The "Near-Immortality" of Charles Parks' Symbolic Sculptures
Author Pam George and photographer Kevin Fleming examine the esteemed sculptor in their new book, "Charles Parks: The Man Behind the Art."
Over 70 years, Charles Parks made hundreds of sculptures and statues in his studio on the Brandywine. Many of them stand prominently on display at such places as the Brandywine River Museum of Art, Brandywine Park and along I-95, where one of his famous Madonnas greets travelers entering Delaware from the Memorial Bridge. In the course of his life and work, Parks became one of the state’s most treasured artists and earned a reputation across the nation. A new book by author Pam George and photographer Kevin Fleming shows and explains the art of the man Gov. Jack Markell named Sculptor of Delaware.
"Charles did many sculptures of well-known people, including President Richard M. Nixon, Gov. James F. Byrnes of South Carolina, Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill, Mayor Thomas Maloney of Wilmington and President Gerald R. Ford as a Boy Scout. His work also includes hundreds of children and animals. There are serious portraits of businessmen and fanciful statues of mermaids. Many churches in Delaware have a Charles Parks piece over their altars. People of all denominations revere his three stainless steel Madonna sculptures. Although each Madonna is more than 30 feet tall, they’re all different, and every one is a monumental piece of work. Charles’ art is on display around the world, and Delaware is fortunate to have a good portion of it."
—from the introduction by June Jenkins Peterson
From left to right: "Our Lady of the New Millennium;" “Nymph of the Christina”
Although Charles Parks was rooted in representational art, he didn’t limit himself to subjects found in the natural world. Mermaids, mer-children and sprites shared studio space with saints, businessmen and dignitaries. Parks felt it was important for people to exercise their imaginations, and while the figure was a recognizable symbol in his work, his subjects could exist in the world of fairy tales, myths and legends.
All of Parks’ nymphs have two tails. When “Nymph of the Christina” was presented to King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia on April 13, 1988, the king commented on the dual fins. Parks told him that he’d always wondered how a mermaid could effectively “function” with just one. The king thought for a moment before diplomatically noting, “In swimming, of course,” Parks replied, “Of course.”
Some of Charles Parks’ most powerful works reveal the link between man and nature. Not only do these subjects reflect his admiration for the innocence and uncomplicated perfection of the natural world, but they also allowed him to share his personal idealism.
“Boy and Dogs” makes man the peaceful mediator between predator and prey. Parks echoed that theme in one of his best-known pieces, “Boy with Hawk” (1971). Located at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa., the statue of a youth has a hawk on his upheld right wrist and two doves in his left hand. “In this small protective act the boy symbolizes man’s ability to control his environment, but the final outcome of man’s interference with the natural world is precariously uncertain,” wrote Michael Richman for the exhibition guide “Three Sculptors of Realism,” which was published in 1973.
From left to right: "Boy and Dogs;" "Boy with Hawk"
In “Vietnam” (1983)…, Parks wanted to demonstrate that the Vietnam War—unlike previous wars—had no formal racial segregation. The races were equal on the battlefield. In the 9-foot bronze sculpture, an African-American carries the limp body of a white soldier. Parks wanted all the details of the piece to be exact, from the helmet to the combat boots.
The powerful “Father and Son” (1970) was created for Spencer Plaza in Wilmington. Named for Peter Spencer, the father of the independent African-American church movement, the plaza marks the original site of the Mother African Union Methodist Protestant Church. “Father and Son” shows a seated, barefoot young man in a T-shirt holding a sleeping child, a composition similar to Parks’ earlier “Touchstone” (1965). Parks said that he originally intended to convey the sacrificial idea embodied in the tale of Abraham and Isaac. But a group of inner-city children, who visited Parks’ Hockessin studio to see the statue in progress, had other ideas. One student said, “Maybe his mother died and his father had to love him and care for him. The black man is thinking how can he take care of the child and find a new mother for it.” Another said the statue made him think of poor, hungry people, and a third simply stated that the statue meant “black is beautiful.”
From left to right: "Vietnam;" "Father and Son"
“A portrait by Charles Parks invariably captures the characteristics of an individual child and of childhood itself. Several possess a beauty that invites comparison with bronze portraiture of classical antiquity. One envies the owners of these exquisite pieces because the genius of the sculptor brings near-immortality to the bronze and gives them precious images of their children’s childhood.”
—biographer Wayne Craven
Few would deny that the arresting “Rupa” (1970) displays a young black woman’s imposing presence. “I am grateful that there are people as beautiful as Rupa,” Parks wrote for the 1971 Delaware Art Museum exhibition catalog. The daughter of Louis Redding—a prominent lawyer and civil rights advocate from Wilmington—Rupa is “boldly Afro-coiffed,” wrote Ruth Jillya Kaplan in a column promoting the exhibition. Like the bust of Nefertiti, only Rupa’s head, neck and clavicles are revealed. Her lips are pressed lightly together, and her gaze is regal under heavy brows. Kaplan appreciated the focused gaze of Rupa’s pupils, noting “...her eyes and facial demeanor are one, presenting a unified, forthright portrait.”
From left to right: "Rupa;" "Our Lady Queen of Peace"
Soaring more than 30 feet into the sky and shimmering in the sun, Charles Parks’ three statues of the Virgin Mary have a prominent place in his body of work. Indeed, “Our Lady of Peace,” “Our Lady of the New Millennium” and “Our Lady Queen of Peace” have garnered national and international press. After the completion of the second Madonna, Parks said in his profile for the National Sculpture Society that “the whole experience of working in welded steel and the attention of the public and the press every step of the way made me feel like a rock star.”
With so many religious themes in his collection, Parks was often asked about his faith, and journalists became particularly interested in his beliefs after the completion of each large Madonna. Parks often told them that he felt humble in the face of creation, and that doing a child’s portrait was as much of a religious experience as sculpting the Madonna. To one reporter he said: “In the Bahai faith, they say ‘work is worship.’ I sort of like that.”