A deeply rural art gallery at the end of a Comptche dirt road is not likely to attract many visitors. Or any visitors. And sure enough its curator, Dan Parker, laughingly says of his remote enterprise, “It’s the only gallery you can’t get to.”
And the only one I know of, at least at ordinary income levels, that seems to operate by invitation only, the invitations apparently extended solely to persons the curator thinks will appreciate his work.
I got my invitation, I went, I appreciated.
Dan Parker's art might be described by the willfully un-understanding as a mere accumulation of reminiscent tree hunks randomly stuck with sticks to resemble whatever Dan says his woody ensembles resemble. My first glance did indeed translate as, “Well, this old boy has gone to a lot of trouble to drag a bunch of logs into a large, well-lit room that otherwise looks like an art gallery right down to its perfect tan oak flooring.”
But close up I saw that the tree hunks had been cleverly rendered to look like certain celebrated people, and certain forms of iconic human behavior such as the kiss, and even made into certain sinister abstractions which definitely have to be seen through the artist’s eyes before you see what he sees.
But Dan Parker's work is not random, although it occurs randomly in the woods until Dan spies it in its natural state and is inspired to fully convert what he's seen to a permanent piece of art. “Driving along the Cameron Road one day I saw....” The downed tree reminds him of something, usually a humorous something, and he drags the something to his Comptche ranch and makes a recognizable something out of it. And once he’s got the something into consensus recognizable form, Dan deftly winches the recognizable something up into his gallery, a gallery as far from the sleek seascapes and decaf lattes of gallery-ridden Mendocino County as an art gallery is likely to get.
The artist is a vigorous 80-year-old who, the day I met him for my tour, was just back from his weekly badminton game. I told him he looked quite fit. He told me I looked quite large. “Must be all the push-ups I do,” I said as the artist chuckled.
We’d met out on the road. Rural people always meet “out on the road.” The visitor is thus spared directions that begin, “At the old madrone take the second fork after the third abandoned hippie bus.” Dan had told me, “I’ll be on the pavement at one o’clock. Look for a silver truck."
Dan Parker arrived in Comptche in 1969. He’d been through the urban political grinder as it ground through thousands of people who finally concluded that all the violent talk didn’t seem to be making the world a better place, that it might be better for one’s mental health if one departed the city for the country until things calmed down some. By 1970, many thousands of young people had come to that same conclusion hence, forty years later the Emerald Triangle and the tie-dyed Senior Citizen’s Center.
An earnest yet humorous fellow, Dan grew up in Connecticut. His father was a well-known illustrator, his mother a painter. His grandparents included at least one member of the St. Louis Philharmonic orchestra.
In his urban incarnation, Dan lived in Southern California where he consorted with the Panthers and the tough-talking left, such as it was in those tumultuous times, and was a founding member of the Peace and Freedom Party. He’s also a sports guy, well-known from the days of Comptche’s famous weekend basketball games. “I never could guard that Boonville guy,” Dan told me. “What the heck’s his name? And I was pretty good on defense, too.” I knew Dan was referring to the great Gene Waggoner. “Nobody could handle him, Dan,” I assured the still perplexed hoopster. “Gene wouldn’t have embarrassed himself in the NBA.”
I, too, was a charter member of the Peace and Freedom Party and a faithful member of the left mob, Frisco branch. I was also a sports guy and I, too, had tried to shut down Gene Waggoner, my memory of the effort being a derisive snort from Waggoner as he breezed up, over or around all of us.
Dan and I share these commonalities, as the ponderous describe coincidence. I’d come north to Boonville under different circumstances but had arrived at the same time as Dan and the rest of the emigres.
“You could see that we drove past a lot of junk,” Dan said when we arrived at a cluster of hobbit houses placed among revived redwoods beside a perfect green meadow. I remembered passing an elongated vehicle of mysterious lineage and miscellaneous pieces of heavy equipment, but it would have taken five hundred fast food franchises to overwhelm the natural splendor of the setting. The hobbit houses were larger and more ingeniously crafted than they first appeared, and the gallery would turn out to be a real gallery which could be plunked down on lower Geary in San Francisco with the shiny-floored fanciest of them.
But we weren’t in San Francisco; we were deep in Comptche where Dan and his Austrian-born wife raise a few head of cattle, maintain chickens and an organic garden. If western civ collapsed tomorrow they’d be able to hold out for some time in their serene redoubt, complete with their own art gallery.
“When I got here I didn’t know how I was going to support myself,” Dan remembers, expressing the common dilemma of most members of Mendocino County's class of 1970, “so I became a self-taught cabinet worker.” And reluctantly entangled in a long legal battle with his brother who’d wanted to "log all this redwood, pay off the land and live happily ever after on a moonscape.”
Dan managed to keep the trees standing and, four decades later, the place is much like it was when it was a 19th century homestead.
Double deep in rural Comptche at his Parker Ranch, Dan has also established this rarely accessed art gallery, with each exhibit mounted on metal bases screwed into the feet of each piece like horseshoes on Clydesdales.
I soon saw what Dan saw. These weren't upright logs with twigs sticking out of them, they were prehistoric reptiles and Venus “au natural” and a wood nymph and a downed quarterback. I couldn’t see God, but I saw the pedestal Dan had built for Him as Dan explained, “God needs no introduction, nor is he seen in profile.”
There are a lot of laughs at this gallery deep in the woods, including Twiggy. If Twiggy hadn’t been called “Twiggy,” I wouldn’t have recognized her in the tree limb rendering standing before me as the anorexic model from the late 1960s. But there she was, complete with a bark mini-skirt and halter top. Dan’s remote exhibit is called The Upside Down World of the Tree People. It’s had a long run, a very long run, having begun as random trees, or random pieces of trees, in very old forests, and is likely to enjoy a comparably long run at the Parker Ranch given the artist’s obvious fondness for it.
“Nothing is added to the tree trunks,” the artist says. “I have minimally subtracted, creating mental images from naturally fallen or logging-casualty trees. The craftsmanship is not obvious but present.”
That’s true. The craftsmanship is not obvious at first, but if it weren’t present what we would have would be little more than a vertical wood pile.
The unique exhibit of found eco-art, these bio-renderings of Twiggy, Wilt Chamberlain, the ‘Nam Vet, and The Texas Cowboy, culminated for me in “Collateral Damage” which, I confess, took me several long leaps of imagination to see as Dan saw it. But, as Dan points out, “Collateral Damage was designed to stand in a circular depression, the reverse of a monument, so to speak, not as something of which to be proudly or prominently displayed.”
I saw it that way, too, and it sure as heck wasn’t prominently displayed. The only way you'll see it is if you're invited.