Greta is one of the hardest working women, I know. The ultimate hands-on sculptor, she lets the playfulness of process define and refine each of her pieces. Hearing her story about finding the creativity in the skillsets she took for granted, and the pioneering family that inspired her to get there, is a motivating one. Greta de Parry is a natural, and her work and the story that got her here is too…
Nativen: Where are you from?
Greta: I'm from Michigan. I grew up there. My mom is from the Deep South, and my dad is from France. He is a home-builder, so I spent a lot of time on construction sites, job sites. He always had blueprints scattered across the table. Both of my parents were business owners as well, so I think that's kind of my influence. I spent a lot of time in the South and overseas.
Nativen: That's great. Do you think Michigan specifically influenced your work in any way?
Greta: It's hard to say. That's a really interesting question. I wonder if it would have been the same scenario if I was in Idaho or something, if I would have been inspired differently. I don't think Michigan the state necessarily influenced my work. More so, my teachers; I had really, really great, influential teachers at a really young age, and both my parents were super supportive of me wanting to draw all of the time. Nurturing my creative desires, whatever they were. I think it would be more people than location. Michigan is a great state. Not to knock on Michigan at all.
Nativen: That’s wonderful to have people as a catalyst because it has a fluidity to it that doesn't necessarily lock you to one area of the world. Was there maybe a moment of epiphany that you came to that made you realize, "Yes, I want to be creating, woodworking," or was it just a gradual process?
Greta: I don't think there was any ephiphanal moment that stands out. Honestly since like 2nd grade, my art teacher was like, "Greta, you should think about going to art school for college." I loved to draw and knit things and paint and all sorts of stuff. So I had my mind set from that point on going to art school. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do because I really liked a lot of things. I did work with fine arts, charcoal was my medium in undergrad, then I did a lot of graphic design. I'm really interested in typography, and sculpture has always been there. It wasn't necessarily even at the forefront until I moved to Chicago for school. Like say if I needed corner shelving for my dorm room or something like that, I was able to make it because of my dad. That wasn't really art per se, because it was more like a straight, “I need some storage, how do we do this efficiently? “When I moved to Chicago I took this woodworking class my very first semester. Again, I had a really good professor. I'd never taken a formal, traditional woodworking class. I've taken metal sculpture, and other sculpture and I really just loved it and it came really naturally to me, and I really cared about the process. It sort of enveloped my time and set the tone for the rest of my time at the Art Institute. Then I got a job working in the shop, as a shop tech, and after that I spent all of my time in the shop. It wasn't furniture then, it was first sculpture, and installation pieces. I started to make the furniture that I needed in my apartment, and I used my woodworking skills there. Yeah, so It really was a gradual thing, and by the end of my time at SAIC I had developed a solid skillset in wood and metal. My foundry professor, he was a former artist in residence at this program that was affiliated with the BBM with the Art Institute. He was in charge of recruiting. When I was in the program they only took one artist at a time, and it was to learn at this farm outside of the city, and work with a master craftsperson. So I was able to do that, and that was really transformational. If I hadn't done that, who knows what I would have ended up doing? I was just immersed in furniture, and I lived up there for a few years, and it's been nine years, and I share shop space with the partner who I apprenticed.
Nativen: It's such a nice journey through your creative process, because for you, it started out as something that was sort of second nature and somewhat inherited through learning from your father. It sounds like it was a skillset that you took for granted, and then through other creative pursuits, you found the art in it again.
Greta: Absolutely. It's so true. It's funny, when I think about this, my most successful furniture pieces, the pieces that I love the most or that people appreciate the most, every single one of those pieces came accidentally. I was either working on other projects at the time, and happened to have off-cuts, or forms that weren't working and I was trying to fix. Those are the pieces that are really beautiful. It's much more difficult for me to sit down and design a chair. That's sort of why I design. The world is saturated with so much stuff. Why put more and more unless it’s really special.
Nativen: Absolutely. What do you love most about Chicago? Do you think it's integral to your work?
Greta: I really enjoy Chicago. It's a liveable city, there's so much going on as far as my alma mater, major shows at the art museum. There's a big solid community of woodworkers. I live in the city but then escape the city to the studio, so to have that, it's a really nice balance. At the same time, I'm not making every single piece by hand anymore, I'm working with really great local manufacturers and fabricators that help this process become way more efficient, and even more beautifully made then I was able to do by myself. They're able to develop new products, which is very exciting. I think that could happen anywhere, though. It seems like all these cities that I visit have good solid communities, which is really exciting.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite restaurant in Chicago?
Greta: That is a tough one. I love the Publican. There are so many great places in my neighborhood…. Stout is a great one in Chicago.
Nativen: Favorite park or outdoor space?
Greta: Millennium Park.
Nativen: Is there a hidden gem in Chicago for you?
Greta: Yeah, there's so many hidden gems. The neighborhoods are packed with hidden gems. I live in a great neighborhood called Wicker Park, it’s just full of dive bars with great jukeboxes, and a lot of outdoor spaces. I think it's the dive bars in Chicago.
Nativen: What do you think is the greatest resource to your work in Chicago?
Greta: I’m really close to the fabricators and manufacturers that I work with. There's an abundance of them. When I was starting to figure out how to get the steel base made for my barstools, I looked up welding companies in Chicago, and there are 50 of them. That’s an amazing resource being in the city, and if you're a person who is starting to develop a product line, that’s not made by you. Letting go of something that's like your baby, is hard enough, so it’s nice to be able to go by, and be more hands on that way.
Nativen: Do you have a piece that's your favorite? Or maybe it was the greatest accomplishment throughout your work thus far?
Greta: My favorite new piece would be a bar stool called the Nico Stool. It's just really beautiful and smooth and comfortable. I just love it. My standout is definitely my Coleman barstool. You know when I look back at the evolution and the course that it's taken, because I've been making this thing for almost 7 years now. The path, where it is now and where it started, just feels good. It's a really beautiful piece, and now the process is really buttoned-up, and I make it in all these colors.
Nativen: That's a really cool thing to look at as a creator, one symbol that can imbue that evolution for you. As far as your creation process goes, what part of it brings you the most joy?
Greta: Definitely the prototyping, the studio time. My process always starts in the shop, instead of pen to paper first. I feel like I can draw more with my hands in it, and do a million renditions of it… it's just endless amounts of tweakage. Something else will come by way of doing one project, and then ... I'll push on that for a bit ... It definitely starts in the shop.
Nativen: What part of your process do you think is the greatest struggle?
Greta: For a while it was the reverse engineering of it. I have a background in graphic design, but studio modeling programs were just never my thing. I never got the hang of them. So translating pieces over to CAD was challenging at first. Now I have trusted people, and I have a system that works for me, because it's really essential: working with people that want to do a rendering of a space, that's how things are operating these days.
Nativen: If you weren't doing furniture design, what do you think you would be doing?
Greta: If I wouldn't have gotten my artist in residency, I was in the application process for the Peace Corps, so I think I probably would have joined the Peace Corps. Also, I love kids and I love pediatric art therapy and that sort of thing, so I think I would have either been in teaching or something academic.
Nativen: That actually transitions really well into my next question, which is what destination do you want to travel to next?
Greta: Oh my gosh, I think about this all the time… I'm planning a trip right now to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. That will be in the spring. I've never been to the far East, I've spent a lot of time in Europe, but I've never been anywhere in Asia.
Nativen: Do you think that might inspire or alter your work in any way?
Greta: Definitely. I'm sort of like a sponge when it comes to architecture, and design, and seeing how people integrate cultures, and how countries use objects in different ways. You're always imagining those things that you don't necessarily think of until you travel through other countries.
Nativen: When you're immersed in another culture, you see not just their functional evolution from an engineering standpoint, but how that interplays with the decorative elements of the culture, like in the way that they speak to each other. I don't know if you listen to music at all when you work, but do you have any songs that influence you right now?
Greta: I always have The Current streaming. It's a public radio station based out of Minneapolis. They play an amazing mix of music. The DJs are awesome. It's everything from Miles Davis to Die Antwerp ... It gets all the genres, and just really good music. I also have a secret love of mashup mixes, with 30 minutes of mashup dance jams that get me moving.
Nativen: What are 3 words that sum up your work for you?
Greta: Contemporary, authentic, and lasting.
Nativen: Is there anything you do with your work to specifically connect with your community?
Greta: I donate pieces every year to different charitable auctions. A friend of mine is part of Save the Children, which is sort of an ongoing thing. I would like to eventually root myself with an organization that I can give part of the proceeds to… I've thought so much about this, I care about trees obviously and I care about the planet, but it's kids that pull at me...
Nativen: That's your calling?
Nativen: What's the most helpful advice you've received? Or what's some advice maybe that you'd offer to a creative, that's looking to develop their own work?
Greta: I would say don't be afraid. There are a few parts of that. If it's a person that's coming and wanting to get into the shop and learn how to build stuff with their own hands and make things, the first piece of advice I would tell them is call or email carpenters or cabinet-makers in your area. Tell them you’ll clean their studio, if you can learn some things and help them in their shop. People don't turn down free labor, so it's a really nice way of learning. The second thing I would say is, don't be afraid to fail, because most of what you’ll make will be a failure, so you have to get over that hurdle. Not everything is going to be the final piece. Just make, make, make, make, make. Hone your skillset, because that's very important.
Nativen: That's good advice. I think culturally, we don't acknowledge that fear is a necessary part of success, that you can't have success without fear. Do you have a hero, or maybe someone who's helped influence your work in a big way?
Greta: My grandparents are my heroes, for sure. There are a lot of other furniture makers and designers who have inspired me I guess, but just as a whole, to the core, I think my grandparents definitely. I just like to think about them and for any hurdle that seems like a challenge, I'm like, “I got this. This is all good,”. They're such incredible hard workers. My grandfather is actually one of the leaders in Ukrainian Independence, and he fought in the Ukraine. He's a nuclear engineer, a brilliant man, and went through a lot, lost everything, to come here and they lived for their family.
Nativen: That's inspiring. What are three things you can't live without?
Greta: Coffee is definitely a big one. I can't live without coffee.
My Action Book – it’s a really smart, beautifully designed notebook by the Behance team. I’ve used the action method for 5 years now, it works well for my brain.
I don’t want to say my phone…. But I kind of have to say my phone. It’s really helpful for tracking work. I’m also constantly listening to music and podcasts, so it’s kind of a lifesaver.
Interview by: Lily Hetzler
This interview has been condensed & edited