The Extraordinary Time of Jay Parnell

Better Angels | Jay Parnell
Love | Jay Parnell

Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”
Stan Lee

Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth 

We are experiencing a time like no other. A crisis that is affecting every country on the planet, leaving many to find themselves without the basic supports they had come to depend upon. Citizens around the world are scrambling to fashion a new normal for their families, for their communities, and for themselves. A narrative that emphasizes self-reliance while acknowledging how interconnected and interdependent we all are, that looking out for self at the expense of others can no longer be sustained.

The paintings of Jay Parnell, peopled with individuals who radiate quiet self-determination and inner resolve even in sometimes less than ideal settings, act as a beacon to the viewer in finding one’s own way through now unfamiliar landscapes. Could it be that we, like the subjects of Parnell’s paintings, are now in our own way working to write a new mythology for ourselves? And if so, what will this new mythology look like?

Requiem for New Orleans | Jay Parnell
Still Waiting (detail) | Jay Parnell


~ Indianapolis, Indiana

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your work has a strong historical narrative, but the figures you paint do not feel as anchored in the past as time travelers: Messengers you are sending to your viewers from perhaps a story that has not yet found its completion. Are these pieces part of a modern mythology you are creating? And if so, how does your story differ from those that have become a part of the American landscape?

Jay Parnell: I always endeavor to create work that stands outside of time. That sense of timelessness gives me the flexibility to build an open narrative. This narrative often looks like a new type of mythology.

Mythology is instructive. We are being fed new narratives every day by the news, television, music, and movies. Most of these stories are damaging and lead to a sense of helplessness. Those stories need to be discredited, amended or re-written. I’m amending folklore.

What I’m doing is different because we can only exist at this point in history.

Truth | Jay Parnell

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How does your own childhood fit into this narrative? What were some of the stories that impacted you growing up? Were there stories you heard as a young boy that you may have wished to rewrite?

Jay Parnell: As a child, my father had art books for my brother and me to read and do copy work. Mostly illustration. Early on, I fell in love with the editorial works of Brad Holland, Alan E. Cober and Marshall Arisman.

Brad Holland
Alan E. Cober
Marshall Arisman

Jay Parnell: Frank Franzetta famously painted fantasy work that included Conan the Barbarian and many other iconic images. I still have copies of two of his books.

Frank Franzetta

Jay Parnell: Charles White was a much more traditional influence on the work I became familiar with in my childhood.

Charles White

Jay Parnell: The stories I saw were complete. I felt no need to re-write them. Instead, I use music and contemporary writers as a starting place. Some of the artists I’ve used are Prince, Miles Davis, Octavia E. Butler, and Toni Morrison.

American singer, songwriter, musician, record producer,
dancer, actor, and filmmaker
Miles Davis
American jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer
Octavia E. Butler
American science fiction author and
winner of the Hugo Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award,
the Nebula Award, and the Locus Award
Toni Morrison
Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning novelist,
essayist, book editor, and college professor.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Location plays a strong role in your narratives. How have the places that have been home to you influenced your perspective as an artist?

Jay Parnell: I taught a class on art journals at the Indianapolis Art Center several years ago in which I asked the students to define “home.” I knew it was a loaded question but it points to the idea of location and being.

Most of my characters are at home within themselves. The landscapes add context.

I’m from Indiana, which has many farms, fields and horizon lines. These classical pastoral scenes are on display for any commute within the state. I like the idea of stripping away the idea of urbanity and misplacing my characters in these natural settings. The incongruity makes my people even more striking.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: We see the recurring theme of birds throughout your work, which often in art has represented the idea of freedom, the promise of a world beyond what can be reached on foot. What do the figures in your paintings yearn for? Are these birds a metaphor for artmaking, how an artist’s imagination can expand one’s sense of what’s possible?

Jay Parnell: My characters are multifaceted with many different concerns. It’s the same with my birds. They are full of many possible interpretations. For example, in my painting Acknowledgement, a male character is holding a bird in each hand with more birds around his feet. These birds represent messages from God.

Acknowledgement | Jay Parnell

Jay Parnell: In other paintings, they may only be a part of the background, other times I use them to set a mood. As far as using birds as a metaphor for art-making, I’ve never thought of it that way. But that’s what’s good about narrative artwork. The viewer gets to choose what he sees. I don’t want to change that.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Can you tell me about the girl in Whom Shall I Fear? She seems to be on the lookout. What dangers lurk outside the frame?

Whom Shall I Fear? | Jay Parnell

Jay Parnell: Psalms 27:1 The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?

This girl is a spiritual warrior standing in the rusting remains of modernity.

The 1970’s Eldorado is a classic Cadillac that stood as the standard of luxury and affluence. Now it sits, rusting with dry rotted tires. The same is also true of the desolate Detroit landscape with high weeds, unattended property, and an abandoned building. This image is a nod to the dystopia of every big city.

Extraordinary Time | Jay Parnell

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your piece Extraordinary Time has a decidedly different feel. Please tell me about the scene you have painted for your viewers here.

Jay Parnell: “Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.” This quote is the primary idea behind this painting. But there are many stories that are in this image. These men are the tip of the spear and are very, very tired. They are an accidental collection of anger and frustration. I was also inspired by the lyrics of an infamous Public Enemy song, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.”

Jay Parnell: “As I ventured into the courtyard followed by 52 brothers bruised, battered, and scarred but hard
Going out with a bang, ready to bang out
Each man has his own story.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: If you could paint your characters a very different future, what would that look like?

Jay Parnell: I have never really played out a future for any of my characters. They only exist in the moment.

I learned long ago to never tell the whole story. Most viewers like to participate in reading your narrative. If you fill in too many of the blanks, the magic is gone. I’ve had some collectors flip my narrative on its head and I love the result better than my own story. I don’t own the meaning of my work. Once it’s complete, I walk away and let the narrative take shape.

Morning Light | Jay Parnell
Flower Girl | Jay Parnell
Relative | Jay Parnell
Farewell Song | Jay Parnell

Further Notes:

Jay Parnell is based in Indianapolis, Indiana with work in public and private collections throughout the United States. Represented by E&S Gallery (Louisville, KY).

To see more of his work, please visit his website

Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

1 Comment

  1. Sarah R. on April 14, 2020 at 8:39 am

    What soulful pieces and the interview added context and meaning. Thank you!

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