Mary Tooley Parker ‘s fiber artworks pay a warm homage to folk art – throughout her recurrent themes and elaborate process. Her fascination with all things fiber –
weaving, knitting, quilting, rug hooking – started from an early age and she has continued honing her skills and color sensibility ever since. The artist shares with Art Spiel what draws her to fiber art, her process, and the ideas behind her work.
AS: You are largely self-taught. You say in one of your interviews (with Mackenzie Belcastro ) that you taught yourself how to knit and crochet before you were 10 years old. Tell me a bit about your background.
MTP: There are some people, usually women, who are naturally drawn to making things with fiber. It seems to be something innate; you are born with it and it is a part of the rest of your life. I have met others like this. Many are derisively labelled “crafters” mostly because due to economic reasons they need to create with inexpensive materials such as acrylic yarn, recycled clothes, cheaply produced kits from craft stores. And the thing is, they don’t care, because their real focus is the process of making, not the end result. It doesn’t really matter what it is, the hands just have to be creating something. It is not a “past-time” it is a deep seated need. I was born with this relationship to fiber, my mother was not, my family members were not, my daughter was not, but one grandmother in Wisconsin and some great-aunts in Minnesota were. So, when I was young, I taught myself, from books mostly, how to knit, crochet, do needlepoint, embroidery, macramé, bargello, beading and other fiber work. And I did it in any free time, even at the public swimming pool when I was in Junior High School.
Then, as an adult, when I stopped working in New York City and had more time, I started hand sewing reproduction 19th c. dolls using antique fabrics, then learned to quilt, then basket making, spinning, weaving, and finally rug hooking.
AS: What drew you to American folk art of hooking “rugs”?
MTP: For me, rug hooking combines the things I love. It has the tactile, focused, meditative qualities of all fiber work, but also encourages expression, creativity, and constant learning. It really involves me spiritually, physically, and intellectually. Being able to design a piece, choose colors for it, dye the colors I need, and find different materials that make the features and figures more alive. I can pull up loops not only of wool strips, but also of fleece, roving, sari silk, yarn, metallic fibers, leather, plastic, and any fabric. I can also use other historic rug making techniques like proddy and standing wool to make 3d shapes like flowers, leaves, water, and more. It’s just so fun to put all these elements together and end up after a few weeks with something or someone looking back at me.
AS: You use natural and synthetic dyes to create colors. What can you share about your process?
MTP: I love to dye almost as much as I love to hook. It’s another chance to take risks and be creative, or not. I worked in Art Production at Vanity Fair and GQ magazines and learned a lot about color there, because we were color correcting proofs for the magazines. The principles of combining red, yellow, blue and black in different amounts to try to match the printed color to the original art, was so fascinating and really sunk in apparently. Now I love trying to figure out how to combine colors I want to use in my piece. I have a whole book with small wool samples of all the acid dye colors I use, as well as samples and records of combinations I’ve used for earlier work. It’s sort of a recipe book. More recently I also started using commercially available natural dyes like Weld, Cochineal, Madder, Fustic, and Lac. I tried using flowers from my garden like peonies or marigolds, but it took weeks to process and really smelled bad. So I buy the natural dyes in reduced powder form. The natural dye process is still longer (3 days versus a couple hours), but the colors are spectacularly unique, and not replicated by the synthetics. They are also more expensive so I use them only for special things—like the bright yellow background of Weld in “Sue Willie Seltzer, Gee’s Bend Quilter, in Klimt.”
AS: In one of the descriptions of your work it says (Artspace) that your artwork focuses on “interpretations of people and nature, drawn from memories, dreams, or reality.” Can you elaborate on that?
MTP: Many of my pieces depict people and places I remember from many years ago, and even dreams from childhood that I wanted to record and remember and almost bring into my present life. Other pieces are taken from present reality in order to remember in the future, like work picturing rooms in my house, the view from my studio, and people that are important to me.
AS: Let’s take “Living Room Sunrise.” How did you begin this work and what was your process?
MTP: I’m always thinking about potential subjects that would lend themselves to this medium, but one day I just decided to hook what was in front of me. To really try to be in the present and record it. So I started with my living room, where I sit with my coffee and my dog every morning and look out the window at the water. Much of my design work is influenced by the seasons, so these pieces were in winter, when I’m usually up at sunrise. For a short, fleeting, intense time the sunrise fills the room.
AS: And “Essie Bendolph Pettway, Gee’s Bend Quilter”?
MTP: In 2002, I saw the National traveling exhibit of the Quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama while it was at the Whitney in NYC. I was blown away by the beauty created with re-used, mundane, materials by these rural women who were true artists working in a totally practical, utilitarian medium intended for their own use. They put themselves, their ideas, and their aesthetics into every inch of these quilts. It epitomized the long tradition of women just pleasing themselves with hand work. Making things they needed, but with clear personal expression. The freedom and sense of accomplishment that this has given so many, even though the work is usually overlooked and unnoticed by others, including their families. Whether it’s making a quilt for the bed, a rug for the doorstep or a crocheted poodle toilet paper cover, they have created something and can feel good about that. I have created a series of rugs that feature the Gee’s Bend quilters standing with their quilts so we see them, not just their work.
As: You are working in a traditional medium that is historically associated with women’s art. How do you see your work in this context?
MTP: I am honored to be a part of the tradition of women makers. And I hope to shine a light on the underappreciated work of women who use traditional fiber art methods to create. I am so glad the “Art World” has opened its eyes to the rich, historic, multi-faceted world of textile art. Being awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in 2015 also made a big difference in my mind to validate this work’s place in that world.
AS: What are you working on now?
MTP: Another memory piece; this one about my great-aunts’ cottage in Ortonville, Minnesota, that we used to visit when I was young. These four sisters lived together into their 90s and 100s, and my own mother is now approaching that age. I loved it there. And they were always crocheting something.