Tim Parsley

For 13 years, he had a well-paying career in California. And then something happened to Tim Parsley. He realized his true-calling: He was born to be an artist. Parsley completed changed his life, leaving a job as a pastor and completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art. He went back to Cincinnati, where he grew up, and began creating public murals. In 2013, he came to the University of Saint Francis, where he teaches while plying his craft here. Find out what makes him tick, what it was like to change his life and what he wants his students to take from him as he plays 20 questions.

When did you start making art?
I was always drawing growing up. I loved art. But I went in a totally different direction and had a different career for 13 years. Then decided I needed to come back to my first love, which is art. I went back to art school, got my undergrad and graduate degrees and totally changed up the story.

2) Do you remember your first piece of art?
I don’t remember my first piece. All of my school notes growing up were encrusted with doodles and drawings. I still do that in meetings today; it’s a constant thing. Some pieces I made in high school I was really proud of that got noticed and some awards. I have one in my mind that’s this painting which has a Van Gogh sort of sky to it, with all these swirling colors and figures at the center of it. I remember being proud of it. I wouldn’t show anyone now.

3) You mentioned having a different career before this. What did you do?
I used to work as a pastor. It was great, but it just was not what I wanted to be when I grew up. I realized it was not the right fit and making art was the better fit. It’s been interesting to see the overlap between those two realms.

4) What overlaps have there been?
There’s a quote: “Art is the highest form of hope.” I’ve always thought there is a parallel between making art and having a life of faith, that both sort of step into the unknown and try to make sense of something and are in search of a form of truth or answer to a question that can’t be answered. That’s what keeps us moving in faith and as far as art-making goes, many of the conversations I have with students or in my own studio practice feel very similar to a spiritual search, even if they’re not religious in nature.

5) How did you get into doing murals in Cincinnati?
I met the director of ArtWorks Cincinnati. This organization, their main thing is professional level public art and doing that through students, teenagers and college students, but with professional artists. In 2007, they had a mural spot open up. I just graduated with a BFA and they asked if I would be interested. I said if they were willing to let me learn through them, I was game for it.

6) So, how challenging was that first mural?
I think something artists do well is they just figure out how. They’re so used to working with materials and obstacles and challenges, they just find themselves agreeing to things before they even know how to do it.

7) No intimidation at all?
The fear was the logistical stuff: Did I order enough paint? Do I know how to mix at that scale? In my previous career I worked in all sorts of groups–leading groups, mobilizing people or training them–so I didn’t have any concern there. I think for some of the artists hired to work as a team, the struggle is not their ability or their talent, but the ability to work with a group.

8) What’s the importance of public art to cities?
It can be an opportunity for a community to celebrate creativity and the arts and at the same time find a collective voice. It’s not to say that the art of public art is always agreed upon or part of that neighborhood’s specific character. You have a lot of diversity in the mix, but with public art it’s an opportunity for the public itself to say, “Look what came out of us.” I’ve thought about public art like a teenager who decorates their room with their favorite band posters or meaningful photographs or drawings that they made–it’s an extension of themselves. Public art can be an extension of a personality of a city. On the other hand, it ought not be a brochure of a city. There’s a difference between a sign that says “this is who we are” and something that evokes a response in the viewer.

9) Is there a way to quantify the value of public art?
The value of public art is that it causes people who are used to following the same pathways, going to the same buildings and doing the same routines to stop and consider things. It makes them look up, to raise their head up to big mural on the wall or a giant sculpture overhead or just something that is not in the functional, purposeful, typical usage of their city but is a moment of contemplation that might not fit in their typical file folders. But they are encountering it. In some ways its job is to disrupt, but I don’t mean that in the controversial or antagonistic way, but to just disrupt the normal flow to step outside of ourselves for a moment and think about something more broadly.

10) Do you have any favorite artists or eras of art?
I’ve always loved the Dutch masters. Some of my artistic heroes are Morandi and Gustan. They’re nothing like my work, but I’m inspired by what they were about.

11) What’s your favorite art museum?
The d’Orsay in Paris. I’d say that one is probably my favorite because the spread of art they display. The history of painting–especially throughout the 19th century–is nicely on display there, so you can track the most significant shifts that happened.

12) Any you haven’t seen?
I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been to the major ones.

13) Let’s go back to mural painting. Any nerves come up when mapping one out?
The biggest one I painted was over 6,000 square feet. It was 100 feet wide by 66 feet tall, and highly complicated with detail work. That one kept me a little bit awake at night. I’m past the intimidation phase. I know how the process works.

14) What was it?
It was a painting by John Ruthven showing Martha the last passenger pigeon with a swarm of passenger pigeons behind her. That bird died at the Cincinnati zoo, and John Ruthven is a Cincinnati artist, so it was honoring the artist and heritage of the city.

15) One of your murals, The Golden Muse, made its way into National Geographic. What was that like?
That was really cool. I wish they would’ve put my name on it in that article. But that’s pretty typical. (Laughs.)

16) How did The Golden Muse come about?
It was done through ArtWorks and a partnership with Taft Museum of Art (in Cincinnati). The only requirement was it had to be a design inspired by the museum’s collection. I scoured their museum and found this mantle clock from the 19th or 18th century which had these gold female characters at the four corners that looked like these little muses. I just thought that’s beautiful right there. When the Taft staff was presented the design, they had to go look for it. They didn’t know where it was. The notes that encircle that image is the song Fanfare for the common man, which was written for Cincinnati.

17) What are you doing when you’re not painting?
I’ve got four kids. So probably something like a baseball game or gymnastics practice.

18) What do your kids think of your art?
I think they like it. I think they’ve each had to do a report on an artist at school and they’ve all picked me. done reports on an artist at school and I think they’ve all picked me.

19) How has mural painting helped you as an artist?
There’s a strong pull for the artist to just hole away in a studio and make thier own works of genius. I could easily get sucked into that way of thinking. I needed something to keep me out. I needed something to keep me involved in the community.

20) Want is one thing you want your students to learn?
I think what drives the core of what I teach them is to do what they love to do with art. If you want to do art, you commit to it, stay passionate about it and trust that it will come into play. I have it deep in my bones that you have to do what you’re passionate about doing.

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