Nothing short of great.
STORY BY Seth Putnam
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Jesse Lenz and Jon Levitt
“Art is selfish. You’re making stuff because of a burn to create what you want.”
The coyote lurked on the outskirts of the cattle herd, eyeing the steers with intent. A group of riders was driving the cows on a 37,000-acre ranch outside of Missoula. The coyote was wary. Greta de Parry sat atop a chestnut mare & watched the canine. Straight off the racetrack, her horse was green & finicky.
The daughter of a Frenchman and an Alabama belle, Greta grew up in Michigan, where northern industriousness mixed with her mother’s southern gentility and her father’s European panache. A champion barrel racer, she was raised on the backs of horses named Layah, Remington Steele, and I Love Lucy. She did just about everything there was to do in the equestrian world: hunting, jumping, dressage. She even bought a racehorse and used her earnings to pay her way through college.
But this was her first bona fide cattle drive. The coyote loped forward one moment and retreated the next before returning yet again to nose around. It was a duel of curiosity and caution. After a series of these encroachments, Greta acted. In an instant, she wheeled her mare around and galloped toward the coyote, chasing it over the ridge for good. “I dream about it,” she says, now back in her woodworking studio in Chicago. “I felt like I did when I was younger, riding in the fields, chasing foxes.”
Indeed, night visions factor heavily in Greta’s process. “My problem is actually that I have so many,” she says, laughing. “I go to sleep thinking about ideas, and I set my alarm one hour before I have to get out of bed so I can dream about furniture and design.”
Greta showed a knack for art at a young age. Even in first grade, her art teacher encouraged her to go to art school. In elementary school, she attended figure-drawing classes in Ann Arbor, where charcoal was her medium. Later, true to her early tutor’s suggestion, she wound up at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied sculpture, object design, and graphic illustration.
The signature piece that came out of her education is the Coleman stool with curved steel legs and a concrete seat poured in Bozeman, Montana. In 2007, shortly after her graduation, Greta was selected as the sole artist in residence at a sprawling estate north of Chicago. An operating farm, the property also features a metalworking shop, a woodshop, and the private collection of its art-patron owner.
“I thrive or shrivel away based on my environment,” Greta says of the idyllic white buildings with their tawny tiled roofs, built in the 1910s. “I can get bogged down, like writer’s block. But at my studio I can walk to the lake every day. There’s not good cellphone service. There are animals. I just work.”
Starting in November, she ‘s starring in a reality show called Bar Masters on the Discovery Channel, for which she travels the country and outfits drinking establishments with designs inspired by their stories and their environments. One week, she’s hunting tarantulas in a 200-year-old cemetery in Virginia, where she’s constructing a bar for a haunted saloon. The next, she’s schlepping a taxidermied moose head as big as she is out of a cabin in Wisconsin.
If this seems bizarre, it’s because peculiarity and adventure are Greta’s calling cards. That’s one reason she joined The Collective Quarterly in Montana for a unique sort of residency.
The trip contained more reference points to her life than she had expected—particularly the cattle drive. The gaming horses of her youth had carried her based on instinct and muscle memory developed from thousands of hours of repetition. In Montana, the mounts did the same. They knew innately what they needed to do, whether that was herding steers or running off coyotes.
Ultimately, it’s the same for Greta and her art. As she sketches with a red pen on her orange Rhodia graph pad, she wonders aloud about her motivation. “I’m making it for my soul,” she says. “I’m making it because it’s beautiful. You fail a million times, but once you find the right design, there’s total confidence.” —Seth Putnam
Greta was one of four artists who traveled with The Collective Quarterly. Back at her studio in Chicago, she told us about the creative wrestling it took to land on a Montana-inspired design that felt right.
I’ve stewed for a long time over what to make for The Collective Quarterly. I’m attracted to natural objects and pops of color. But there’s this immense struggle of competing ideas, most of which are good but maybe not “the ones.”