NEDERLAND — Ask Carl Parker whose artwork is hanging in his new law office and he might shake his head and grow pensive. As often as not, he may not readily know.
That’s because Parker, former lawmaker and longtime local lobbyist and attorney, hangs or displays what he likes, no matter the subject matter or the medium. It’s the work, not the artist’s name, that matters to him.
Nonetheless, his new office at 1720 Nederland Ave. is bedecked with dozens of oils and acrylics, signed prints and originals. He can tell a little story about each — or not. Sometimes he just likes what he sees and he’ll tell you that, too.
His interest in art stems not from formal study but from exposure to paintings and statuary and more. He’s visited elite museums in London and New York and Italy.
Of the last, he said, “Paintings of the bambino and mother can wear you out.” But he loved the statuary in Italy.
As much as he hangs, he stores a lot, too. He’s consolidated his office space, leaving him with a surfeit of art and a scarcity of wall space. Choices must be made.
Much of the collection comes as part of his long years of representing this region and Jefferson County in the state Legislature. Galleries abound in Austin and nearby Georgetown and around central Texas and that’s where he spent a lot of time looking at artwork.
Many of those travels were done with Neil Caldwell, the former lawmaker and Brazoria County judge, who studied art at the University of Texas. Caldwell was his roommate for three legislative sessions in Austin.
Once, they stopped to tour a rural gallery where the eager saleswoman showed them a painting by an artist who’d recently died. That would make the painting more valuable, she said, to the muted mirth of the two lawmakers.
They continued touring the gallery and the saleswoman showed them another artist’s work. “How’s their health?” Caldwell asked her.
“I like Western art. I like some modern art,” Parker said. “And I like some of the classics.”
That explains why his collection includes stagecoaches and cowboys on horseback, as well as a few Robert Rauschenberg prints.
He met Robert Rauschenberg, a Port Arthur native, during a roast at the Museum of the Gulf Coast. When he called then Gov. Ann Richards to see if she’d be interested in coming to that event with Rauschenberg, she told him without hesitation that she’d commandeer the state airplane for travel to Port Arthur. He hangs Rauschenberg’s signed poster that the abstract impressionist created for his hometown’s centennial celebration in 1998.
“That’s a Newman,” he said more than once, walking room to room and referencing the work of Jerry Newman, the former Lamar professor whose work has been displayed at the Smithsonian and in Parisian galleries. Many of the Western pieces were Newman’s. “He went off to Paris, painted a lot of flowers,” Parker said.
“I took him duck hunting once,” Parker said of Newman, who taught numerous influential artists at Lamar, pointing at a watercolor depicting a lone, distant hunter and his dog. “That’s supposed to be me and my dog.”
Passing one painting, Parker said simply, “That was my payment for getting an artist out of a ‘hot check’ charge.”
Some of the treasures are more personal still, handcrafted by himself. As woodworkers go, he’s pretty accomplished and has shown his work here and outside the county. He took up carving some five or six years ago after reviewing others’ work and deciding, “I can do that.” He could. He did.
In fact, he made the desk on which he works, a work that dates back to the Kennedy administration. He got out of the Navy, returned to Southeast Texas and, with the help of a neighbor, built his desk, which he still uses.
Some of what he displays are illustrations or cartoons lampooning the Texas Legislature, sometimes with him as a principal character. One cartoon shows him with Kent Caperton, like Parker a reform-minded Democrat, during the “Killer Bees” episode in 1979, when a dozen Democrats sought to prevent a presidential primary in Texas that would have favored former Texas Gov. John Connally, then a Republican candidate.
Another piece in the kitchen bore the simple words, “You are innocent until proven broke.”