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Baltimore photographer remembers time as Prince's art director

Millions of mourning fans wish they had known the real Prince. Canton resident Steve Parke did.

They shared serious moments, like late-night conversations in the studio about politics, religion and music. But there were also the 3 a.m. screenings of "Interview with the Vampire" and "Star Wars" prequels in rented-out theaters. There was bowling and pingpong.

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"He was a really good pingpong player," Parke said Friday, a day after the superstar's unexpected death. "He'd distract me to look at something, and then he'd serve. I'd be like, 'Dude, you're going to win. You don't have to cheat!'"

These memories stick out now to Parke, a Baltimore photographer who was Prince's art director for nearly 15 years starting in the mid-1990s, because they were rare. Most of the times he spent with Prince were about getting the work done and then moving on to the next project. It was a rewarding but pressure-filled job, Parke said, because Prince was involved every step of the way.

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"People say, 'What's it like working with Prince?'" said Parke, now 52. "It was probably a lot like you were working with Bill Gates' company, but Bill Gates hung out with you all day and sat over your shoulder and said, 'Hey, what about that? Did you see this? Can we try this?'

"It was cool, but it was super-intimidating."

Baltimore pays tribute to legendary musician Prince, who passed away on Thursday.

Parke grew up a huge Prince fan and never imagined he'd one day create the covers for albums like "Emancipation," "Chaos and Disorder," "Crystal Ball" and "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic." But he befriended one of Prince's band members through a chance encounter in Washington; the friend showed the singer Parke's drawings. Soon after, at 25, Parke got his first job with the Purple One, painting a video set.

"From that, everything just launched forward by me just taking the opportunities I was given," Parke said. "They would rely on me for any art stuff."

Parke, who grew up in Northern Virginia and has lived in Baltimore since 1988, would often fly from Baltimore to Minneapolis to spend a week with Prince at his Paisley Park residence in Chanhassen, Minn. Parke estimates he worked 100-hour weeks at the time.

"I was really teaching myself on the job," said Parke, a former college theater major with no professional art training.

Once Prince saw that Parke had taught himself to use the graphic-design computer program Adobe Photoshop, he put him in charge of everything that involved art, including T-shirts, calendars, posters and other memorabilia.

Parke believes he gained trust, and more responsibilities, from Prince because he could execute a job Prince could not.

"My best guess is I filled something," Parke said. "From what I could tell, when it came to visual imagery, that was something he had to have someone doing. … It was something he could trust me with and not have to worry about, because he had so many other things going on."

The relationship ended in 2009, when Parke said he asked to work on art for Prince's album "Lotusflower" from Baltimore. Parke had grown tired of the travel and wanted to spend more time with his family. After the request, Parke said, he was told Prince was going in a different direction.

"He goes all-in all of the time, so when you're there, you have to go all-in all of the time," Parke said. "At 25, it's easy to do that. But you get older, and then you have more responsibilities."

That year was the last time he and Prince talked, Parke said, but there were never hard feelings. Now, as he reflects on his time with the star — beyond the music — he'll remember Prince's generosity.

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"I'll remember him as someone who gave me a chance. … Anything I wanted to do that I felt I could do, he would give me that opportunity and that trust," Parke said. "After you work for Prince, you come out thinking, 'I can pretty much do whatever.'"

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