Dropout to high art: Student’s art exhibited around the world

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“Power Shift” is a 45-by-40-inch acrylic and collage on canvas created by Erik Parker, artist and alumnus of this college, in 2017. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, N.Y.

Artist and former student will share his story 10:50 a.m.-12:05 p.m. Oct. 19 in Room 120 of the visual arts center.

By Alison Graef


Erik Parker, 49, artist and alumnus of this college, did not set out to become a globally recognized artist. It was years of struggling in public school and some run-ins with law enforcement that ultimately set him on the path to painting.

Parker was born in 1968 in Germany to military parents and moved with his family to San Antonio in 1971.

He struggled in the public school setting. At Judson High School, he said he was labeled as a troublemaker and poor student by the staff and teachers. 

Parker said the school did not recognize he had dyslexia.

“They should have realized that back in elementary school and dealt with it then, but what they did in my elementary school, which is part of Judson school district, was just take you out in the hall and whip you. You know, paddle you because you were being lazy, or whatever, disruptive,” said Parker, who was interviewed by phone.

The negative labels became self-fulfilling prophecies when Parker internalized and believed them.

“And then you figure, ‘Wait, I’m nothing but a troublemaker, because that’s what they tell me,’” Parker said. “So then you become what they tell you.”

Parker will speak about his art and share his story 10:50 a.m.–12:05 p.m. Oct. 19 in Room 120 of the visual arts center. The lecture is free and open to faculty, staff, students and community members.

After dropping out of high school in 10th grade, Parker was faced with probation for offenses related to delinquency, including driving while intoxicated and public intoxication. 

He was given a choice, however, to either cut his probation in half by getting his GED or to get out of it completely by attending community college.

“I walked into San Antonio College, went to the art department and saw a bunch of Chicano dudes painting and I was like, ‘Dude, I’m in!’” Parker said.

Parker started classes in 1990 and spent the next two years at this college taking art classes and basics.

Parker had only sketched with a pencil before coming to this college, but his father was an actor, so he was familiar with the large scale of sets. 

He was immediately drawn to large-scale acrylics on canvas.

“The size of an empty canvas reminded me of scenery before it had been painted,” Parker said. 

“I was in. I didn’t even give it a second thought. I was like ‘I’m in. Let’s do this.’”

Eduardo Rodriguez, art professor and former student at this college, became friends with Parker when they took art classes together.

“This program historically has a great foundational experience for people,” Rodriguez said. “It has a serious influence on people developing as young artists.”

Parker said former art Professor Melesio “Mel” Casas, Chicano artist, activist and writer, had a big impact on him through his large-scale work of acrylics on canvas. 

He was drawn to Casas’ incorporation of both pop imagery and Chicano slang in his work.

“It’s like saying, ‘Here’s someone who is academically a professor, and at the same time, he’s using language in his paintings,’” Parker said.

“I was drawn to the idea that he was incorporating street vernacular into high art by way of American pop iconography.”

Parker said former art Professor Mark Pritchett taught him the concept of discipline and the weight of responsibility in art.

“Mark Pritchett was, like, super scary,” Parker said. “He was teaching a bunch of young punks how to be responsible for what they make. He made you serious about what you did.”

Parker said Pritchett taught him the language of art and how to defend and improve his art through Pritchett’s critique process.

“It was kind of ‘art by fear’ for very young, aspiring artists,” Parker said. “Now I’d give him a run for his money, but then I was young.”

Parker said the faculty and staff in the fine arts department more than prepared him to transfer to the University of Texas at Austin. He went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in 1998 at State University of New York at Purchase. 

He entered the university able to make large-scale paintings and speak intelligently about his work. 

“Honestly, it changed my life in so many ways that I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for everyone there,” Parker said of his experience at this college.

“The quality of education you got at that time for the money and the attention you got was amazing.”

Parker moved to The Bronx, New York City, in 1996, and then to Brooklyn.

He moved with $200 to his name and his firstborn baby daughter. He said that was the place to be as an artist, so he went. 

He met and married his wife, Brooke, in Brooklyn and now has three daughters. Today, he lives 900 feet from his studio in Brooklyn.

He said he is always working to improve his skill and incorporate new imagery and use of color in his work.

“It’s like extreme sport without the injury,” Parker said. “You just keep pushing yourself.”

Parker said his distinct and colorful style is not produced from a particular inspiration but rather as a reaction to living.

“Inspiration comes from just so many different things,” Parker said.

“It’s kind of just being a human being right here and right now, in this place, in this time, and reacting to it, but not intentionally,” 

Art Professor Debra Schafter invited Parker to speak at this college.

“He’s had an incredible career. It’s just incredible,” Schafter said. 

She said Parker has an impressive average of five exhibitions a year and has had more than 35 solo shows since 2000. 

Parker’s artwork is exhibited around the world in museums in the U.S., United Kingdom, Europe, Japan and Scandinavia.

“It’s heavy times,” Parker said. “It calls for good art.”

Schafter said students and faculty in the department are excited for Parker’s return.

“He’s legendary in the department,” Schafter said.


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