Here’s a whimsical painting: a 19th-century steamship in full array, with a deck awash in circus animals and performers, acrobats in the rigging. But there’s more than whimsy to Ed Parker’s art. With a unique viewpoint, he works his subjects in an imaginative way that’s rooted in reality. “Rather than trying to capture a moment in time, I’m trying to capture a moment in a story that draws the viewer in on a different level of discovery,” Parker says.
In this case, the story goes back to October 1836 and the sidewheel steamer Royal Tar. She was making for Portland, Maine, carrying Fuller’s Menagerie, a traveling circus that had been touring Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. A boiler caught fire off Fox Island, and the Royal Tar sank; 32 of the 93 people on board died, along with most of the animals.
The 18-by-24-inch oil painting is simple and straightforward, belying the time Parker spent researching the tragedy. “Sometimes the painting’s subjects are based on actual historical events, and sometimes I make them up, but they have to be in the realm of possibility,” he says. “The only way to do that is through accurate historical research and a respect for the subject.”
The Massachusetts-born artist — “with strong genealogical roots to Maine,” he adds — has created art nearly his entire life. Early influences include illustrators N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, as well as Walt Disney and Looney Tunes. Parker also has an avid interest in American history.
“I believe in the integrity of the subject,” he says. “If you are going to represent a visual moment of a story and want to draw the viewer in, you have to be accurate and create the illusion of believability. If the truth is not there, the whimsical parts don’t work and become superfluous.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue.