Heather Parrish has a keen sense of place and a curiosity about what it means to inhabit a place and who did so before you.
Parrish is a native Austinite who can trace her family lineage back to the city’s founding in 1836. Yet, thanks to her father’s career, she spent her formative childhood years in Southeast Asia, and she learned to traverse cultural and geographic landscapes. She has returned to live in Austin at various points: for her undergraduate degree, then later after getting an MFA, when she worked as a professional collaborating printer at Flatbed.
Now, head of the printmaking program at the University of Iowa, she still circles back to see family in Austin. Her life’s trajectory of coming and going to a place with which she has deep inherited history shapes her artistic practice.
For her current exhibition at Flatbed, “Seeing Out The Other Eye: A View Through Waller Creek,” Parrish mines historic photographs of the downtown Austin waterway which is sometimes forgotten for the racial segregation that it represents in the city’s history.
Combining printmaking, photography and collage, Parrish probes the history of Waller Creek, named for Austin’s first mayor, Edwin Waller, who owned enslaved people. In intriguing photogravure prints, Parrish uses images of the 1915 flood which wiped out the shanty homes of poor Black Austinites who made the creek bank their neighborhood. The 1915 flood wasn’t the first time it happened, nor the last.
Her research-based approach to art making means that for this current body she dug into work by Katherine Leah Pace, an environmental historian who most recently focused on the interplay between flash floods and social forces in Austin.
“I think of (Pace) really as a collaborator on this body of work,” Parrish told me at the exhibition opening.
On a side table in the gallery were hard copies of Pace’s articles, “Forgetting Waller Creek: Race, Parks, and Planning in Downtown Austin, Texas” and the longer version, “’We may expect nothing but shacks to be erected here’: An Environmental History of Waterloo Park.”
(Parrish and Pace will be in discussion together July 22 in a free gallery talk. See flatbedpress.com)
As Pace’s research illuminates, while Austin’s first master plan of 1928 is now infamous for the way it institutionalized residential segregation and racist zoning policies, what is less known is how the plan used the creation of parks to dislodge communities of color. For example, to manage the shantytowns along Shoal and Waller creeks — riparian zones home to mostly Black and Latinx people — the 1928 plan recommended a park system that Pace, writes, “was not designed to take advantage of natural scenery, let alone mitigate floods hazards. It was designed to racially engineer low-lying urban space.”
Parrish’s images are palimpsests of a sort, traces of the past layered with her contemporary reworkings. She skews the orientation of the historic photographs, positioning them upside down, or flipping them backwards. An eye-like shape reoccurs in her collaged works, sometimes rendered as blank white. On the exhibition’s checklist, she includes notes or quotes along with each work’s usual details. And she gives her exhibition an epigraph from Carl Sandberg’s poem “River Moons:” “… a twist of water asking a question.”
“Other Eye I (Daydream Like Mad)” features an eye-shaped photogravure image of roiling floodwater imposed on a larger background image of the creek. Parrish writes on the checklist: “Tejano music legend Manuel “Cowboy” Donley whose father owned a barbershop overlooking Waller Creek used to look down at the water and daydream like mad.”
And for a related piece “Other Eye II (Bottomlands/Parkway),” she quotes the 1928 master plan “… this drive will entail the acquisition of certain cheap property along the banks of Waller Creek. Most of the property which will be needed is at present occupied by very unsightly and unsanitary shacks inhabited by negroes. With these building removed… remaining property will be of a substantially more desirable type.”
“I feel very invested in how the history Austin’s development created such division,” Parrish says.
An intriguing dark blue monotype print — one of a series titled “Access” — brings the creek’s story to the present. A rough-sketched white circular outline centers “Access II: Cyborg Creek.” And in the lower right corner is a tiny photo-based image of the $161 million tunnel that now runs under Waller Creek from Waterloo Park to Lady Bird Lake, the centerpiece of a massive flood-mitigation project that captures floodwaters and releases them into Lady Bird Lake.
The city’s Watershed Protection Program writes cheerfully on its site: “The tunnel reduces the size of the floodplain along Waller Creek. In doing so, it helps revitalize the eastern part of downtown.”
Parrish tells me that the current work on view is really the beginning of a project she plans to continue. “I want to illuminate how so much of what has been done the name of ‘renewal’ and ‘beautification’ in Austin has a dark underbelly of disruption and displacement.”
“Seeing Out The Other Eye: A View Through Waller Creek” continues through July 26 at Flabed, 3710 Drosset Dr. Heather Parrish and Katherine Pace will present a gallery talk 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. July 22.