Posted: Athens Banner Herald Sunday, November 28th, 2010
The brightest objects inside Ranel Parks' frame shop are the frames themselves. The Athens Framing Gallery showroom is dark, the shop in the back coated in dust. There are more dogs - the big ones are friendly enough, but that little dachshund will bite - than customers hanging around. The whole atmosphere, much like Parks himself, is so unassuming. You'd never guess that six- and seven-figure art passes through these walls. But when millionaire stars like Ted Turner, Elton John and Faith Hill want something framed, they often turn to Parks. Ditto for artists from across the world. They don't look at Parks as a framer. Anyone who can make a gold water-laid picture frame is an artist. The shiny gold frames he gilds - a few of them shine out in the dimly lit lobby - don't just complement the art it fits around. "I like to think the frames are artwork," The water-laid frame technique hasn't changed much in thousands of years, but not too many framers give it a go. Parks was one of those who wouldn't, until Lamar Dodd visited him about 20 years ago and asked for a gold water-laid frame. Parks took up the challenge, a little unsure of what he was getting himself into. "It's amazing what you can do when you're pushed," he said. "I went home and taught myself how to do it. "When I first started, I had to make a recipe. I learned really quick that you make these the way your grandma makes biscuits." These days, his frame recipe is as sure to please as something Paula Deen would cook up. Parks starts with wood milled from North Carolina that he cuts and carves himself. Woodworking always came easy to him. The gold gilding took a little time to get right. It's a combination of rabbit skin glue, red clay, water and gold leaves that measure four-millionths of an inch thick - stack the leaves an inch tall, and there would be enough to span 13 miles. The gold is so thin that it literally disappears with the rub of a finger. "The molecules are actually laying side by side," Parks said. "You can see through it in the light. When you lay it over the clay, you can see some of the red come through. "Once the gold gets rubbed onto the clay, it's good for thousands of years." When the frames dry, they are completely smooth and shiny. Dodd was so impressed that he became a regular customer. By 1994, Parks put together enough samples to take to different galleries around Atlanta. Now, his frames hang across the world. His clients include the Georgia Museum of Art, and galleries and artists like Alan Campbell, Sara Wolfe and Steve Penley come to him when they have big-ticket pieces they want to sell. A $109,000 Robert Motherwell painting just left the shop last week. "When artists have a big show, they come here to get everything framed," Parks said. "Of course, if you're buying a painting for $100,000, you're going to want to put it in a frame that makes it jump out." Parks and his family stay busy at the seemingly slow shop, cranking out five to 10 frames a day. The water-laying remains Parks' specialty, though he's framed plenty of diplomas and mirrors, too. But there's something about those shiny gold frames. They just mean a little more to him. "It is kind of neat how I've sent them all over the world from right here. And they'll be around for years and years," he said. "Dirt and gold never go bad," he said, "It's like pairing a fine wine with a great meal."