned that similar myths and symbols exist among disparate cultures,” she explains, “and that all indigenous groups have fetish symbols.”
Park citesher travels as the greatest influence on her work. However, certain other artists have also had a profound effect on her approach. “When I was very young, I saw some of Degas’ ballerinas. I loved seeing those patterns and textures together,” she says, reflecting on his blending of metal and cloth materials. She was also struck by the studies Rodin did for his sculpture of Balzac. “The final figure is wrapped in a robe, so mostly you only see his face,” she notes. Yet, it was the studies that fascinated Park—some of them even depicted Balzac nude. “He understood that man so well,” she observes. “And you can see all of that in the finished sculpture.”

A parallel effect surfaces in her circular mythical creations: Their energy seems bound inside their enveloping forms, lending the restrained power of a talisman. “That energy has driven many of my ideas,” admits Park. Her towering ZODIAC TOTEM offers a prime example of this condensed, focused power. The monumental bronze stands 9 feet tall. Four animals, inspired by the Chinese zodiac, are stacked vertically atop a frog resting on a lily pad.

“The piece represents transformation, rebirth,” explains Park, who also incorporated elements of American Indian totems. “I changed some of the Chinese animals to Southwestern ones,” she comments. The dog becomes a wolf, and the pig has morphed into a javelina. Although different animals grace different versions of the totem (she plans to complete all twelve signs of the zodiac), the effect remains the same: The eye moves from figure to figure, each connected to the other by a floral wreath representing nature in full bloom. Park emphasizes the power of the individual animals by ascribing each a specific patina.

Park sculpts in a painstaking manner, beginning with a small, 4- to 6-inch clay model. A foundry in Tucson then digitally scans her clay figure and produces an enlargement in a block of Styrofoam. “I do a lot of work on the foam,” says the artist, who then sprays a coating of clay on the model and continues to work on it. “The foam is my armature.” A rubber mold then leads to the final form, and the subsequent lost-wax process results in the poured-bronze figure.

Park’s main studio is an area she has set up in her backyard under a large umbrella. The setting is breathtaking, with majestic saguaros punctuating the dramatic landscape of the Santa Catalinas. Visitors are greeted at the front door by several of her large-scale turtle sculptures, jovial creatures also found lounging around the backyard pool. Park has indoor studio space as well and confesses that she must force herself to not work all the time. “I work seven days a week,” she admits. “When I work, I am completely absorbed—it’s the most wonderful place to be.” And with the company of her mythical menagerie, she couldn’t be happier.

Jane Hamilton Fine Art, Tucson, AZ; K. Newby Gallery, Tubac, AZ; Smith Klein Gallery, Boulder, CO; Black Bear Trading Company, Telluride, CO; Lumina Gallery, Taos, NM;www.pokeypark.com.

Featured in April 2009