Mary Tooley Parker's Artist Journey

. 6 min read

It Began With Music

I always LOVED any kind of fiber work I could get my hands on. I taught myself how to knit and crochet before I was 10 years old. As I grew up I also taught myself embroidery, crewel work, needlepoint, bargello, and macramé, and learned to sew well enough to make my own prom dress. I just loved to make things, feeling the fibers passing through my fingers, and I couldn't sit down without working on a project.

On Following Her First Love

I always loved to just dance to music growing up, but I started formal dance training relatively late, in high school. I loved it right away. My high school was a prestigious prep school though, so I went on to a liberal arts college after graduating. But after a year of college, I quit and started going into New York City to study dance at the Martha Graham Studio, Merce Cunningham Studio, and the Alvin Ailey School.

I was just crazy for it, and the next year I was accepted into NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Dance Department. So I moved to New York and stayed for almost twenty years! I honestly didn't think about the future or how I would make a career out of dance, I just HAD to do it and be in NYC where I could study with the best teachers and see all the greatest dance companies perform.

On Transitioning From Dancer to Art Production

After several years of trying to work at jobs that would coordinate with taking daily dance classes, and living with several roommates in order to afford the rent, I finally had to get a fulltime 9-5 job. I found my first job in publishing through a dancer friend. From then on I just kept getting jobs in magazine art departments through friends, eventually ending up at Condé Nast, the mother of all magazine publishers! I learned about art production (tracking art, color correcting, retouching, typesetting, design, etc.) on the job at Vanity Fair as I moved up over the years, finally becoming art production editor at GQ. During this time at Vanity Fair and GQ I actually learned so much about color, design, and the basic elements of art without really even trying, or realizing I was soaking up so much. This was really my art training, as it were.

I always had an ongoing knitting project but other than that the hours were just too intense to leave much time for creativity. Most nights we worked until 8 pm or later at Vanity Fair. Plus living in the East Village in the 80s and 90s provided many distractions—there was a LOT going on.

On Motherhood and the Return of the Artist

I moved out of the city in 1995, and in 1996 my daughter was born. I took a leave of absence from Condé Nast, but then I never went back. My husband and I decided that I would stay home with her and we would live more simply, rather than putting her in day care so we could both work and earn more. So during those years I took advantage of having more time and more space to really delve into fiber art. As I mentioned earlier, I had been drawn to fiber work my whole life, but now I could really explore and study them.

First I made reproduction 19th century rag dolls using period textiles. Then I learned to quilt, again focusing on 19th c. textiles, patterns, and the traditions of fiber work in women's daily lives across the US at that time in history. Then when my daughter started school, I found a local rug hooking group and learned to hook rugs, another 19th c. folk art. Something about this fiber art really clicked with me. I loved doing it and learning about it more than any other fiber work I had ever tried.

I made 11 rugs the first year, where most people may make one or two.

I started right away designing my own patterns, learned to dye wool to create the colors I wanted, and learned to spin so I could incorporate fleece and handspun yarn into my work. Rug hooking has been called the only one true American folk art. It grew popular in the mid 1800s when burlap feed sacks became widely available to farms across the US. Women would take a charred stick or coal from the fire and make a simple sketch on the sacks. Then, cutting strips from their families’ used clothing and blankets, they would pull up loops through the burlap, using a hook made from a piece of wood with a bent nail stuck in the end. Pulling up loop after loop recycling their worn materials, they were able to express their thoughts, ideas, feelings, and experiences via this simple, practical medium. A very simple folk art that women could enjoy while making something useful too.

I have also learned that there is science showing that a different part of the brain is stimulated when viewing a textile as opposed to when looking at fine art. Textiles stimulate the senses, especially touch, and evoke a feeling of warmth and familiarity before the brain even registers the visual image. For me, working in this simple medium affords a strong connection not only to the fibers running through my fingertips, but also to the women who used this medium and other fiber mediums to express themselves during difficult times in the past. Using this form as a creative expression of my 21st c. experience carries this tradition into the contemporary art world by taking these rugs off the floor to be viewed as art.

Where There’s a Will…

I think if you are lucky enough to really feel passionately drawn to do something--whether it's dancing, painting, writing, acting, playing music, or anything—you will find that you just HAVE to do it. There will be ups and downs, excitement and doubts, but you have to go with it and see where it takes you. You might be surprised where you end up.

On Inspiration and Creating Realistic Art

I work from both outward and inward inspiration. Every single piece I have ever designed is from a personal memory, experience, dream, or combination of inspirational images that have crossed my path. These ideas resonate with me in an identifiable, logical way, and they give me that electric hum of excitement when I work on them.

This doesn’t happen when I look at or think about abstract art.

Whether I am working from outer or inner inspiration, I need to get that feeling from the idea in order to work on the piece. The result isn’t really that important to me. It is the process of creating the piece through the many steps –idea, design, design transfer, gathering fibers, cutting and hooking, editing and reworking, finishing and binding—that fascinates me. I don’t always end up with exactly what I envisioned, but that's okay. I do not believe in overthinking it or overworking it. I just want to learn more with each effort and then move on. Doing this work is one place in my life where I feel no fear.

On the Selected “Ingredients”

Traditionally hooked rugs were made mostly with wool for its warmth, strength, and repellent properties. I follow that tradition by using mostly wool strips, but since the “rugs” I make now aren’t meant to be on the floor but on the wall, I've come to incorporate lots of other more delicate materials. Besides wool strips, I now also use cotton fabric, silk fabric, silk roving, fleece, handspun yarn, commercial yarn, cut up sweaters, metallic fibers, paper, film, leather, bicycle streamers, and whatever else I find that can be pulled up through the backing to create the effect I want. I also use natural and synthetic dyes on the silk and wool to create the colors I need.

On Routines and a Room of One’s Own

When my daughter was growing up I made a small room in my house into a studio. I wanted it to be easy to go in and out as the activities of the day went on. That way I could hook while she was in school, I could see the bus coming to drop her off, could hook again while she was doing homework, and could always see the Amawalk Reservoir out the window.

This became my routine and now that my daughter is grown up, I still hook almost every day while listening to WNYC on the radio and looking out at the water. Even my dog hops into a basket full of wool in there to sleep while I hook.

I also always have other projects going simultaneously so that when I need a break I can work on something else—spinning, basket making, knitting, quilting, weaving. Different fiber things for different moods helps keep me busy and happy. It's sort of like cross training so you don’t get injured or bored from just running. But hooking is my mainstay and has become my art form. And I never stop learning from it.

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