Event honors life, works of Kansas Renaissance man

Gordon Parks was in his 80s when John Pultz visited him in New York, hoping to buy some prints from the famous black photographer.

But what Pultz remembered Saturday about that visit was not the politically charged, black-and-white photos that Parks pulled from his stash.

What the photography curator for Kansas University’s Spencer Museum of Art remembered instead was that a composition by Parks was playing on the elderly man’s stereo.

At the time, Parks also was working on a book and had countless other projects under way.

“He wasn’t just living in the past,” Pultz said of Parks’ energy.

The six photographs Pultz purchased nearly 10 years ago will be on display through March 23 at the museum.

Saturday evening, about 75 people gathered at the Lied Center for “An Evening Honoring Gordon Parks,” part of a communitywide effort to celebrate the Langston Hughes February Festival.

Parks, a Fort Scott native who also is known for his writing, composing and filmmaking, was unable to attend the ceremony because of his health and poor weather. To compensate, clips from a Friday afternoon interview with Parks were shown, and a number of scholars shared their thoughts on the artist.

“The more I learn about Gordon Parks and his life, the more I am moved by his audacity, his boldness, his courage, his imagination,” said Maurice Bryan Jr., a doctoral student in the department of American studies at Kansas University.

Discussion focused on many aspects of Parks’ life, including his influence on other photographers and the importance of his autobiographies and films, which include the 1971 “Shaft.”

Several of his photographs — the most famous of which might be “American Gothic,” a depiction of a black woman holding a mop and broom — were flashed overhead and analyzed.

Although Parks photographed such notables as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, it was often his anonymous subjects who moved people, said Lynda Koolish, a member of the department of English at San Diego State University.

“He decided that a camera was going to become his weapon against poverty and racism,” she said.

The February Festival continues today with films from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Haskell Indian Nations University auditorium.