The story behind the 10-foot banana on San Gabriel Drive
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
Eyes bulge out from the dozens of small clay faces on the bulletin board, each one glued to a safety pin. These are the few left in Terry Park’s possession, and they don’t come close to the 4,000 he reckons he’s sculpted and given away through the years.
Some are painted red and blue, others mint green and zebra striped. Some look like clowns, and others like Pharoahs. Sitting on the porch of his Liberty Hill home—a creaking, cathedral-like cabin he built as a 22-year old in 1974—he flips through an album stuffed with post-card sized photos of them. No two were alike.
Most of them he gave away in the mid-2000s at the latter-day concerts of Roky Erickson, the former frontman for the Austin psychedelic outfit, 13th Floor Elevators. Parks had known Erickson at their height back in the 1970s and 1980s— back when, he says, “they didn’t have to try to keep Austin weird.” But those times were different. Much had changed, and not just the city’s fading counterculture.
Long gone were the days when Erickson, now in his 60s, would leap out onto the stage in a unfurling black cloak, shouting “Children of the night, what music we make!” Even a hippy’s hair turns gray sooner or later. And for some, like Parks, it was sooner.
Doctors diagnosed Parks with end-stage cirrhosis in 2003. A virus had eaten away his liver, and he was given six months to live. As it progressed, they said, he would become too sick to work. Too sick to travel. Too sick to see his friends.
Parks normally carries a youthful energy when he speaks, gesturing a carving motion as he explains the artistic potential of different tree barks, or half-shouting, half-singing old punk lyrics that inspired his art. When “2003” comes up, though, his voice quiets.
“I was depressed, yeah,” he admits, “but you’ve got to find a way to deal with these things somehow.”
He soon did, in fact, become too sick to work. His energy came in waves, and there seemed to always be some fix-up or other needed around the homestead he could focus on when they came. But Parks wasn’t satisfied.
He had always made folk art. Or more specifically, psychedelic folk art — based usually on the strange and esoteric lyrics of the 13th Floor Elevators, Black Sabbath, the Velvet Underground and other early hard rock.
He realized his prognosis was, in a strange way, an opportunity.
“I didn’t want to wait until it was five months, and say, ‘damn, I wish I had done that,” Parks says.
He bought two bags of popsicle sticks, each containing 1,000 sticks,
and started sculpting faces to glue on them. (The safety pins came later). Again, working came in spurts. But he soon had hundreds.
Giving them away at Erickson’s new shows was only natural. Erickson had only recently begun performing again after years of social estrangement and isolation. And through the decades, Erickson’s music in the 13th Floor Elevators and his other acts had stayed as a constant muse for Parks. In turn, Erickson received from Parks a number of his finished works of art. Parks made T-shirts and concert posters. One of Erickson’s later back-up bands eventually used a guitar hand-crafted by Parks.
That first night at an Erickson show again, Parks gave away hundreds of the faces. He talked with so many strangers that his voice was shot for days afterwards.
He had found his therapy.
He began hollowing out old TVs and re-filling them with psychedelic dioramas. He made small chairs shaped and painted to look like cats. He carved wooden pyramids on spinning motors, and adorned them with eyes and song lyrics.
These too, along the pictures of the faces, are recorded in the hundreds through Parks’ photo albums. Each one is dizzyingly detailed, brightly colored and totally absurd.
A blue, retro-looking dinosaur playfully stomps on a circuit board, while a pink pyramid sits nearby. An American Indian with a techni-colored headdress rides a motorcycle made out of a skull jawline and horse head.
Parks made many that had a degree of mechanical complexity reflecting the 40-odd years of experience he had as a furniture maker, machinist, and every stripe of craftsman in between.
A toy horse with wheels that made a “clip-clop” sound when pushed. A cannon that could aim and, when wound up, shoot a rolled cigarette. A small diorama of a child’s bedroom— for which twisting a knob rotated the figures in a kind of choreographed action. A monster at the end of the room would turn to look at the child, and she would in turn hide out of sight.
Most, in the beginning at least, he gave away. Then he began selling them— and giving all the proceeds to Erickson.
“Roky was in a bad place,” Parks says. “He was just barely scraping by, living only on government assistance.”
Erickson had only recently made a serious return to music. In addition to a life-long struggle with mental illness, he had also been tied up in legal troubles over decades-old contracts, involuntary institutionalizations that saw fit to use “electroshock therapy,” and drug abuse. But in 2001, his brother secured protective custody over him, and he was finally able to seek real help for his mental condition. It was, in many ways, the first time Erickson was allowed to start on the right foot. An Austin Chronicle article from 2005 on Erickson’s recovery stated that this was the first year he had obtained a driver’s license, bought a car, and voted.
Parks was just happy to be there for him.
“Even if the money wasn’t going in my pocket,” he says, brushing his long, gray hair, “at least it was going to somebody that needed help.”
He closes the photo album. Probably a dozen or so of the photos were of works he still possessed.
Opening the Third Eye
Erickson wasn’t the only connection Parks had to the Austin underground. Though he hasn’t seen any of them in years, he once knew many of the names there now canonized in early punk and garage rock anthologies.
There was the guitarist Davy Jones, who, in his 80s cowpunk outfit The Hickoids, powered a drug-fueled fusion of country and punk. Or Randy Turner Biscuit, who pushed the envelope both musically and socially. His band, The Big Boys, introduced the world to the sound of hardcore punk. He was also one of the first openly gay performers, which was a central feature of the band’s aesthetic.
But Erickson looms as Parks’ largest influence and his closest connection for an important reason. The 13th Floor Elevators were “the” first psychedelic group, Parks says, after Erickson told a reporter that their music could “open the third eye.”
It was 1966, and the Grateful Dead would not release their first album for another year.
Austin venues like the ‘Dillo were emblematic of the era. Run by hippies out of an old National Guard armory, Parks says he remembers parking far away from the venue’s doors. Not only because the curbs for miles were filled with cars—it was a popular spot known for cheap tickets, good music, and a tolerance of marijuana smoke—but also because the police would post themselves by the entrance and pull over people leaving the venue.
This was the height of Weird Austin, when homeless students were said to live on the drag of Guadalupe by the University. But the spirit of the 60s couldn’t last forever.
Erickson was arrested in 1969 by Austin police for the possession of a marijuana joint. To avoid prison time, he pled not guilty by reason of insanity. The hospital he was sent to subjected him to controversial treatment methods.
In 1980, the ‘Dillo shut its doors. Most of the venues like it followed suit over the next decade or so. Authorities declared the Drag “cleaned-up” by the late 90s.
Turner, the gay punk performer, died in 2005 from end-stage cirrhosis, caused by untreated hepatitis. Jones from the Hickoids joined him in 2015.
In 2000, a businessman came up with “Keep Austin Weird.”
“Exploding Plastic Inevitable”
Parks ended up living out those six months. Doctors gave him another. And Parks lived again.
Finally doctors announced that the damage to his liver had stopped spreading. But it wasn’t exactly good news.
“They told me I wasn’t gonna die, but I wasn’t ever gonna get any better,” Parks says. “They said they’d just try to stop me from getting any worse.”
Again, Parks falls quiet. From his porch, one can see almost the entirety of his comfortable two acres. Large patches of wild-flowers—allowed to grow organically through selective lawn-mowing over 40 years—punctuate the spaces between the large toy sculptures, plastic bright and covered in grime.
The silence only stops when a whining chorus sounds off in the distance. “That’s probably my brother, feeding the cats,” he says.
He continues again, “and so while I wasn’t gonna die, I was still depressed. So you start doing a whole bunch. And you’re up here and no one ever sees it.”
Parks had lost the energy to attend Erickson’s shows regularly. He’s lucky now, he says, if he visits Austin twice a year. It’s nearly an hour drive to downtown from Liberty Hill.
“I was way out there,” he says. “I wasn’t getting to talk to anybody. I wasn’t seeing anybody.”
So with the help of his brother Scott, Parks began building the huge monuments in the yard. Ten feet tall and covered entirely in the garish colors of plastic toys, the subjects they depict—-which include a cow skull, a peeled banana, the walk-in teepee, and an Easter Island head—draw as much from the imagery of early punk as they do from classic Texana.
Driving down San Gabriel Drive, they are impossible not to notice.
Cars frequently pull over to gawk at them. If he’s not already in the yard working on them, Parks usually comes out to greet them. Eventually, he built a small secondary driveway for them.
“Seems like we get more people from all over the world than we do visitors from Austin, though,” says Scott Parks, who has also lived with Terry for the last few years. He says they’ve received visitors from Scotland and China.
It is to these drive-through guests that Parks now gives the majority of his clay faces. To them, and to the people close to him. His wife Sue has over a dozen.
He could sell them, he admits, but “I get more value than two or three dollars just by giving them away.”
Parks one night at dinner gave his waitress a clay face. She said, ‘you should really meet this other artist I know here.’
It was the late Don Snell, an abstract painter based in Austin. The two became close, and Snell would sometimes visit Parks’ Liberty Hill homestead.
Parks moved to Liberty Hill in 1974. He was 22, and had a few thousand dollars in insurance money from a motorcycle accident. He only had to look once at the empty property, then entirely ensconced in unsettled woods, before dropping the payment in cash. He then built the house, plank by plank, without a blueprint. He took lumber from the trees on the property, and later some stones from the 1976 Sculpture Symposium happening in town.
The 40-odd year product is a sight to behold, especially at two stories. An exaggerated church tower tops the structure, fitted in its extra-wide proportions, Parks says, to use some leftover wood. A rough stone facade faces the front yard, which also features stained glass windows for the four seasons. Outlines of hummingbirds and eyes can be found through the wood shingles on the other sides.
When she first visited, Snell’s partner Ruth Roberts—a curator—recognized the value in Parks’ works. Up to that point, they had never seen exhibition, or for that matter, public record. Parks was, like Snell, an artist— and Snell was, like Parks, a self-described hippie. But their artworks inhabited different worlds.
Snell received his Bachelors in Fine Arts from the University of Texas. He later taught there while balancing his own studio work, and a recent $20 million grant to the school’s visual and performing arts programs mentioned Snell’s influence there.
On Snell’s website, an artist’s statement from his says, “I paint figuratively with a non-objective approach. I try not to have anything on my mind when I paint.”
Parks, by contrast, has never taken a course in art. His artistic sensibilities, and the masterful control he holds over a lathe and paintbrush, come from a long career in shop work— and punk rock.
And as for accolades, a 200-word entry for the travel blog roadsideamerica.com describes Parks as a “yard artist,” who, with his wife, are “amazing salt-of-the-earth hippies” who live “way out in the boonies.”
So while they inhabited different worlds, the artworks made by Parks and the late Snell converge in the end at the same point. It’s that unmistakable moment of aesthetic appreciation, when the artwork— whether it’s a painted face or a 10-foot banana made of toys—seems almost to be looking back.
Roberts made some phone calls, and soon Parks found himself talking to the Georgetown Public Library. They wanted to know how much it would cost to rent three of his large-scale toy sculptures. Parks made up a number.
“Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” “Easter Island Everywhere,” and “Woodstock 45” were housed and displayed at the Georgetown Public Library for three months as part of their summer program.
It was June 2015. Twelve years after Parks was given six months to live, he had been exhibited for the first time.
When the doctors diagnosed Parks again in December 2016, he says he wasn’t even surprised. “I’ve already been told once that you have so long to live.”
He had liver cancer. His virtual lack of a liver from the cirrhosis had allowed it to fester.
Parks underwent his round of chemotherapy shortly thereafter. He has an MRI screening planned soon.
“It doesn’t really matter if the MRI is next week or next month,” he says. “If they got all the cancer, they got it. And if they didn’t, well, I can’t do another round of chemo for four months. So you just can’t really worry about it.”
He smiles. In the distance, the whining sound of his 13 cats breaks out again. His brother is nowhere to be seen.
“And maybe they’ll tell me I don’t have long to live. And maybe I’ll get one or two more big pieces done. And then one or two after that. And by the time they’re wheeling me into the hospital, I’ll say hey, you want one of these little heads? I’ve given away— 6,000 of them!”