photographs by Liz Condo
Rory Parnell did not herself prepare the petite crab cakes with Cajun remoulade that guests gobbled in two bites at her late fall party to benefit local arts education. Her husband, Jerry, grilled the beef tenderloin. Her brother-in-law labored over the shrimp.
But the beautiful food – and the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner fundraiser for the United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County – might have been bland without the special ingredient Parnell brought to the soiree. The way a cook sprinkles salt over a simmering pot, Parnell scatters cheer.
She doesn’t throw a party so much as she creates the conditions in which one is bound to happen, whether it’s at her home or business.
Parnell is co-owner of The Mahler Fine Art Gallery, a regular stop on the popular First Friday gallery walk and the site of openings and receptions throughout the year. Parnell also uses the restored late-1800s building on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh – welcoming, airy, bright and filled with a changing array of art – for nonprofit fundraisers and private parties.
Parnell had two gallery events the same week she had 40 guests for the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner party and never broke a sweat.
“When we’re selecting the hosts for the dinners, it’s not so much about the size of the house, or the way it’s decorated, or the menu,” said Eleanor Oakley, president and CEO of United Arts, which uses the annual event to raise money for its Artists in the Schools program.
“More than anything else, we want hosts who enjoy giving parties.”
The kind of people, Oakley said, who can throw open the front door, wave the neighbors over, start a pot of spaghetti, uncork a bottle of wine, “and everybody has a good time.”
“I’m so comfortable entertaining,” said Parnell, who grew up with five sisters on Long Island in a house that she recalls was always clean, so the family could invite people over on the spur of the moment. “It’s about having life in your house.”
Parnell started her own household with Jerry, a high school classmate, and the couple stayed in New York while he did his residency in urology. They came to North Carolina in 1981 and found a wooded lot in the Stoneridge neighborhood off Ebenezer Church Road, still under development at the time. They hired an architect to design a contemporary home with enough cozy spaces for just the couple and their son, Parnell said, but open enough that “you could also have 100 people milling around.”
While Jerry built his practice, Rory planned to launch an import business that would let her travel, but she met a woman who talked her into co-founding an art gallery instead. They were partners for six years before the other woman left to attend art school, and by then, Parnell said, “I was just hooked.”
As she learned more about art, she developed as both a dealer and a collector, filling her house the way she filled her gallery, with pieces she loves, many of them created by artists she knows and adores. The house is devoid of clutter but full of color and motion. A familiar landscape in an unfamiliar light on this wall; a collage with layers of texture and symbolism on that one; a whimsical sculpture on a table.
Eventually, the Parnells added a wing to the house and connected it with a space designed to showcase even more art. The night of the dinner, even the lap pool in the back yard added to the imagery, as tiny magenta lights reflected off the water, and a handful of autumn leaves stirred its surface.
A jazz trio set up in the open den, adding an aural counterpoint.
With the stage properly set, Parnell needed only to add food and the right mix of guests, which she achieved by encouraging certain life-of-the-party friends to attend.
She didn’t worry that the evening would come together successfully, because experience had taught her how adjust. She recalls one holiday party she and Jerry planned at their home for about 55 of his colleagues and staff. The night before the party, a car trunk-full of glass ornaments she’d planned as decorations broke into a million glittering pieces on the driveway. The next morning, there was no running water in the house; the well had gone dry.
“We have to cancel,” Jerry said.
“It’ll be fine,” Rory insisted. The well man came, and water was eventually running again, but that was before she spilled a bucket all over an Oriental rug and the Christmas tree fell over.
A couple of hours later, the couple was telling the story to their guests. “It turned out to be a great party.”
So did the Guess Who dinner. Most of those who came donated $350 per couple to United Arts, which started the dinners about a decade ago to support Artists in the Schools, an endeavor that gives students in more than 100 public, private and charter schools across Wake County more than 100,000 hours of contact with visual, cultural and performing artists.
The dinners’ theme – Guess Who’s Coming – adds a bit of intrigue, as guests know only that at least one artist with North Carolina connections will attend their event. They don’t know until they arrive who that will be.
This year, more than a dozen dinners were held over three nights, some as intimate as 14 guests gathered around a table and a handful as big as the Parnells’, where servers threaded through the crowd offering sausage-stuffed mushrooms or smoked-salmon-on-potato-galette appetizers.
Dinner was a buffet where guests served themselves from the beef or shrimp, or grilled teriyaki chicken-and-pineapple kebobs. The caterer, Ladyfingers, is especially known for the rolls with shaved country ham that were stacked like Southern pyramids on broad platters.
Jerry Parnell spent much of the evening in one of the most prominent spots in the house – the bar – where he poured wine and soft drinks.
“I like it here,” he said. “I get to see everybody.”
Key to the success of the dinners, said United Arts coordinator Graham Satisky, is keeping them small enough that guests can talk with the featured artists, as well as meet new people and enjoy acquaintances they see at other arts events.
“I’m not really even an artist,” demurred Bill Leslie, one of the surprise guests at the Parnells’ party. Leslie, who gets up most days at 2:30 a.m. to host the morning and then the noon news on WRAL-TV, stayed up well past his bedtime to attend the dinner, where he talked briefly about his experience as a singer and the book he created based on his father’s watercolor and oil paintings from the 1940s and ’60s.
Hillsborough landscape artist John Beerman also attended, bringing several canvasses, set on easels at eye level where guests could get close enough to look for brush marks.
While taking Bill Leslie’s wife, Cindy, on a quick tour of the home, Parnell stopped in front of one painting, reached up and roughly wiped off some dust that clung to the surface. Cindy Leslie looked startled as the painting rattled against the wall.
“It’s like with your kid, when they’ve got a smudge on their face and you just kind of reach out and get it off,” Parnell said later, demonstrating by wiping imaginary soot from her own cheek. “You don’t even think about it.”
In fact, said John Coffey, chief curator for the N.C. Museum of Art, who attended the Parnells’ dinner, “most of the art you see in museums was never intended for museums. It was designed for churches or people’s houses. It’s nice to see it out in the world, and not just in the rarified world of a museum.
“This is how art is supposed to be enjoyed,” he said: as another welcome guest at the gathering.