“Daddy, paint my hand!” says Mollie playfully, waving a tiny hand at her father’s chest. Her dad, artist Nathan Parten, has spread out an assortment of paints and brushes for their latest project on this Saturday morning, and his tow-headed preschooler is eager to begin.
“I made the mistake of telling her we were going to paint the coffee table today,” Parten says with a laugh. His 4-year-old daughter flits around the living room, drawing on the paper one minute, mixing colors at the paint tray the next, before she finally sashays back to her father and holds out her palm. With a swipe of his paintbrush, her hand suddenly blooms the color of clover. She smiles.
“What should we paint?” he asks patiently.
“Let’s paint a dragon, Daddy,” Mollie replies. Then she presses her palm onto a corner of the page, leaving a bright green handprint that could easily become the scales of an imaginary dragon.
Such flights of fancy are common at the Parten home, where Nathan is busy raising his pint-sized daughter. In fact, it was Mollie’s inquisitiveness that reignited Nathan’s creative spirit. It’s not easy being a single parent; the sheer exhaustion can be wearing. But the benefits are clear.
“Fatherhood forced me to step up my game. Now, I take care of myself better — and her, too,” he says.
Nathan’s artwork, a collection of fantastical paintings and intricately decorated skull and zombie candles, reflects a love of the macabre, the creative haunting of the mind. His style seems tailor-made for the collaborative process he’s followed with his daughter. Ever since Molly refused to color in her kiddie-coloring books because they weren’t like "daddy’s sketchbook," this Memphis College of Art graduate knew he’d found a kindred spirit.
Many of their pictures start with her simple, naive line drawings. “I do sometimes restrict her palette, so she doesn’t end up with some ugly color. But often when she goes to bed, I’ll stare at whatever mess she’s left me to see where those characters live and what they’re doing.” The results have included a picture book and a number of paintings.
Pie Face and Fork is typical of how their pieces evolve; this time, Daddy was spending a bit too much time at the easel. “Mollie wanted me to hurry and when I didn’t, she said, ‘You’re the pie face and I’m the fork,” he recalls. He continued to paint, “but she completely took it over and told me what to draw, including adding a waffle. I said, ‘There’s no waffle in this.’ But she even told me where to put it. And you know what? It worked.”
The results are a playful, quirky collection currently on display at Tsunami restaurant in Cooper-Young through November.
“In the professional art world, everything becomes rigid. I was looking at her as she painted; she was kicked back, because with kids it’s all about process. Most of the time when I’m doing design, I’m hunched over. She’s making me have fun again.”
After walking his daughter to preschool in the morning, Parten goes to work as a tattoo artist at Trilogy Tattoos and Body Piercings, and later produces candles for his Etsy shop, Little Dead Things. Largely influenced by Mexican folk art, his products have sold across the U.S. and as far away as Europe and Australia. Locally, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art will start selling his candles this month. With Halloween just around the corner, they’re certain to bring some ghoulish fun.
Today, raising his fledgling artist gives Nathan a sense of purpose. “It’s a lot like the Stockholm syndrome,” he says with a tinge of irony, “where the host falls for his captive. I’ve got no choice but to be with this child all the time.
"But I love her dearly. I love her more than anything.”
You can find Parten’s candles at Trilogy, Black Lodge Video, and Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. To see more of his work, go to partenartfarm.daportfolio.com or Little Dead Things on Etsy and Facebook.