Lost and Found: Justin Parr at the Center of the World

The tagline for Justin Parr’s latest venture, sanantoniozone a celebration of the artists he’s exhibited at Fl!GHT Gallery over the past 23 years, is “San Antonio is the center of the world.” It’s a humorous conceit, but it sums up Parr’s artistic ethos perfectly. “Every bit of promotion I’ve tried to do on Facebook thinks I’m trying to scam people. Something in Facebook’s AI saw it and deleted it,” Parr laughs.

San Antonio isn’t widely considered Texas’s premiere contemporary art town, but those who sleep on the city are missing out. For Parr and the artists he constantly references: Andy Benavides, Aaron Forland, Gary Sweeney, et al, the town itself is a medium. “It’s part of my palette,” Parr explains. “I try to make the city what I want to see.” Like Fl!GHT Gallery itself, all of Parr’s projects seem to grow unselfconsciously from a whim and then amass a kind of irresistible gravitational pull. From his one-of-a-kind studio to his online community building, to creating the city’s most unique music venue, Parr’s most ambitious projects draw their strength from his uncanny ability to crowdsource, applying his brand of tie-dyed charm.

When I visited Parr at his home studio, a stacked shipping container with a screened outdoor kitchen next to the San Antonio River and Hot Wells, a formerly glamorous 1920s hotel and hot springs which now exists as a ruin and city park, it was a glorious afternoon. A gentle February sun draped the scrubby landscape. Parr plopped an intimidating black firearm case on the picnic table in front of us. He unlatched it with authority to reveal a steel gray egg crate foam interior nested with glistening marbles of every color, some with trapped air bubbles and flower-like extrusions of every hue, others with swirling double-helix formations. He makes the marbles as a way to practice glass-blowing fundamentals, selling some and “losing” others. Like many of Parr’s projects, what starts as a casual experiment turns into something with serious reach. Over ten years ago he started a marble-hunting group on Facebook called Esfaras Perdidas with a friend. “There’s like 8,000 people on there hunting and hiding marbles,” he says. “My friend Sean and I did it. I had the idea of posting clues. Now there’s a national marble-hunting group that has over 60,000 members.”

A similar story of community, attention, and gumption led to Parr’s involvement with the Mrs. Frank W. Sorrel Bridge, aka the Echo Bridge. “I’ve been going there for twenty years,” Parr explained. Riding by on his bicycle, Parr learned what others had noticed before…the acoustics of this out-of-the-way spot just happened to create an unbelievable sonic landscape. Along with a partner, he started the Echo Bridge Appreciation Society Instagram account. “I’d had a few art event things there over the years,” he said. “We did seven shows illegally without permission,” before being shut down. “The city came back and said, ‘let’s do it for real.” If it wasn’t for Jeff Wheeler it wouldn’t have happened.” But, he admits, “just doing it is what led to us being able to do it.”

This openness and sense of play is possible in San Antonio because it’s been cheap to maintain a studio there for many years. “It’s getting fancier, but there is always this DIY spirit in our community,” Parr says. His own studio and garden (which he is now filling with magnificent, baroque mushrooms) are something of their own work of DIY art. Parr hosts dreamy dinners there on what must be the longest handmade table in south Texas, generously filling it with beautiful things grown among the cacti and short trees. In his glass studio, he produces the lovely little knobby cups for which he’s known, in smile-inducing colors.

All this play doesn’t mean there isn’t some serious work being accomplished. Parr has just finished a commission for a private client of green, stained-glass windows that resemble the wabi-sabi circular forms of his cups. He brought his talents in glass to another exhibition, Stop Drawing on Your Desk, organized by Andy Benavides, at SMART ProjectSpace at 1906 S. Flores, a show which closes on April 13. “When he was a kid he’d get in trouble for drawing on his desk,” Parr explains. The idea for the show was to “give everyone a school desk and see what they would do.” The lighthearted premise was undercut by a grim reality. “When [Andy] went to pick up the desks, they were for a 6th grade class that never happened,” Parr says.” According to the Texas Tribune, SAISD will shutter 15 schools following a November vote of the board of trustees. That San Antonio reality, one of closing community schools and shrinking public support, stands in such contrast with what the city’s artists, including Parr, have done and continue to do: seeing what’s possible and making it happen regardless of who does or does not give permission. “It’s hard to imagine living in another place, but I fantasize about it,” he says. “It’s easier to accomplish wild ideas when you have a community around you.”