Note: This profile, which is shortened from its original version, appeared in the Spring 2009 Winsor Bulletin. It was part of a series of articles in which alumnae reflect on the ways their lives and work have demanded a combination of intellect and imagination.
“I classify myself as a late bloomer,” photographer Olivia Hood Parker ’59 jokes. Her earliest break came in 1979 with the publication of her first book, Signs of Life, inspired by a show of hers at Boston’s Vision Gallery. After the book, an invitation from Ansel Adams to teach at his workshops followed, representing another turning point.
She sees herself as lucky, but recounts a favorite saying, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” Now more than 100 solo exhibits and two more books later, she has gained wide acclaim. The Museum of Fine Arts, home of Saturday art classes in her Winsor days, has acquired her work; the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art and the International Museum of Photography also include her photographs.
Coming of age in 1950s’ Winsor, “I didn’t have the faintest idea of becoming an artist,” Olivia recalls. In her high school and college days, “there was little encouragement to go over the edge of the map,” as she puts it. While schools had more rigid expectations, some teachers naturally nurtured girls’ creativity. She points to Helen Hamilton, one of her science teachers, as among the most creative—and one of her favorites.
Olivia loved science, and it still fascinates her. But she kept drawing, in and out of school. When Olivia contemplated applying to the Rhode Island School of Design for college, though, her parents balked at the idea. She ended up at Wellesley instead as a student of the history of art. There, her classes and professors “opened up a whole new visual world to me.”
For Olivia, the impulse to create never went away. She began to pursue photography seriously in her early 30s. As an artist, “your work is an extension of you,” she reflects. In teaching workshops over the years, she says that students often have asked her how she achieved a style of her own. Looking back, she sees it as an organic process. “The more I did, the more the work seemed to be mine,” she says.
While a style may run through her collective work, she welcomes change. For instance, Olivia shifted to working with digital photography in recent years. “The switch didn’t go over well at first,” she admits. She works all digitally now, noting that she sold her long-trusted 11” x 14” camera this year. “The changes have opened all sorts of possibilities. It’s a steep learning curve, but it’s fascinating.”
She describes her work in the studio as “a back and forth process between the intuitive and the editorial.” Mistakes come with the territory. “You have to be willing to make a lot of mistakes,” she advises.
“The whole question of creativity is a slippery one,” she reflects. Artists have no monopoly on it. “All kids are creative,” she contends. Without nurturing, “that can get squashed out of them.” Her own creative impulse is flourishing. She’s fervently curious and excited to imagine new directions. “I like surprises,” she says.