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Monday, 21 September 2015

Mike Parsons, a retired pilot who took to his brushes

By Andrew Mulenga

One cannot help but smile at the familiarity of the glimmering brown bottle and half-filled pint glass with its likewise recognizable, light amber contents. Framed by an illuminated foreground and a dim background, the bottles label is a fleeting blur, unrecognisable, the bottle could contain anything.

Sundowner 34x43cm oil on
canvas by Mike Parsons
But more than anything the paintings title gives it away as it is aptly titled Sundowner. “Sundowner” was a popular term for an alcoholic drink enjoyed after a hard day’s work, often used by British settlers, and habitually localized as “Sandauni” here in Zambia. On a lighter edge, one might note that the term is known to have been abused and means the total opposite, because ironically during a Sandauni drinks are consumed in large quantities until sunrise.

Nevertheless, the painting in question is by Mike Parsons  (1941-2017) was a naturalized South African, born in Devon, England who lived in Zambia until in his mid-twenties, shortly after independence. Parsons passed away in 2017, but in 2015, he shared his life story and passion for art and aviation with Andrew Mulenga.

“The people of Zambia are my fondest memory and the way of life there. The sundowners, I will never forget, and a man called Masala. He was my team leader in the bush and was always with me,” recalls Parsons who worked as a geological field assistant and lived and worked in bush camps until 1964, about four years after completing at Kitwe High School.

“I remember two occasions that he saved my life. He once plucked me off a collapsing wooden bridge while the Land Rover was sliding towards me. Masala always walked ahead of me and one day he spun around and pushed me out of the way of a king cobra coming at us from the side.”

Parsons’ father was a geological draughtsman employed Anglo American in Welkom, South Africa but was later transferred to the Copperbelt, Zambia which was of course British-ruled Northern Rhodesia at the time. The family lived in Kalulushi which he recalls was a good place to be in the 1960s.

“It was a happy time for me. I remember a thing called the metal bonus. Everyone was getting double pay because salaries were connected to the price of copper. There was lots of money about. Friends who were apprentices were driving Austin-Heelys (sports cars) and Jaguars,” he remembers.

Road to Bethal, 75 x 60cm oil on canvas by Mike Parsons
“I don't remember any racial tensions. Kaunda was not an unpopular choice. I lived and worked in the bush and he stopped all poaching in Zambia by employing teams of armed ex-military people who had the power to confiscate all the equipment of poachers. He was very sensitive about animals and many poachers were left in the middle of nowhere with nothing but their clothes.”

Parsons left Zambia in 1965 to join a flying school in Johannesburg and later qualified as a commercial pilot but later flew a crop duster, settling in Bethal, in the Eastern Highlands of South Africa. Why Bethal? He says it is a very high yield agricultural area and was a good place to be if you are a crop sprayer, he just stayed on after he retired from aviation because friends and family were there too.

Having taken up art seriously in 1980, Parsons is a self-taught artist whose only formal training was a one year apprenticeship with late South African painter Adriaan Boshoff who was only five years his senior. He insists however, that he is not a hobbyist but a serious painter engaged in a never ending battle for a better picture, that is his only goal. He tries to capture light, mood and atmosphere in a painting that more often than not would depict people and figures.

Parsons at work in his studio
“Crop spraying is seasonal work and I had four months every year with not a lot to do. I decided to use this time to try to teach myself to paint a picture. I started painting in the off season in about 1980,” he explains “Right now I feel I wasted many years in aircraft. It is something I thought I wanted to do as a young man but after a few years I understood the job and was bored with it. I ought to have used that time to get to a better picture”.

Light being the philosophy behind his work, he tries to paint the light as he sees it. This perhaps explains his brilliant handling of Sundowner the type of work whose skilful finish can be best appreciated by squinting of the eyes – an old gallery visitor’s trick -- something probably akin to how wine-tasters sniff from the glass and then swirl the sip round their mouth before fully appreciating a fine vintage, one might add.

“I have tried to avoid a ‘style’. There are many painters who settle into a style and then proceed to paint basically the same picture for 30 years. I try to start each picture differently. For my creative process, the starting point is always a drawing or something I have seen or one of my own photographs. Apart from a still life now and then I seldom paint from life,” he explains of his work process.

“I also like the drama of figures in urban landscapes. There are people in almost all my paintings. Composition equals good drawing and good tonal values. If you can get that right, you have a good painting.”
While his subject matter is broad, ranging from landscapes, seascapes, still life and portraiture, even though he denies falling into the trap of having a particular style, upon closer view the thick oil pint impasto of his busy brush and palette knife are unmistakable.

Nevertheless, Parsons lived to enjoy retirement from flying and his paintings are collected mainly through established galleries fetching anything between K2,000 to K30,000 – in Zambian currency -- depending on which gallery is fixing the price, pricing he indicates, is a task that he is neither involved nor interested in.  He has never returned to Zambia since this 1960s but claimed that it remains high on his “bucket list”, he passed away in 2017.

He enjoys the drama of figures in urban landscapes