Each year, the Society of Illustrators elects to its Hall of Fame those artists who have made an outstanding contribution to the art of illustration throughout the years. Al Parker (1906–1985) was so honored in 1965. Characterized by great diversity and experimentation in many approaches and mediums, his illustrations dominated magazines for over 50 years.
Parker was born in St. Louis and became interested in both music and art. He helped pay his way through the St. Louis School of Fine arts, Washington University, by playing saxophone in a jazz band on a Mississippi riverboat.
After marriage to fellow art student, Evelyn, and graduation, Parker got a job with Wallace Bassford, a small studio in St. Louis. “It was there that I began to realize what was expected of a commercial artist,” Parker said. “You were called upon to draw anything from Niagara Falls to fashions. And if you couldn’t do it, out you went. It was rough going, but I stayed in.”
He did more than just stay in the business of commercial illustration—he initiated new trends and approaches at the time when editorial illustration was in its glory days. During the decades between 1930 and 1960, family magazines would run eight or nine short stories or serials in each issue—a few came out weekly—all representing illustration assignments. Parker remembered, “Twenty-five hundred dollars for a page or spread in a major magazine was about the norm. Ads ran about five thousand.”
There were three methods Parker used to stay ahead of the game. They were his recipe for success; why his career spanned so many decades. The first was his painstaking attention to detail and authenticity. The second consisted of Parker’s use of new techniques and new media. The third, and perhaps the most important Parker hallmark, was his abhorrence of the usual, the trite and the stale. This desire to always go an extra step to do the unusual was the one thing that distinguished Parker from his followers. For although others used similar media or techniques inaugurated by Parker, nobody could imitate the unique Parker thinking. And this thinking usually resulted in that intangible something that always said Al Parker.