In Memoriam: Dennis William Parks

Apr 28, 2021

Dennis William Parks passed away on March 28, 2021 in Reno, Nevada. He was eighty-four years old.

He was born in Berea, Kentucky, on December 31, 1936, to Elisha Taylor and Lois Ferry Parks. He lived most of his early years in Arlington, Virginia. His father worked as a specialist on Latin America for the State Department in Washington, D.C., and his mother taught gifted education. Dennis graduated from Washington Lee High School in Arlington where he discovered a love for poetry writing and was captain of the crew (rowing) team. Warren Beatty was a classmate, and they wrote a play together (later in life, Dennis tried to re-establish contact, but Warren never called back…).

Dennis went on to college, first to Rutgers on a crew scholarship, then to Albert Schweitzer College in Switzerland where he studied philosophy for a year, and finally to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he majored in English literature. It was at Chapel Hill where Dennis discovered his passion for pottery—he needed one last class to graduate from UNC, so he took a ceramics class his final summer there, figuring it would be an easy three credits, and fell in love.

After graduation, he married Julia Ann Gardner Parks. She had recently graduated from Duke with a degree in nursing. They moved to Iowa briefly—Dennis had been accepted into the poetry program at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Dennis liked to tell this story frequently: he didn’t much care for Iowa City, and he didn’t want to have a child with “Iowa City” on his birth certificate (Julie was pregnant with their son Benjamin), so they moved back to D.C. and settled in the Georgetown District.

It was here where he began to dedicate himself to pottery earnestly. They rented a small studio and gallery space with a living area on the second floor. Dennis hung a shingle on the door that read “Poet, Potter, Peacemaker.” He had declared as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, which was just getting underway in late 1959. Dennis made pots, they represented up-and-coming artists in their gallery, and Julie paid the rent with her nursing job.

In the summer of 1962, Dennis and Julie headed west with their two young sons, partly at the prompting of a painter, Lee Deffebach, who they represented at their gallery. Lee was originally from Salt Lake City, had studied abstract expressionism in New York, and had a funny, circuitous connection to a ghost town called Tuscarora in northeastern Nevada. Dennis was intrigued. On their way west to the Pacific Ocean, they stopped to visit Lee in Tuscarora, where she summered with her husband Gordon. They only spent a few days there before continuing on to Pacific Grove, California, but Dennis was enamored. Some of his fondest memories as a child had been visiting his Tennessee dirt farmer grandparents. These visits had cultivated a deep love for rural living.

In Pacific Grove Dennis continued developing his craft, and in 1963 was accepted into the ceramics program at Claremont Graduate School in southern California. The renowned ceramic artist Paul Soldner ran the program—and he had recently graduated from studies with the giant in ceramics Peter Volkous. While at Claremont, Dennis also had the opportunity to work with the famed sculptor John Mason. Very heady times, indeed.

Upon graduation in 1965, Dennis was hired by Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, to build, direct, and teach their ceramics department. This he did brilliantly, as attested by his former students, but he also grew restless in the Midwest (shades of Iowa City), and came up with a brilliant idea: start a summer pottery workshop for his students from Knox in Tuscarora. He called it “The Tuscarora Retreat and Summer Pottery School.” Nothing existed. The first group of students arrived the summer of 1966 to zero infrastructure. They came for two months, a rag-tag band of eighteen to twenty-two year olds under the tutelage of a “visionary” just barely older than they were. They turned an old carriage shop into a studio space, scavenged the steering columns from broken down cars to create potters wheels, gathered fallen bricks from collapsing smelters to build kilns—as it turned out, the old mining town of Tuscarora was rich in materials for a from-the-ground-up pottery workshop. The tailing piles from the old mining days were rich in native earthenware clays, sagebrush ash made a gorgeous glaze, crankcase oil gathered from the service stations in Elko was an excellent fuel to fire kilns with.

From this embryonic beginning, the Tuscarora Pottery School was born. In 1967 Dennis was hired for a similar position—establish, direct, and teach ceramics and sculpture at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. But he had been seriously bitten by the Tuscarora bug. He brought his students from Pitzer up to Tuscarora for the fall of 1967 and 1969, and he and Julie ran steady summer workshops. By now, they had purchased two homes and an old rooming house in Tuscarora. A steady stream of college-aged enthusiasts were coming through. Money was scarce. Dennis joked, “They’re paying me to build my studios!” In the summer of 1972 a geodesic dome studio was completed—the carpenter got a discounted rate of $10 per day room and board.

This summer turned out to be a watershed. Dennis had recently won a gold medal for his ceramics at a competition in Faenza, Italy. Auspiciously, the garden had gifted the family with an abundant crop of corn. And now, a brand new studio. Dennis resigned his professorship at Pitzer, and moved his family full-time and forever to Tuscarora.

Now, Dennis made a concerted effort to cement his reputation as a ceramic artist and teacher. Who is going to come to the middle of nowhere to study pottery with a – nobody? He began writing articles for ceramics magazines in earnest — Ceramics Monthly, Studio Potter, Ceramics: Art and Perception, just to name a few. He had plenty to write about—how to start a pottery school and studio in the middle of nowhere on next to nothing. He developed an international reputation: students from Belgium, Canada,  Australia, and the Netherlands applied. The east coast “discovered” him—artists from New York, Boston, and Chicago arrived. Tuscarora was now, as they say, on the map. Dennis became the subject of articles. The LA Times sent a reporter up to do a feature. PBS did a segment or two. Dennis began writing books, A Potters Guide to Raw Glazing and Oil Firing. More students came to learn these skills. Living in the Country, Growing Weird, A memoir written in the late 1990s kept students applying in the later years.

As Dennis developed an international reputation, he was invited to give workshops abroad. Through the 1980s and 1990s he taught and attended symposia in Australia, England, Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Uzbekistan, China, Hungary, and Scotland. He was inducted into the International Academy of Ceramics in Geneva, Switzerland. His artwork was collected broadly, over 70 international collections in all, including the Victoria and Albert in London, England. He wrote a third book, Alien Among Anxious Artists, chronicling his travels in Central Europe over two decades: “…A humorous, non-fiction narrative describing…changes occurring…as reflected in the lives of his counterparts during their uncertain passage from drab communist repression into benign Capitalist neglect…” (Google Books).

By the late 1990s, Dennis’s son Ben had taken over the directorship of the pottery school, and Dennis came to calling himself “professor emeritus.” By now, he had become a bit of a legend in ceramics circles, if not the envy of a few of his contemporaries. Not only was he a famous potter, but he had serious credentials as a country bumpkin—he could shoot a deer, skin a coyote, ice fish, pluck a chicken, organic garden, and cook up a mean batch of ginger trout.

He spent the last several years of his life telling tales, writing the occasional poem, coming up with ideas for more artworks, and enjoying his country life in Tuscarora.

He will be missed dearly for his wisdom, humor, and knowledge. Dennis was preceded in death by his wife Julie, his brother Richard, and his parents. He is survived by his sons Benjamin and Gregory, his daughter-in-law Kylee, his grandchildren Aurora, Reese, and Indie, nieces, and many friends.

Services are pending, likely mid-summer when the weather is cooperative.

Announcements to be made on the pottery school webpage at www.tuscarorapottery.com and on Ben Parks’s Facebook page. 

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