Sean Parrish

DOB: 6/18/1978

Tampa, Fl. 



I am a self-taught artist from Tampa and have participated in public exhibitions in the Tampa Bay area and south Florida since 2002. A passion for natural history and constant studio experimentation has informed much of my artistic practice engaging traditions of abstract painting, printmaking, assemblage and collage. My current projects explore the theme of natural history in two ongoing series, one in abstract painting (Natural Histories) and a second in mixed media collage drawing on digitized archives of 16-17th century scientific books (The Book of Nature). These parallel projects are evolving dialogues with my personal memories of Florida’s gulf coast region, and with a much broader archive of representations and texts framing “Nature” as a cultural discourse. Neither pursuit is fully independent of the other, and it is in the process of shuttling between research archive and workshop studio that I have most appreciated visual art practice not just as a means of private expression, but also as a profound method of investigative learning and the sharing of ideas.


Growing up on Florida’s Gulf Coast meant weekends spent playing at shorelines and scouring for interesting bits of nature to collect, display and wonder about. These memories of early tactile experiences with shells, sands and bits of coral inspire many of my abstractions. Exhibiting simple compositions of colored bars layered over a collaged surface in parts excavated away to reveal coralline shapes, my works attempt to recapture a childhood feeling for coastal shorelines as mysteriously wide open spaces both beautiful and full of hidden forms.


The above description could apply just as easily to the books on natural history that I still love to read for the pictures and captions. Through such media vehicles I came to appreciate natural history as a branch of learning enlisting the skills of scientists, artists and publishers. In 2008 I was fortunate to receive a graduate fellowship at Duke University to study history and completed a doctoral dissertation in 2015 concentrating on broad collaborations between artists, apothecaries, printers and humanist scholars in promoting the late-Renaissance discipline of natural history. My experience introduced me to a culture of knowledge-making and representational practices very different from our own. Key metaphors for nature as a book (liber naturae), mirror (speculum) or world theater (theatrum mundi) inherited from early Christian and medieval writers informed the literature of Renaissance animal emblems and many illustrated natural histories. Next to the revealed knowledge contained in the Bible, the idea of the Liber Naturae proposed a secondary empirical “proof” of divine providence that supported late-Renaissance natural theologies, museum collections and naturalistic studies.

In our own era, digital media is quickly expanding our ideas of what a “book” might be. New research devoted to the history of the book inquires about its status as a crafted object – much like paintings – with a variety of cultural practices and meanings attached to it. Many rare book archives are now digitizing their holdings making them publicly available on sites like Google Books or Any internet user can now consult “original” editions of pioneering scientific books such as Conrad Gesner’s beautifully illustrated, History of Animals (1555), Thomas Moffett’s Insectorum, or Theater of Small Animals (1589), and Otto Brunfell’s Living Images of Plants (1531). Manipulating these virtual objects with mouse and keyboard, readers become more like anatomists defining texts into any number of visualized parts that can be further manipulated, arranged together and stored in various collections with other media. For historian Areti Adamopoulou, “the web transforms visitors into collectors of pictures, texts, videos etc., selected with or without scientific criteria and classified in rational, symbolic, or simply idiosyncratic ways. Almost all of us have our own cabinet of curiosities in our personal computers.”

These digital resources are important tools in my working process of researching and translating their contents into new visual displays for the “Book of Nature” series. To pursue this, assemblage and collage – approaches I have long admired in the works of Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg – satisfy my interests in both traditional studio arts and in practices of appropriation, collecting and curating. I like to think of each piece as a kind of anatomical display of textual encounters where digital transfers of Renaissance curiosities and classical testimony on ancient Mediterranean flora jostle for space with studio scraps and the ephemera of contemporary culture. Like the books, specimens, libraries and archives they reference, my works are also objects put together to satisfy the purpose of engaging audiences in particular ways. My goal is to spark the imaginations of viewers by staging the fragmented and elusive nature of cultural archives that digitization and cyberspace only multiply. As both aesthetic and didactic objects, my works aim to inspire the viewer’s curiosity about the media vehicles and broader cultural archives that always condition our experiences with nature.