Feature Story: A Natural Connection 

Blending love and creativity, Jon and Charlotte Parks

The two, who will celebrate 33 years of marriage in October, have discovered they are kindred creative spirits. They share a passion for creativity and a loving reverence for the Earth. This is evident in their work, their art and their home. They live together as husband and wife, and they work together as partners in Evergreen Films, a production company.

"We're best friends," Charlotte says. "We have true love and respect for our differences. I'm the world's biggest optimist and Jon's the pessimist. Our differences make life interesting, and in spite of hard times, our kind hearts and determination have made us survive our roller-coaster business. It seems the hard times make us stronger as a couple. Somehow, we'll always create something together."

Their house, which they lovingly share with Lakota, their Mackenzie Valley timber wolf hybrid, is a home and an office, a backdrop for their varied collections and a canvas for their artistic endeavors.

They live near Glen Allen. And on any given day, you may find them walking through the woods or by the roadway with Lakota, picking up leaves or branches along the way.

Their house, a two-story stucco country Victorian built in 1905, is secluded from the road, nestled in the middle of 11 acres of forest and pasture land. A barn near the house serves as a studio with edit suites for their film business. The depot, a smaller building, serves as Jon's model-railroad workroom. A small potting room where Charlotte creates her one-of-a-kind "Earth Art" sculptures is tucked behind the house.

"I find nature so fascinating," Charlotte says. "Many of the treasures I find in the woods are used in my Earth Art."

Charlotte traces her love for nature and the Earth back to her childhood in a small North Carolina tobacco town. "We were rather poor, and I used to entertain myself with walks in the woods after school," she says. "My mom loved flowers, and my father respected the Earth. I could gather wild flowers or draw, and it was my simple entertainment."

Jon grew up in the rural countryside of western Maryland, a place he loved. He remembers hiding away in his family's basement, building model cars, and standard and narrow gauge model railroads.

"My dad and granddad worked for the railroad," he explains. "My dad and I started building layouts together. He had big dreams [for the models]."

Recently, Jon traveled to the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum in Maryland to install a memorial layout in honor of his late father, Raymond W. Parks Jr. "I took a lot of dad's buildings and created an environment for them," he says.

Art is a common theme in the Parks household. Jon and Charlotte each can trace their creative awakenings to their youth.

In high school, Jon became interested in sculpture, using foam plastic to create abstract sculptures. He also discovered a passion for music — he was a drummer in a local band in Hagerstown. It wasn't until college that he began focusing on photography and eventually filmmaking.

Charlotte began drawing and doing illustrations when she was in elementary school. In college, she focused on illustration, design and photography.

In 1975, Jon worked in media services for Richmond Public Schools, creating documentary films for the school system. "They were the kinds of films that Ken Burns is doing now," he notes.

Charlotte got involved with Jon's work for the first time — she helped with sound and location stills — when the two followed 30 students from Richmond Community High School around the Chesapeake Bay, filming their adventures.

After working for the public school system for seven years, Jon decided he wanted a larger audience for his film work. So, in 1982, he formed Mirage Productions in Shockoe Bottom. Charlotte joined the company in 1984, serving as a publicist and producer. Jon was the director of photography. The company produced commercials, public service announcements, corporate image films and documentaries — stories they wanted to share. One of Jon's legendary films — the anti-litter trailer at the Byrd Theatre — remains a cult favorite.

Bill Martin, partner/owner of Barber Martin Advertising, recalls a commercial that his agency filmed in the couple's pasture land. It required building a guillotine on the property. "It was funny to see that French guillotine in the middle of their pasture, a very quiet scenic environment," he says. "Jon and Charlotte were always amenable to collaboration."

In 1995, the couple's lives changed drastically when Charlotte suffered a cerebral stroke. For six months, the left side of her body was paralyzed, and Charlotte underwent extensive rehabilitation.

It was time, the two felt, to simplify their lives and decrease their stress. They closed Mirage in 1995 and formed Evergreen Films. They made its headquarters in their barn studio, turning their home into a place to live, work and play. It's been an ideal move for them.

Their work includes commercials and documentaries. However, business is ever- changing for Evergreen. Jon's work in photography now encompasses independent films and feature motion pictures as well as television series and features.

Their home is filled with antiques and collectibles accumulated during their travels. Each room features a different type of collection, as well as different artists. Along the side of their dining room, for example, sits an antique glass display case artfully crammed with dozens of tins and country-store memorabilia. Their oldest piece: a Zeno Chewing Gum tin from the early 1900s. The couple purchased it from an antique store in Hanover.

"In college we got interested in the 1920s country-store period," Jon explains. "A lot of our pieces come from that era. We love the use of the five-color lithography on the tins. It's a lost art form."

Near to the display is "Little Man," a lifelike doll created by artist and Richmond native Bill Nelson. More of Nelson's artwork can be found around the house. In the living room, a collection of Vicki Bruner's whimsical modern art with bright colors and fanciful images mingles with antique furniture and the work of other artisans. The house also holds Jon's and Charlotte's artistic endeavors. One of Jon's largest models sits in the dining room. His interest in creating railroad models was reignited several years ago when the couple's first wolf hybrid died. "I had been grieving and wanted to refocus my energy," Jon says. "This is a release for me. People think of model railroads as something that goes around a Christmas tree. My interest is in creating an entire miniature environment that can be photographed and the viewer not be able to know he is looking at a model. It's almost sleight-of-hand trickery."

Jon has toyed with the idea of producing miniatures for architects and movies. "But it would ruin the spontaneity," he concludes.

In his landscapes, Jon uses natural elements handpicked by Charlotte. Her love of the land, gardening, flowers, shrubs, trees and herbs helped launch her newest enterprise, Earth Art, a business she formed in December. Her natural creations are scattered about her home, gracing a table here, a dresser there.

The idea for the venture took shape when Charlotte created a special Victorian planter with 12 pieces of art from the earth. "My family and friends were raving over them," Charlotte says. "I found a real expression of myself."

During her walks with Lakota, Charlotte picks up dried flowers, feathers, bark and twigs to use in her art. She also has found turtle shells and perfectly petrified lizards, both of which can be found in her creations.

"Last fall when people lost tree limbs to the hurricane, they saved the cedar boughs for me," Charlotte says, noting that her works contain no living plants or animals.

When she reflects on her art, Charlotte remembers something a friend said to her when she was pruning a tree near her house. "He told me, 'Sometimes you have to look beyond things to see the beauty in front of you,'" she recalls. "That's how I see beauty, in the miniscule details and objects of nature that I borrow for my Earth Art."

Allen Wimett, a friend of the Parks, believes both to be "incredibly artistic," he says. "Their home is unbelievable — the art and antiques. Their feel for visual presentation extends to everything in their life. They are naturally talented. They are made for each other."

That's exactly what Jon and Charlotte believe.

"We're best friends," Jon says. "We value a beautiful sunset, a cool breeze. We communicate and that's the most important."

"Jon and I love being together all the time," Charlotte adds. "We couldn't be happier."



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