The Art Mystery Solved: David Parsons

Well, that didn’t take long. Several commenters knew the piece and its creator quite well.

This from Sandy Havens, a member of the Fine Arts Department along with Parsons for many years: Definitely David Parsons. I think the piece shown is the study for a much larger work that sat in front of Hamman Hall for a while. And, yes, to Walter Underwood, Parsons did produce the special bricks for the bio and geo buildings. He also did huge mobile sculptures for the exterior stairwells of both buildings. They were seriously damaged by some hurricane and had to be taken down.

And from Marty Merritt at the Shepherd School: David Parsons’s String Quartet moved around campus in various versions. I’m pretty sure that he wanted to raise funds to have a large one cast in bronze, but that never happened. A large black styrofoam (?) one (about six feet in diameter) was in the old Music Library on the third floor of Fondren. (I think we called it the second floor back in those days, but I digress) A smaller styrofoam one about three and a half feet in diameter similar to the one pictured was under the steps of the administrative office wing of Alice Pratt Brown Hall. Parsons wanted it out in the open, but it was lightweight and fragile enough that we thought it needed to be under lock and key. That one went away about four years ago and I don’t know what happened to it.

I had heard Parsons’ name for years and, still curious about him, I came in to the Woodson today to see what I could turn up. A lot, it turns out. Here is a 1981 Sallyport article about him on the occasion of his retirement. It’s extremely interesting. In it he expresses a view of higher education that manages to seem simultaneously old-fashioned and almost shockingly fresh. For what it’s worth it is a view that I largely agree with and one that seems to me even more badly needed today than when this was written thirty years ago. Oddly enough, the reporter’s notes from the interview are also in the file and they are far franker and even more engaging than what appears in the piece. I enjoyed reading them more than almost anything else I’ve come across recently.

Another happy accident: I also found this photo illustrating a different article in an unknown publication. You’ll surely recognize that half finished work to the right.

Bonus: Everyone can eat at Cohen House, but some of us have to eat outside.

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22 Responses to The Art Mystery Solved: David Parsons

  1. Richard A. Schafer says:

    I’m disappointed that there are none of Parsons’s pieces on campus. The pictures in the old Sallyport make his work look very interesting.

    • Phil MacNaughton says:

      Parson’s work was amazing and it is unfortunate that Rice doesn’t have any pieces, at least of which I’m aware, other than the bricks. Note to Marty Merritt: I helped Parsons’ son, also named David Parsons (and also a gifted sculptor, as well as a gifted car and motorcycle mechanic), remove the Quartet from Shepherd School. It is now in Mexico at the home of one of Parsons’ daughters.

  2. There is more information about the bricks in “A Walking Tour of Rice University”, 1984. Some of the photos aren’t very good scans, but you can get the idea.

  3. Sandy Havens says:

    I agree with Richard Schafer. Parsons’ work should be on campus–other, of course, than the bricks he designed for the Bio and Geo buildings. He was a great teacher and a wonderful colleague. I learned something new every conversation I had with him. Sometime in the late ’80’s Rice Players produced “Equus” by Peter Shaffer. David made marvelous sculptural horse heads and hooves for the actors portraying the horses. Photos in the Campanile for that year–I don’t remember the year. David’s wife Effie was a match for him. A magnificent woman who was totally engaged in the educational and artistic life of Houston. For a Rice Players production of a play based on the Commedia del Arte Effie created the Commedia masks. They were beautiful. She also performed in one of our productions–playing the ancient grandmother in the family. She was a spectral presence creeping along behind her walker with her long, wispy hair floating behind her. I completely fell in love with her when, a couple of days before opening night, she asked me, “Would you like me to do it without my teeth?” How can you not love someone so secure in herself?

    • totapa says:

      That goes to show the actress in her because she never wore dentures…she had her teeth to the very end.

      • Sandy Havens says:

        I only saw this today and I stand corrected. I was thinking of another older woman who did offer to play her role without her dentures. But I stand by my high regard for Effie, dentures or not.

  4. marmer01 says:

    Wow, that must have been a role she could really sink her teeth into! 😉

  5. Doug Williams says:

    Dr. Parsons was a long-time Will Rice Associate and a regular at lunch at least through the 80s. His quotes in that article match up perfectly with his lunchtime conversations.

    I’ve heard that he also did the terra-cotta artwork on the outside of the Will Rice Commons. I haven’t had much luck searching online for a picture, but this one gives an idea of where they are:
    If you zoom in, you can see the tiles on the wall under the Commons’s windows. They depict different majors/professions.

    • Ah, Parsons was a WRC associate. I was trying to figure out how I’d managed to spend time talking to him. That explains it.

      The terra cotta cartoon panels are not by David Parsons.

      The Will Rice terra cotta panels are also described in A Walking Tour of Rice University, starting on page 80 and the Hanszen panels on page 86. They were designed by Bill McVey and created with the help of Ms. McVey. The booklet gives the story behind several of the panels.

      Like: “This particularly wonderful panel shows Jesse Madden of the class of 1927 hoisting the freshman class president Bill McVey into the hidden spaces of the Turnverein Club. He reportedly spent two days hiding in the ceiling until the night of the sophomore prom, which he crashed by lowering himself down.”

      I always wondered about that panel.

  6. marmer01 says:

    There were terra-cotta tiles like that on the old Hanszen commons, too.

  7. John Eldridge says:

    I took sculpure courses from Parsons in the early ’70s, at least one before Sewell Hall was built so the class met under the track stadium grandstand. Parsons never seemed to mind the elements and noise, but one cold winter day there he was trying to keep the nude model warm with an electric heater and she got a radiation burn! I believe one of his pieces (bronze casting of birds??) was installed at the Unitarian Church on Fannin. It would be great to have one of his sculptures on campus.

    • Joe McMann says:

      I also took a sculpture course from David Parsons, under the old grandstand. I still remember one eerie night when he showed us the post-mortem full-body cast he made of the nine-foot woman who had died in New Orleans. It was surreal, being in the partial dark, listening to him tell of how he had to rush the process, since the temperature was in the 90’s. I remember that I put my thumb next to her little toe, and they were about the same size.

  8. marmer01 says:

    The Hanszen and Will Rice terra-cotta tiles were by William McVey. They are also treated in some detail in the “Walking Tour” archive link above. That is a very useful resource, by the way. I have a hard copy of the Morehead book.

  9. Carolyn Brewer says:

    David Parsons was a professor in the Architecture School when I was there, teaching sculpture, life drawing, etc. He was a very interesting man & regretfully most of us did not realize how special he was. I agree there should be a piece by him on the campus.

  10. John Coles says:

    David Parsons and his wife lived across the street from me on Mulberry Lane in Bellaire. This was in the late 70’s to late 80’s. They owned a 1/2 acre lot that was filled with his art in various stages of completion. His landscape was overgrown and natural, a truly magical place. You never knew what you would find, and classical music played outside on the weekends. In 1982 or 1983 as I recall, Hurricane Alicia came to visit and a large tree branch fell on his roof. I went out to help and Professor Parsons was using a hand saw attached/ropped to a long pole. The pole was a Fred Hansen Pole Vault he received as a gift from the 1964 Rice Gold Medalist in the Toyoko Olypmics. His studio under the track stadium paid off. This man and his work should be honored on Campus.

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  13. Christian Hauser says:

    The Cesar Pelli masterplan (1983) tried to settle the sculpture’s location definitively, or so it seems:
    “Professor Parsons’ sculpture of a string quartet should be placed in the forecourt to Hamman Hall, where it is compatible with the musical performance function of the building.”
    He offered that it could be situated off-center in case the steps and court were used for performances…and apparently it spun in the wind?
    “In either location, we recommend that the piece be mounted on a short pedestal of circular steps rather than cantilevered over a small cylinder. The rotation of the sculpture in the wind will still occur, but the steps will make the piece seem more solid and permanent and will offer more places to sit and gather.”

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  16. Dennis C. Clark, Baker, 1976 says:

    Prof. Parsons used to come often into the Music Library in Fondren and was a truly musical spirit. It was one of the wonderful things about being at Rice in the 1970’s, which was then still in many ways so predominantly science and engineering oriented, but had such talented people in the arts and who were all so kind and giving to students, many of whom were not pursuing majors in the humanities. Klaus Kratzenstein was another, in the Music Department, pre-Shepherd School, with whom I studied the organ as well as with his wife Marilou. But many in the German, Classics and other departments. And of course Sandy Havens and the Players. We were very lucky to have such an environment so rich in the arts.

    I am trying to search my memory for some conversation I think I had with Parsons when we had one of those awful floods back then – or was it about the need for the sump pump in the then new Sewall Hall in all those lower floors!

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