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Casey Parlette: Celebrating the natural world


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Casey Parlette likes to keep things interesting. As a sculptor who has lived more lives than seems possible for someone his age, he feels an affinity for his chosen medium because, as he says, “The possibilities are endless. There are no restrictions. If you can think it and you can figure out a way to make it you can do it.”

Born in Laguna, Parlette moved to San Diego when he was four. However, he returned often to Laguna where his grandparents still lived. After graduating from high school, Parlette got a job as a Laguna Beach lifeguard while attending Orange Coast College, eventually transferring to UCLA. There he graduated with a degree in Anthropology and was faced with the question that many college graduates must answer: “Now what?” 

From commercial diving to discoveries in the Amazon

Parlette’s response was not what you might expect. He took a job as a commercial diver in San Diego and continued lifeguarding in the summers. During a break from his diving work, he decided to visit some family that lived in Lima, Peru. “I ended up in the jungle,” he says. There he learned how to put expeditions together. “There hadn’t been a lot of that up until that point,” he recalls. “I figured there’s a good chance you’ll find something new.” He was right. Parlette discovered two new species of fish, one that is named after him.

Casey Parlette close up

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Local sculptor Casey Parlette is at the Festival of the Arts and the Sawdust Festival

Summer lifeguarding in Laguna Beach turns full time

His dive work resumed and he returned home “25 pounds lighter,” he says with a laugh. Then that job concluded and Parlette became a full-time Laguna Beach lifeguard.

So when did Parlette have the time to develop his artistic skills? “I’ve always done stuff,” he explains. “Art comes natural to me. I’ve been lucky. My family has a lot of great artists and craftsmen. There have been a lot of people I’ve been exposed to who have been great influences.” Parlette’s father was a carpenter. Parlette says he was always interested in “making stuff.” And his career grew from there.

Approaching his art as a business from the beginning

Parlette first exhibited his artwork at the Festival of the Arts in 2008. “I approached it as a business. It evolved as it went,” he says. He was successful enough to come back the next year and then every year since. And while working as a sculptor was becoming a full-time job, he still had a full-time job as a lifeguard. The two simultaneous careers were extremely challenging, but they became unsustainable when his son turned two. “I just didn’t see him that much. I didn’t like that at all,” says Parlette.

Something had to give

With something needing to give, Parlette sat down and took a look at both jobs. “I lifeguarded for 23 summers. 12 were full time. I loved it. I still love it. But I did most of what I wanted to do there. With the art, I knew I’d only scratched the surface.” So art won. Parlette has been singularly committed to sculpting ever since.

Casey Parlette hermit crab

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Casey Parlette is inspired by the natural world and seeks to raise awareness about it through his original, one-of-a-kind creations

He says giving up the security of a regularly paying job wasn’t quite as much a leap of faith as it may seem. “I had been doing both for a long time so I kind of knew what I was looking at,” he explains. “I’m fine with calculated risk. There’s inherent risks in everything.” He had been successful as a sculptor while still working full time as a lifeguard. With just his art to focus on, it stood to reason his success would not only continue but grow. His bet has paid off.

An artistic vision brought to life by a master craftsman

Even though Parlette participates in the Festival of the Arts, the majority of his work is commissioned pieces. Visiting his studio on Laguna Canyon Road is a sensory experience. There is wood, metal, and all manner of creations in various stages of completion for people who want to own one of Parlette’s interpretations of the natural world. A hermit crab hand carved out of an interesting piece of wood. A fish whose head is hammered out of metal and whose body is a glistening piece of eucalyptus. Parlette’s work blends imagination and master craftsmanship into familiar creatures interpreted through his vision. 

 “I’ve always been drawn to the natural flow,” he says. And while he is adamant he doesn’t “want to be the guy who just does the wood and metal fish,” he is drawn to stories that represent the natural world. “All artists are telling a story. My work is a physical representation of a story.” His work also represents longevity. He has a commissioned piece at Diver’s Cove. “It’s very cool that that’s going to be there long after I’m gone. It will speak for me in my absence,” he says.

Every piece is part of a legacy

Parlette likes the multi-generational aspect of his pieces, the fact that the pieces will be passed from one generation to the next. “It becomes part of the family’s legacy and story. It gains value because of its history,” he explains. 

The idea of legacy goes into the creation of his pieces too. He works with sawmills that will give him a head’s up if they come across a particularly interesting piece of wood. He also relies on a company called Street Tree Revival that specializes in urban wood recycling. “I give these pieces of wood a second life, and they’re not coming out of the rainforest which is nice,” he says.

Casey Parlette son

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Casey Parlette works seven days a week on his sculptures, but he always makes time for his son

Creating wearable sculpture as a new venture

All of this meticulous work that goes into every one of Parlette’s pieces means they are not something everyone can afford to own. As a response to that, Parlette decided to add another venture to his already busy schedule: a jewelry line he debuted at this year’s Sawdust Festival. “I use titanium,” he explains. “It’s so light and so unique. I can make it into a wearable sculpture at a price point that’s good for just about everyone.” He tells me how delighted he is when he sees his jewelry on people just out in the world. “It has been a neat thing,” he says.

And while he has found the extra work rewarding, exhibiting at both shows has not been easy. “The juggling act with the two has been challenging,” he admits. “But it has been really, really fun.” He has enjoyed the camaraderie with the other artists. He has also learned from them. 

Seeing every piece as a story

“It was explained to me early on that if you look at art as having a story to tell then the goal is to get it out there into the world,” he says. “That conversation was good for me. Everything I do is a one-off. Even making similar pieces is a one-off. All are different.” And while he says it’s hard to part with his creations (“They do become a bit like your kids,” he admits), the goal is to send them out into the world. 

Casey Parlette booth

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Casey Parlette’s booth at the Festival of Arts showcases some of his creations

He has another goal, as well. “For me it’s more than just making a pretty thing,” he says. He wants to bring awareness specifically to the creatures he has created in addition to the natural world in more general terms. “It’s really cool when art transcends, when it’s not just a decoration.” For example, he created a piece for Mission Hospital’s organ and tissue donor memorial. Titanium butterflies “spiral heavenward” in colors representing adult and child donors. 

On the one hand, it’s a sculpture of butterflies. On the other, it is a celebration of the donors whose gifts allowed others to live. “The ultimate goal is to make something more than it is,” explains Parlette. To imbue meaning beyond an object’s actual representation is no small task, especially when that object seems familiar. However, once you see Casey Parlette’s work, you will applaud his ambitions. His creations are beautiful representations of the natural world. They are also much more.

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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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