What is a work of art? Is it a painting that hangs on a wall inside a storied museum? A large-scale installation that becomes the delight of Instagrammers? Graffiti scrawled on the side of a building? In the case of Johna Parot, his latest works of art are original, hand-sewn face masks that protect against germs during the middle of a global pandemic (and of course, they’re stylish).
Parot is a Los Angeles-based visual artist who lives in the Echo Park neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from downtown. In February of 2020, he opened a new show at the San Diego Public library, a large painting installation focused on the light in LA called “Chromosexual.” Then COVID happened. The art is still lining the walls, but the library is closed. It was a rough blow. “Most people assumed I was doing great with shelter in place since most artists spend a lot of time creating alone,” says Parot. “But I quickly realized I balance that solitude with being social and hanging out with my friends. Without that balance and the uncertainty of the virus I found it especially hard to focus.”
A few months into the pandemic, Parot was watching a news item about people in the Midwest who had begun making masks. He went right to work. “I instantly thought, this is something I could create that would benefit me and the people I care about, especially my community which is very important to me,” he says. Parot dusted off an old sewing machine he had purchased on a whim during in college, studied vintage hospital face masks, and made a simple pattern.
Then the orders started pouring in. People were frightened of COVID and wanted them immediately. Parot sewed nonstop, making masks from his tiny art studio in nearby Lincoln Heights and delivering them to cars idling on the street. He was intentional about the fabrics and colors (just like with his paintings), including masks from fine linen and in saturated colors, African wax prints, batik designs, and eighties geometrics. “My nature is to create, and this pandemic gave me a different opportunity to explore other avenues I had never explored before,” he says. Me, a designer of protective masks? Nope, didn’t see that coming!”
Parot was born in Chicago and raised in its western suburbs. He has a BFA from Northern Illinois University and an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. In 2008, he moved to LA. When viewing his art, the non-mask variety that is, you can see the influence of the city he inhabits. A bold, vivid circle painted in searing pink, for example, (Parot uses a water-based paint called gouache), could be a sublime LA sunset, one that is perhaps tainted by smog or wildfires. “I love the contrast of aggressive advertising, graffiti, endless construction and neglect versus the stunning vistas of the mountains, sea, and foliage,” says Parot. “It’s almost like these things are competing for our attention. Somewhere in that battle I make art.”
His art is also deliciously, fabulously queer. A mountain range painted in white, for example, might represent mountains of cocaine, a reflection of a night spent in underground gay clubs. “Being queer is such a big part of me,” says Parot. “As I grow as an artist it shows itself in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. It just depends what I’m working on.”
Sometimes the work is more sexually explicit. One side hustle (pre-pandemic, of course), for example, is an event launched at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Echo Park in 2018 called PAROT TAROT. (Finland is the Finnish artist famous for his drawings of outrageously chiseled and hung studs engaging in all manners of sexual activity.) It was a four-night event Parot created with ceramicist Rowland Byass in which the gardens of the Foundation were transformed into a candle-lit salon with Parot acting as tarot card soothsayer. “I created specific artworks using Tom’s famous hunks and each guest received a unique artwork as a souvenir of the evening.” Since that time, PAROT TAROT has happened on a beach in Ibiza, inside a 100-year-old pub in London, and at private homes in Los Angeles.
But that was then. Like the rest of us, Parot is waiting on a vaccine or treatment option that will bring life back to normal. In the meantime, he’s keeping busy working on a series of large-scale night sky paintings. “I love how the LA sky and stars are always shining, watching us even after a rough day,” he says. “This is something I find fascinating and comforting as it’s a one true constant in these uncertain times.”