The Belfast Renaissance man I love to hate

Posted Sept. 17, 2010, at 5:46 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:46 p.m.

Some people are simply dealt too many aces.

Consider Neal Parent of Belfast. Photographer. Framer. Illustrator. Musician. World traveler. Teacher. Now you can add author.

Parent has written two children’s books, “Jody’s Promise” and “Flylow” by Monkey Publishing.

I think I hate him.

The books started 25 years ago when he promised his daughter, Jody, a horse. At the time, the Parent budget could not swing such a purchase, so instead, he wrote a book about giving her the horse.

It was written in an Irish accent, a twist that quickly was rejected by publisher Harper and Rowe. Parent is nothing if not stubborn. He put the book in a drawer and forgot all about it.

“They weren’t going to tell me what to do,” Parent said during a lunch at Darby’s restaurant.

While the book sat collecting spiders in a bureau drawer, Parent went from a darkroom technician to a photographer at the Camden Herald. His first picture was taken at Lincolnville Beach with a Honeywell camera borrowed from Editor Jane Day. His unique photos became a front-page fixture.

Parent stubbornly stuck to his small 35 millimeter format and somehow made huge black-and-white prints that are technically impossible.

His pictures became so popular that he quit his newspaper job and started peddling his photographs featuring Camden schooners, which he printed and framed, at art shows across the country. While friends derided his “boring boat pictures,” Parent stuck to his guns and the pictures caught on, even among people who never have smelled the Maine coast.

At first, the high-class art shows rejected photographs as an art form. But when they finally let him in, he started collecting first-place ribbons.

Did I say I hate him?

When traveling constantly for the art shows grew tedious, Parent opened a photo studio with painter-daughter Jody in downtown Belfast.

“People told me I was crazy. But it has lasted 21 years,” he said.

Driving to his downtown Belfast studio one day, he watched a small bird struggling to fly. The image stuck in his head. He wrote his second book, “Flylow,” in about two hours. It was about a bird afraid to fly.

“Everyone said they liked it. I just threw it in a bag. Then someone said they knew a publisher — Monkey Publishing in Caribou. I am no writer, but I have a good imagination, and I get a kick out of writing books. I have ideas for many more,” he said.

He also has plans for a picture book of wooden boats,

When the multitalented Parent is not dreaming up children’s books, he is working on his harmonica.

“I always played the harmonica, but no one would listen. Then a neighbor, Dean Anderson, starting playing with me. I think we knew all of two songs. After a couple of years, I started playing with Jim James, a real musician. We started playing in my gallery on Tuesday nights. It was different people every night, and you had to learn how to play with different styles.”

It started as a goof, but got serious when Parent was asked to join a blues band.

“Playing in the gallery was one thing. Playing sober, in front of strangers was something else. Actually getting paid to play out was quite unique,” he said.

He played in bars at the Rockland blues festival “pub crawl” several times.

I sat in the audience, making obscene gestures. Did I say I hate him?

Thyroid problems caused a problem that interrupted the music career.

“I never could sing all that well, but when I came back, my voice cracked too much. I sort of lost interest. It was too much of a commitment,” Parent said.

For 30 years, Parent has been organizing photo classes. It started on the schooner Roseway with painter Carol Sebold. Since then, the Parent classes have been held across the Caribbean, Paris, Canada, Antigua and Florence. The classes cost $3,000 for hotels and instruction, not including airfare.

In Paris, Parent could not help himself. He played his harmonica on the Paris subway and actually got a few coins.

With a straight face, Parent said he doesn’t make much money on the trips, but the students pay his expenses.

In October, the Penobscot Marine Museum will feature Parent photographs at a special show. I suppose that next we will see Parent on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Did I say I hate him?

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