Contemporary Artist Interview
Mary’s work is magnificent. She has been on my radar for years. I finally got the courage up to ask her to be interviewed for my ongoing Contemporary Artist Series. I hope you adore her work as much as I do.
The piece Mary generously donated which is for sale in our Shopify store.
After a career in dance, and then in art production, Mary Tooley Parker left New York City to pursue a more rural lifestyle in Vermont. After her relocation, Mary then began pursuing an interest in textile art. Eventually, this led her to the indigenous American folk art of hook rugs. In Mary’s case, they weren’t exactly rugs, though. Through using yarn, thread and fabric to make her pieces, her beautiful textile compositions have been exhibited nationally. She is one of my fellow NYFA fellows, having been awarded her Fellowship by the New York Foundation for the Arts just a few years after mine, which I earned for my project Glendalis Subsequently, she even served as a panel juror for NYFA in 2018.
Your medium certainly is fascinating. How did you get started on this path?
Always, I have loved fiber work. Before age 12 I taught myself to knit, bargello, crochet, macramé, needlepoint, embroider and sew. Whereupon I left NYC and got a bigger studio, I learned to quilt, spin, weave, and eventually landed on rug hooking. I joined a local group I became obsessed with it. And I made 11 rugs my first year.
What is your current work about?
In the beginning, my work centered on memories of people and places I really loved and missed. After a fashion, my work was to be based on local history and other people’s pasts. Over the years, I seem to have come around to focus on the present, recording and really seeing where my life has come to and the things I love right now. I want to capture the feeling of the beauty around me at this time of my life.
Tell us a bit about the technique behind making each piece.
Rug hooking is a 19th century rug making technique. And it is a true American Folk Art. It began when burlap feed sacks became widely available and women could draw on them with a stick of charcoal from the fireplace, then cut up worn clothes, blankets, and odds and ends to pull up in loops through the burlap foundation. At one time, rug hooking was a perfect storm of upcycling: old stuff became new stuff. Meanwhile, the technique is simply using a hook to pull up loops through a foundation material. It is the choice of design, materials, textures, and colors that make it an art form.
Do you have several going at once, or do you execute one at a time?
I am pretty monogamous with my rugs—one at a time. However, I always have other projects happening simultaneously. For example, at the moment, I’m knitting 3 sweaters, spinning a batt and dyeing wool colors. All these things require different kinds of thought and actions, so I can do different things according to my time and mood. I am always learning.
Tell us about how your current show came to be.
Though I have shown work many times and in many places in New York City, this solo show was an opportunity to some of my best work all gathered together in one place. It is meaningful to me to bring a visual testament of “women’s work” and its artistic beauty to the eyes of the New York art world. This show is an opportunity to celebrate textiles, as well as some of the specific women who have created art this way, like the famed quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, my muses.
What else do you want us to know about you and your work?
I don’t really understand why, but textile work has been an important part of my life during it’s many twists and turns. When I was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes at age 10, I worked on a crewel embroidery piece in the hospital. In high school, I was admonished by a teacher for knitting during science class. As a dance student, I knitted myself wool leg warmers at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I sewed curtains for my first apartment in the city, and made quilts and rugs to keep my family warm when we moved North.
Textile art is received by the viewer in a different way than fine art. Also, a different part of the brain is stimulated when viewing a textile. It appeals to the senses, especially touch, and gives a feeling of warmth and familiarity before the brain even registers the visual image. That subconscious, natural connection to warmth and love is what I believe textile arts and their practitioners carry and spread through this world.