Blending History with Art

James Parker likes to keep busy. After a very active life filled with military service and commercial business success, he turned to his love of painting and research of all things Americana.

            For many years now, Parker has been painting in the self-taught folk or primitive style. He has found that nearly every street, harbor, park, boatyard and more holds a rich history yet to be explored. It is as if these places have been waiting for someone like Parker. Some 30 or more of his paintings are now waiting for you to explore at the Mattapoisett Free Public Library, now through November 30.

            “When I paint a scene, everything in that scene is from the same era,” Parker said. Thus, when he painted antique cars, part of the Sandwich Heritage Museum collection, each vehicle was meticulously studied, and the people, their clothing and other objects were circa-specific. In some instances, he used antique postcards as reference material or visited museums to get the clothing as accurate as possible. The result is stunning.

            “I use the old English way of painting watercolors,” said Parker, explaining that this early method is achieved by layering the paint, applying color on top of color until the right intensity has been accomplished. The result is a painting with extremely complex hues and tones versus, say, what one might find in traditional watercolors.

            When listening to Parker, one gets a sense that the detective work he employs to best understand the subject of a painting is equally as interesting to him as the actual painting itself. “It’s like mixing history and art,” he said.

            The themes that interest this artist the most are those that give him a chance to learn and then, through the painting, tell and/or teach the viewer a bit of history.

            One example of his marrying art to history can be found at the Osterville Historical Museum. There, one of his pictures of a catboat accompanies a skeleton of one such marine vessel. He is quoted in the August 2021 issue of Cape Cod Life magazine as saying, “I’m creating something where kids can see the wreck but also an image of the way catboats were in their prime.”

            Long before finding his voice through painting, Parker was an entrepreneur owning a long list of successful businesses. And before that he served in the Navy during the second Suez (canal) war in the 1950s. One of his first forays into painting happened at this time. He was asked to paint the U.S. ship he was on to give as a gift, a tradition among ambassadors. That painting remains in royal custody somewhere in the Persian Gulf area.

            Parker remains curious with a very inquisitive mind. Age hasn’t slowed down this entrepreneur of all things historical and quintessentially New England. He proudly noted to us that he is 89 years of age. We can also say that listening to all his plans for future projects would exhaust someone decades younger.

            As he smiled at our photographer, the twinkle in his eyes shown like lasers – his mind is clearly supercharged with ideas waiting to appear for all to enjoy. To learn more, google watercoloristjamesparker.

Mattapoisett Library

By Marilou Newell

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