The Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs

Tom Parish – Summer 2016

“Take Shelter”

June 10 – July 31, Opening Reception on June 25, 2pm-5pm

“As for the cellar, we shall no doubt find uses for it.  It will be rationalized and its conveniences enumerated.  But it is first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of the subterranean forces.  When we dream there, we are in harmony with the irrationality of the depths.”  –Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space.

If someone told you about an artist’ body of work that combined a deep sense of mystery bordering on the fantastic or dreamlike with the most fastidious attention to Kansas  architectural and archaeological documentation, you would be right to be suspicious.  Yet, Tom Parish has done just that, leading us as viewers deep into the roots of the Kansas prairie.

Parish was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas.  He earned an MFA in Photography and Digital art in 2012 from Kansas State University and recently joined the Chapman Center for Rural Studies at K-State as a visiting instructor of digital humanities.   His love of the Flint Hills is clearly apparent in this body of work which does much to preserve a remnant of early settlement that is in danger of collapsing back into the earth.

Parish’s photographs are large enough and his detail palpable enough, that one can almost feel the air thicken. Once inside these underground worlds, we begin to take in the mundane specifics that somehow read like signs: the luminous curtains of spider webs, the detritus of tree limbs washed up in a flood year, the neat rows of green mason jars waiting patiently as if for some future consummation.  Indeed, some of the details do act as clues suggesting that some of these cellars were not only food storage and temporary storm shelters, but early habitations or dugout homes.  One of the most notable aspects of the prairie is its absence of trees and therefore lumber.  But unlike most areas once covered in tallgrass prairie, the flint hills did not have the deep soil that gave rise to the better-known (but less resilient) sod houses and dugouts.

Pairsh’s process is wonderfully obsessive.  To stitch together his 360 degree panoramic images, he takes as many as 1,000 shots, each with a long exposure to absorb every detail in the very dim, natural light of the cellar.  Altogether, Parish spends 3 to 5 hours standing almost perfectly still inside these “caves.”  The intimacy of the process is reflected in the finished product.   “Through my treatment,” says Parish, “these hidden cavities become more like split-open geodes, revealing the beauty hidden inside.”

When Parish started out, he thought he might find 25 or more of these elusive, undocumented structures.  Several years later, he has now located and photographed almost 300, mostly in the northern part of the flint hills—more than 55 of them have been photographed in his unique 360 degree imaging.

Says Parish, “Sometimes all that is left of the people who relied on these structures is a crypt-like cavity in the ground. I hope viewers will take the opportunity to reflect on their own role in the world, what they themselves have created or helped to create, and what legacies they will leave behind. Life is fragile and tenuous. We have lessons to learn by examining these humble structures.”

Through Parish’s imaginative and meticulous images, we are confronted with not only an important and little-known feature of Kansas history, but with a deep and mysterious sense of our own being.  “When it comes to excavated ground,” says Bachelard, “dreams have no limit.”

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