Behind the Uniform: Jessica Park

Jessica Park, best known for her presence in the mailroom, drawing in her home studio. Photo courtesy of Pure Vision Arts.
Jessica Park, best known for her presence in the mailroom, drawing in her home studio. Photo courtesy of Pure Vision Arts.

Jessica Park has been a staple of the College community for thiry years. She has spent those years dedicated to the mailroom which bears her name while also establishing herself as a nationally recognized artist.

Park is the youngest daughter of David and Clara Claiborne Park, both of whom were professors at the College, in the physics and English departments, respectively. She grew up in Williamstown, first in a house on Chapin Court and later in one on Hoxsey Street, where she still resides. At the age of three, she was diagnosed with autism, something her mother later documented in a 1967 book entitled The Siege about her experience raising a child with the condition. What Clara Park didn’t know at the time was that she wasn’t just raising a child with autism; she was raising an artist.

“[Art] was something my mother encouraged as a type of a therapy but didn’t really think was ever going to amount to anything,” Paul Park, lecturer in English and Jessica Park’s older brother, said. But his sister stuck with it. “Jessy has a lot of discipline,” he said.

Park attended Mount Greylock High School, where she remembers taking art classes with a wonderful teacher named John Maziarz. Many of her early works were house portraits, which her mother would give to family friends as gifts. Professor of English Stephen Tifft recalls commissioning a teenaged Park to paint a portrait of the Chapin Court house in which he was then living as a surprise for his wife’s birthday, in part because the house was the same one Park had lived in as a child. When the painting was done, Tifft said, it “captured a nocturnal view of my – our – house from Jessy’s singular perspective: of the half I lived in, there was only a small section of the slate roof and chimney, all vividly polychromatic; of the half she had lived in, a larger expanse of her own erstwhile roof and the whole of its chimney, with a very small portion of a front dormer and a corner of its lighted window.” Over time, through projects such as these, Park’s paintings got more and more elaborate, and eventually, in the 1980s, her works began to attract attention from outside the family circle.

These days, most of Park’s paintings are done as commissions, although she also makes Christmas and birthday cards for family and friends, which are miniature versions of the sort of works she sells full-size. Park’s primary medium is acrylic paint and her primary subject is buildings. The architectural detail of her works is astonishing. Each archway, column or window is depicted with immense and striking detail.

But what stands out most in Park’s paintings is the color. Structures that are dull brown or stone gray in real life burst forth from her canvases in fluorescent pink or bright green or pastel orange. A painting of the Washington Monument and the Capital Building that hangs in Park’s front hall is particularly arresting. The strange red eyes of the monument glint sharply out from an oddly blue obelisk, and the dome of the Capital is alight with seemingly every hue of the rainbow.

“[Park] is very much controlled by a sense of order,” her brother said, adding that her works allow her to “meditate on patterns of color.” More simply, perhaps, color is just something that Park likes. Pastels are “my favorite,” she said, the vivid pink coat she donned as she spoke these words a testament to this preference. The upstairs doors of her house serve as testaments as well, having been painted with brightly colored rectangles.

Besides architecture and color, Park also likes to paint the sky. Some of her horizons flash with odd weather patterns – the background of a painting of the Glasgow City Chambers hanging in Park’s living room burns with a sun pillar, for instance. Other paintings have skies that sparkle with stars, something which Park paints, like everything else, with perfect precision, so that a viewer versed in astronomy could identify the constellations.

In creating her paintings, which depict places around the globe, Park mostly draws on photographs. She isn’t a big traveler – it’s not exactly her thing – although she would like to go to Las Vegas, someday, perhaps to paint a casino there.

Her autism hasn’t hindered her from her artistry. In fact, in a way, as her brother said, “It’s part of the art.” The way Park sees the world is part of what makes her works so fascinating and  so special. It’s part of what makes people respond to them.

And people have indeed responded to them. Park’s paintings have been shown in exhibitions in a number of cities, including New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Williamstown.

But art isn’t the only thing to Park’s name. She has been an employee in the College’s mailroom since 1980, and the space was named the Jessica H. Park Mailroom in her honor in 2007 by former President of the College Morton Schapiro.

Park’s daytime workplace is sometimes “very busy,” she said, but it’s clear she keeps on top of everything. In fact, halfway through our interview, as I stood in the upstairs room she has made into a studio, looking around at the vivid paintings that adorn the walls, she reminded me that I’d forgotten to pick up a package.

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