Artwork by Norman Parish. (Smithsonian Institution)

By H.R. Harris,
Special to the AFRO

In Georgetown, nestled amidst million-dollar homes and storefront boutiques, African-American artist Norman Parish Jr. spent the last chapter of his life creating a space to display works from all walks of life.  

Parish created the Parish Gallery after years of art and activism in Chicago where his life and work spawned a new voice and role for the work of African-American artists and creatives over the latter half of the 20th century and the first 20 years of the current era.  

A documentary recounting Parish’s work as well as the art that served as the backdrop of the Black struggle for liberation in the second half of the 20th century will preview on June 6 and 7 at the City Tavern Club in Georgetown.

Parish III said displaying the film at City Tavern Club was perfect. “It made sense to showcase the film in Georgetown, where my father had his gallery.”

After Parish died in 2013, the Smithsonian gave his father’s work new meaning.  

“My dad was meticulous in record keeping. A year after he died, the Parish family gave records to Smithsonian’s National Archives of American Art.”

Walls of Respect: Norman Parish and the Parish Art Gallery” is the story of a man born in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, L.a. at the end of the Great Depression in 1939.  

Parish was one of six children whose father, Norman Parish Sr., worked in a New Orleans bakery, and his mother was a homemaker. The family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration in the late 1940s.

As a child, Parish developed artistic skills, and in high school, he attended Wendell Phillips High School and Hyde Park High School, where Herbie Hancock was his classmate.  

Parish studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. He went on to lead an artistic movement that sparked the creation of murals across the country.

Yet, even with a degree from the world-renowned Art Institute of Chicago in 1960, Parish was still a Black man seeking to use his creativity in a White world that did not always understand his gift.  

“It was hard to get jobs in the art world, but he continued to paint. He would come home and paint until midnight,” said his son Norman Parish III, of his father’s determination to express his world through art. 

Walls of Respect, directed by Susan Ericsson, features acclaimed African-American abstract sculptor Richard Hunt, the first African-American sculptor to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The documentary includes perspectives from AfriCOBRA painter, sculptor and printmaker Wadsworth Jarrell, multimedia artist and diplomat, Cynthia Farrell Johnson, and music and entertainment, political photographer and historian, Oggie Ogburn.  

“Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu…I have been blessed,” Ogburn said. “I didn’t discover photography; photography found me.”

Walls of Respect, the title of the documentary, is derived from the outdoor mural painted in Chicago in 1967 by that same name, when the mid-western city, like many American cities, was a racial powder keg. 

The “Wall of Respect” was the first outdoor, large-scale community mural in the United States. The mural spurred a movement in communities across the nation featuring art as a means of black political expression.  

“The Wall of Respect was a great moment in time,” said veteran photographer Roy Lewis. Lewis and photojournalist Darrell Cowherd were also part of the wall project resulting from months of planning.

“We voted on the artists who would be on the wall before the paint went on it,” Lewis said. “It was done at the corner 43rd and Langley and completed in 1967,” Lewis continued.

“The Wall movement spread like wildfire around the city. All of these murals had themes. It was the beginning of public art in our communities.”

Norman Parish moved to Washington, D.C. and resided there between the 1980s and 1991. There, he opened the gallery in 1991 which his son described as a unique space.

“He saw how beautiful it was. He not only wanted to showcase his art but the art of other artists in need.”

Norman Parish Jr. died on July 8, 2013.

The preview starts at 7:00 p.m. on June 6 and ends on June 7 at the City Tavern Club on 3206 M Street N.W. 

For more information, call the City Tavern Club at 202-337-8770.

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